From its title, Growing Up With Miss Jamaica sounds like a whimsical reflection of being raised on a sun-drenched island. But the article, penned by Jamaican writer Nicole Dennis-Benn, is a profound, first-person insight into the country’s rampant colorism that is often overlooked in favor of its ‘One Love’ mentality.
Here are 7 things we learned from Dennis-Benn’s piece;
1. Jamaican beauty queens are consistently fair-skinned, despite the fact that dark skin is far more prevalent on the island. This continues a tradition of elevating the descendants of Jamaica’s non-African peoples.
“I was 11 years old and had already begun to infuse the birds and the bees with my knowledge of color and class. I was beginning to realize that there was no way I could look like Miss Jamaica World/Universe Sandra Foster or Lisa Hanna with just bleaching creams and hair extensions, and I thought that my parents were to blame. I envied the popular girls at school whose parents bequeathed looks from indentured ancestors on the island—unique blends that made them desirable as our future beauty queens. “
2. Colorism is closely connected to class, with many fairer-skinned Jamaicans enjoying higher socioeconomic status and living in safer and wealthier communities than their dark-skinned countrymen.
“Their lives existed far away from ours in a world beyond Kingston 8—worlds beyond Constant Spring and Hope Road. Their worlds existed on hills that seemed to touch the clouds. At night, the lights on those hills blinked like stars, mocking us for living in the pressure-cooked alleys of Kingston, the ugly trenches. They seemed to have it easy, never once having to think about disguising their blackness or growing their hair.”
3. Light skin is prized among Jamaican children, particularly girls, and skin bleaching is not uncommon.
“Denorah, one of the few other girls at my school from a working-class family, had discovered Nadinola. She stole a jar from her mother, who rubbed it on her knees and elbows, blackened from years of scrubbing other people’s houses. She hid it inside her frayed backpack and when she came to school revealed it to us. That was the year that Buju Banton, a renowned Jamaican dancehall and reggae artist, came out with the smash hit “Brownin”—a song that expressed his love for lighter-skinned women. “Me love me car, me love me bike, me love me money an’ ti’ng, but most of all me love me brownin!” What would happen if we used Nadinola for extended periods of time? Would we be invited to sit among the lighter girls at lunch? Would the boys who liked them like us too?”
4. Jamaica has turned out many dark-skinned woman models and entertainers, including Grace Jones, who have shot to global stardom. But they do not enjoy the same exposure and acclaim within Jamaican culture.
“Though their stars shone bright outside of Jamaica, the Jamaican masses barely knew who Lois Samuels and Grace Jones were. Yes, there was a huge billboard of Lois Samuels’ beautiful face at Pulse International Modeling Agency’s headquarters on Trafalgar Road; and yes, Grace Jones snarled at us from the silver screen in Boomerang and the James Bond movie A View to a Kill—but these two women were never introduced into Jamaican mainstream society. America and Europe embraced them, gave them what we as a country never gave our dark girls—affirmation.”
5. Although Jamaican pageant culture has moved closer to an embrace of natural hair, it has been slower to fully embrace dark-skinned winners.
“Two more girls were crowned Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe last year. Like most of the other girls before them, they were fair. The reigning Miss Jamaica World has dreadlocks, something that people who point to Jamaica’s motto—”Out of Many One People”—use as an example of a progressive, inclusive culture. I thought back to my sister and me prancing in front of the mirror. It wasn’t the hair so much that awed us, but the package of beauty sold to us, wrapped much lighter than the proverbial brown paper bag.”
6. America’s ‘One Drop Rule’ differs from Jamaica’s brand of colorism, where lighter skin alone can lead to significant class elevation.
“But I was later shocked to find that in America it doesn’t matter what shade of black you are—that here, the one-drop rule is taken seriously. Racism trumped class and complexion. I became black in America.”
7. Some Jamaican expats in America don’t realize that their country’s brand of colorism does not exist here, so they continue the practice of bleaching believing it can alleviate the structural challenges of being black in America.
“Then I remember the Jamaican vendor on Flatbush Avenue [in New York] who threatened to erase all that pride by attempting to sell me bleaching cream last summer. “Yuh could use a likkle skin lightening,” she said, holding up the jar to my face. “Why do you think I need it?” I asked, offended. “I’m perfectly fine.” She must have picked up on the sternness in my voice, because she lowered the jar, still managing to hold my gaze. “But who want to be black in dis place?” she said, echoing the sentiments I’d heard back home.”
Read the full essay here.