Colorism and “good hair” syndrome…
Growing up in Trinidad, I spent much of my adolescence avoiding the sun. Like so many others, I did not want to be “black and ugly”. I associated my “good colour” with beauty; hence, I needed to protect it from the sun’s evil rays that threatened to further expose my melanin. I was a brown skin girl. Not dark, just the right tone to be considered “acceptable” (whatever acceptable meant). I still wished I was red, if I was red I’d be desirable. If I was red I would be viewed as more feminine and “well off”. I was trapped in the mentality the colonizers left behind when they packed their ships up and declared my country “free”. But we were not so free after all. Even after the whites left and slavery (overtly) ended, my people were left with wounds that kept our minds enslaved to an idea that “white is right”. This narrative played out in the way we stratified our society based on color; the lighter you are, the brighter and richer you are. Dark skin was and is still associated with being “ghetto” or “criminal” or “poor”.
“Good hair” and “bad hair” is also a continued theme reflected in Caribbean society. My “nappy”, “picky” hair was laughed at and ridiculed all throughout school. I remembered walking down the hall and hearing a boy say “She rel bess… but she hair”. I always assumed my hair kept me back from being truly beautiful. So I braided it, straightened it, curled it and hid it as much as possible. At the time I was not conscious of my self hating thoughts. I only knew I wanted to “look like people”. And I could not “look like people ” with hard, coarse, short, non-curly hair.
Feeling unseen and unprotected…
The prominence of black matrifocal families in the Caribbean not only negatively affects men, but also women. It needs to be acknowledged that growing up with an absent or visiting father can have serious implications on young black women and how they relate to men in the future.
Many who are products of broken homes often find themselves repeating the cycle. There exists an inadvertent pathology of single motherhood that seems to be handed down throughout the generations. However, this pathology has less to do with genetics, and more to do with a trend that Trinbagonian culture is not ready to talk about; the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the black community.
Young black girls are targets of taxi drivers and grown men who offer them friendship and favors while grooming them to be sexual partners. Black girls from underprivileged communities are especially vulnerable to these predators, as poverty makes some see the taxi man as the only way to be able to help take care of their siblings or themselves. The premature sexualization of adolescent black girls is culturally accepted and normalized. We watch sexual predators strategically take advantage of their innocence and still put the blame on black teenage girls for being too “fast”. We witness domestic violence and say “she look for that”. Too many black women have lived not knowing what it feels like to be protected by black men or their society.
The strong black woman trope…
The roots of this stereotype date all the way back to slavery. Black women were seen as strong, morally righteous, and nurturing figures who were responsible for maintaining the wellbeing of the plantation and the satisfaction of their master at all costs. This cost often implicated sexual and physical abuse, as well as forced reproduction for financial gain. Black women were seen as having a superhuman capacity for pain, later reflected in Medical Apartheid where surgeries were “practiced” on black women without anesthesia. This narrative has not evolved much despite the many black movements over the years. It is still immensely prevalent, especially in post-colonial Caribbean societies.
Black women are expected to endure grief, abuse, sexual assault, and poverty, whilst still managing to be the source of strength and stability for black men AND raise their children in the process. You must be tough: strong enough to survive traumatic events and upbringings and your mental health should never decline. My first time confronting this stereotype was when I was forced to communicate my well-hidden depression to my mother. My mother did not know how to navigate my depression, because she herself had never been “allowed” to have such feelings. The world and circumstances she grew up in demanded she be strong. She had never seen her mother weak and she never intended that I should see her weak either. A defining moment in my womanhood was learning that my mother also had “weak moments”. It gave me permission to exist as imperfectly as I was.
Yes, black women are strong, but we are also human. We break. We hurt. We are not super (or sub) human. I’m grateful for the many strides black women are making in learning to love themselves, their hair and their skin. I’d like to see the day that Caribbean societies and culture shift the narrative and begin to acknowledge, protect, and elevate black women.