Colourism In Barbados: But You’re Not Even ‘Black’!

At five, I learnt a lot at school in Barbados. Not mathematics or English. This was when I learnt about colour, class and institutionalised ignorance.
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n: 1 a form of bias based primarily on skin tone and hair type; 2 present in cultures all over the world; 3 occurs on an inter-group and intra-group level 4 an evil that must end.

When I was fifteen or so years old, I was put into one of the smallest classes in the history of the fourth form at The Combermere School. I think there were maybe only fifteen or sixteen of us, and I remember there being only two boys.

Our form teacher was The Beast. The infamous Mr. Gittens that anyone who attended The University of Waterford during the 80s and 90s will remember without prompting. Who could forget The Beast?

Mr. Gittens and I, God bless him, used to debate history and sociology (although this last was not on the syllabus) with a ferocity I don’t think he was expecting from a fifteen year old.

He told me once privately I was the only student that challenged him in class, but I was one of the few that actually cared about history. His history class was always a favourite for this reason. He fueled my intellectual curiosity and our debates were always measured and in the end we were almost always in agreement through analysis. I think I argued with him because the text books were so much bullshit, and he enjoyed these debates because it allowed him to get into the other material that is left out.

Forgive me if I am wrong—many of my classmates from that year are with me on Facebook, so sure they can corroborate—but for the most part, The Beast and I argued alone.

I got the sense the rest of the class were barely following the conversation (some of them were just keeping up with the syllabus and The Beast and I were arguing at what would be considered a University level of discourse).

One day, after a particularly ferocious round of debate on an inaccuracy or ‘glossing over’ in the text book, one of my classmates—one across and two down (I will not reveal her identity)—said to me in an incredulous tone, “How you can you even argue about this? You’re not even black!”

I turned to her and said, “I am black, but I am other stuff too.”

The Beast added, “There is more than one shade of black.”

She looked unconvinced. She was relying on the cultural idée fixe in Barbados, indeed you find this across the Caribbean, that mixed race people were not ‘Black’. Which is always amusing, since in Africa, Caribbean people and so-called ‘black people’ from the ‘Americas’ are not ‘African’. Of course, the whole ‘house nigger’ thing is still an issue.

I didn’t get how they could say I wasn’t black, and tease or look down on me for being ‘red’, and be in the bathroom at break and lunch time using Nadinola bleaching agents. Cause, yeah, that’s what it was.

Contradiction after contradiction.

This issue of colourism in Barbados is one of my life’s defining aspects.

When I went to Barbados from Trinidad and entered the public school system around five or so, this was my first experience with not just other kids, but the teachers: Virulent self-hatred manifested in a very twisted kind of physical and mental abuse of children that echoes slavery in so many ways: Slave-overseer-massa.

I was sent to the Grace Hill Primary School in Spooner’s Hill. I was, in 1978, a milky looking red girl, with bright red (seriously carrot topped), picky-picky ‘nigger hair’, with a long African name that noone could pronounce.

Add to this the fact my family lived a little way away from the school, in a house that was known in that area as the ‘big house with the long driveway’. We were, to the others at the school, considered to be wealthy, despite this being the absolute furthest from the truth.

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At five, I learnt a lot at school in Barbados. Not mathematics or English. The school system taught me almost NO academics at all. I learnt far more at home than I did at school. This was when I learnt about colour, class and institutionalised ignorance.

My father Mansa Musa, was one of the men that helped to lead the 1970 “Black Power” coup in Trinidad & Tobago. Daddy spent time on Nelson Island for his revolutionary activities and my parents were part of the whole world wide Black Power movement for years. Not just part, but active organisers.

I was raised with that rhetoric, steeped and soaked in those politics, I don’t remember feeling outside of the struggle, I was in it, a part of it and I felt it deeply even at such a young age.

In the public system in Barbados, I was called ‘white girl’, ‘red nigger’, ‘grey goose’, ‘ecky becky’, ‘red legs’ and a wide variety of other racial pejoratives. A teacher, Ms. Barker (nasty bitch) used to beat me in front the class for anything, and tell me while beating me, “You feel you better than me because you red and you live in a house with a long driveway?”

She beat me viciously for nothing at all and took a perverse pleasure in humiliating me. After a while of this, I began to dread her. She hated me and called me a red bitch, but I didn’t even know what that meant. I could feel her hatred and couldn’t understand what I was seeing in her beady, wicked, piggy little eyes.

One day, I made a maths error, and she called me up in front of the class to humiliate me,. I stood there enduring her vicious words and then I saw the three foot long (looking) wooden ruler coming, and at five, I wet myself.

The class burst out laughing.

Ms. Barker began to beat me for peeing the floor. I stood there and took it, crying my little heart out. Then, as it has ever happened from then until this day when I have had enough, a switch went off in my head.

I don’t think I made a decision exactly. I remember feeling a bit disconnected for the first time, like I was there, but it wasn’t quite me there. I felt like I was watching myself.

I calmly walked over to the shelf where the bags and lunch boxes were and picked up my red Aladdin hard plastic lunch box (you know the top loaders where the flask rode in the top?), then walked back to where Ms Barker was standing.

I pulled back my little arm and hit that bitch as hard as I could in her knee (where I could reach cause I was always a tiny little thing), then walked back to the shelf, grabbed my bag, walked out of the class room passing the teacher who came to see why that cow was hollering so hard, down the corridor, out the side of the building, out of the side gate, and into Bush Hall, St. Michael.

I was off the reservation.

I walked for a long time… I remember the heat, the discomfort of the pee drying on me and the dust sticking to me and I had no clue which way to go (never mind we lived like four five minutes walk away). I just wanted to go home and crawl into my Grandad’s lap.

Most of all though I remember an overwhelming sense of freedom. That was the moment I got addicted to standing up for myself, and I can’t stop, won’t stop, haven’t ever stopped.

Someone eventually found me and took me home that day, but the incident taught me that in school, like life, there is no justice unless you make it.

I learnt that although at home ‘Black is Beautiful’ and I was black (my mother told me so and Marcus Garvey, Tony Martin, Cheikh Anta Diop and other luminaries of the movement on our bookshelf told me so), I was not black in Barbados and definitely not at school.

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I was removed from Grace Hill, after three more years of that kind of shite by the way, shortly after they renamed it Lawrence T. Gay Memorial and placed at the Ursuline Convent. This is a stush, private school run by nuns that was very different from the public system and not in a good way.

I have written some about my time at the convent in “School Yard Bullies & The Lady Warrior Of The Sea” so won’t go over it, just link to it and encourage you to read.

Short version: It wasn’t better at the Convent. Going to school with privileged white and black kids, is not ‘better’. It’s just a completely differently angled set of prejudices. I went from not being black to discovering I was actually a ‘nigger’. At seven, this was confusing.

I met yet another self-hating teacher there, Mrs. Harris. A Negropean of the first order, who argued with me once that Columbus discovered the Americas and sent me to the principal for saying that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard her say.

She fawned over the white kids, sidelined and openly mocked the brown kids. Again, because I sat and called her on her teaching methods, she punished me unjustly for all manner of nonsense. I was constantly accused—quite rightly too—of rank insubordination. I was grossly insubordinate whenever I could.

These experiences are why I have almost no respect for the people who are teaching. I have respect for the profession and individuals who are teaching with sensitivity and a passion for children. However, I can count on one hand how many of those I encountered.

If you are looking for two examples of overseers in a slave system, look no further than Ms. Barker and Mrs. Harris.

Ahh, fuck them both I say.

By the time I got to the classroom with The Beast, and my friend who declared me ‘not even black’, I had come to understand I was an anomoly in Barbadian society. I take enormous pleasure in this now—I have certainly earned it—but it was confusing when I was younger.

The disconnect from my pro-black, pro-African, pro-Amerindian, pro-truth and anti-oppression household and what I was experiencing at school, where for them I was unqualified to defend ‘blackness’ with the passion that I did, became yet another thing to rebel against. Believe me, I rebelled. Too much Black Power & Bob Marley will do that to a child I think.

I learnt to deal.

Barbados at that time was a society grounded in its colonial past and experience, and ‘Africanness’ and ‘blackness’ were just ‘not done’ by my ‘class of people’.

In Trinidad and Jamaica, there were definite, defined ‘black power’ movements, whereas in islands like Barbados, activists the likes of Elombe Mottley had to apply for a police license just to speak in public. This was a clear attempt to suppress this thinking in Barbados and they very much succeeded on that score.

By the time I came along, with the unpronounceable first name and with fiery chat about ‘black power’, most Bajan kids I came across just didn’t get me, or where I was coming from. I was part of that first wave of children with African names in the Caribbean in those days. A name is a powerful thing, and my name is powerful indeed. It is the first clue people get that I am not like other folks.

In Barbados, in the late seventies, I was called everything BUT my name. Just like they did to us during slavery. I couldn’t even do the whole Kunte Kinte thing, because I don’t think Roots had even been aired at this point.

I was called: Dominica, Dominique, Delnonico, Delikimo, Domnick, Dollamita, Delafreako, Delnonico, Della Reese, Delmonica well into my teens. It’s hard not to link this ‘mispronunciation’ enforced and entrained as it was and remains, with the kind of renaming they did to disassociate new slaves with their African selves. It becomes even more interesting when you contemplate that this is the seventies and eighties and the conscious choice by my parent’s generation—well the firestarters anyway—to name their children from the motherland, was met with derision across the Caribbean. Now it’s commonplace but doesn’t actually mean ‘African pride’. There are still a lot of Tiffanys and Crystals showing up.

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Shucks, my son’s father didn’t want me to give my son an African name because it would, and here’s the quote, “hamper his progress”. The same man wanted me to cut my dreadlocks, and work on my ‘white face’.

Years have gone by since the days of ‘white girl’, ‘ecky becky’ and ‘red goose’. More than thirty. I almost forgot about this, because no one had called me white in so long, that this as a ‘attitude’ a ‘way of seeing things’ hadn’t been something I had actively dealt with or encountered. I got used to being ‘red’ and had made my peace with it.

Until about three or four years ago.

The year was 2012.

I was walking to collect my son from school one afternoon. There is a little girl living in a house near the school, and often she’d be playing outside either in the morning or afternoon and we’d wave and say hello to each other.

This afternoon, I didn’t see her, but she definitely saw me.

“Hey White Lady!” she called out to me from her doorway. I froze in shock and then my heart dropped to my stomach.

I fired back without thinking twice, “My dear, you must learn to see yourself in others. I am not white and we’re the same, just different shades of brown.”

Big deer eyes looked back at me with silence the soundtrack for the moment.

It broke my heart.

It’s not just me either, way back in the day going to school in Barbados I am talking about.

When we were still living in Barbados, my son was enrolled briefly at St. Stephen’s Primary School, in Free Hill, Black Rock.

The principal there at the time, a Mr. Lewis, is yet another Negropean running a slave ship and seasoning slaves for the system. He is a man from a generation of people in Barbados who look down on red people, people with dreadlocks, people with uncropped hair, and pick something… if you aren’t his idea of ‘successful’ you are treated to wrinkled-nosed disdain. He might not have been brave enough to call me a ‘red nigger’ but he sure treated me and my son that way. That is until I pointedly referenced my background during a meeting with him where he went far, far beyond the bounds of our contracted relationship, was rude, dismissive and combative. He boiled down after I revealed my quiet resume and put away his open ignorance and disdain, but that was fear not a change of heart. You could hear ‘red bitch’ in his head when he looked at me, because he knew the day would come when I wrote about him in a public way.

If the institutions of Barbados are still couched in these Team Light Skin vs Team Dark Skin kind of bullshit, even if it’s a silent war as it’s largely been for the last twenty years or so and a six year old sees a white woman when she sees me, what real progress have we made?

I’m inclined to say, very little indeed.

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N'delamiko Bey (formerly Lord), is a writer, journalist and former Associate Editor for The Trinidad Guardian and a twenty year web development veteran. Her writing has been published in newspapers and magazines across the region, as well as in CAPE textbooks. She is The Sunhead Project's founder and Publishing Editor.
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20 Comments on this post.
  • Gerry Caldwell
    4 December 2015 at 3:33 pm
    Leave a Reply

    You are spot on!!!

  • Codle
    4 December 2015 at 3:51 pm
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    Bey that article was exceptional. Heart breaking, yet insightful… “Negropean”… bahahahaha!… My good friend is mixed race and many times I see her being overly polite to avoid situations that you describe. Madness…

  • Nat
    4 December 2015 at 4:02 pm
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    Well written! I enjoyed every sentence, I even connected with some of your experiences… It seems all mixed peoples go through struggles… I started off growing up behind the bridge and attending a primary school where I had one of the three Asian sounding names in the entire school, but I was black, and make it worse I had above average intelligence and very little tolerance for nonsense. Then I passed common entrance and attended one of the Convents in POS, where I felt even more the fish out of water. I had a relative on one side of my family tell me I would be beautiful if my skin was lighter, and a relative on the other side tell me the only reason I didn’t pass for a junior sec was because of my last name. And I even had a Mr. Gittens as a history teacher who I enjoyed arguing with on various issues.

    • Miko Bey
      4 December 2015 at 4:04 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks a million Natalie… For reading and commenting and FEELING me, oui? <3

  • Natasha odlum (zARAaNAIIA)
    4 December 2015 at 5:56 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Pretty Awesum Stuff “White Gurl”! Definitely a write UP, we can A.L.L., in some sense or another, relate to, as the effects of our strangled past takes strangulated form in every heart yet to burst o.p.e.n. Thank you for this beautifully written, candid, RAW piece. Love it and Love you. xoox Natasha

    • Miko Bey
      4 December 2015 at 5:57 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks Natasha!!!

  • Kupa
    4 December 2015 at 8:50 pm
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    awesome article, very relate to everything. Colourism discourse I always found tend to only go one way. We all come in different shades of black but chose who should be the marker. Obama and Bob Marley are mixed race, yet socially we own them as black, but the regular ‘red man’ isn’t. I faced this quite a bit, usually I don’t speak much on it, because not much people would want to listen. I remembered when Rihanna did however…what a backlash

    • Miko Bey
      4 December 2015 at 8:53 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks Kupa!! Much appreciated! I remember that Rihanna dust up… I remember thinking she was spot on in what she said, but Bajans don’t like anyone to tell them they’re fucking up.

  • Ju
    4 December 2015 at 9:54 pm
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    I love that you wrote this, thank you! It’s such a stupid dichotomy this light skin/dark skin nonsense. When I moved here to B’dos at 14 – that was the fist time I was made aware that my dark skin was a disadvantage and undesirable. Couple yrs ago, a guy was catcalling me, I ignored him. His response: You think I really wanted you when I have a red ting home? I just don’t know why we hate ourselves so

    • Miko Bey
      4 December 2015 at 9:57 pm
      Leave a Reply

      The thing is, you can’t win right? You’re never dark enough, you’re never light enough to please someone who hates themselves and everything in their world. I find there are a lot of people like that everywhere.

      In Barbados, there are more than are necessary on 166sq miles of land with more than a quarter of a million people on it.

  • Deamour
    5 December 2015 at 12:00 am
    Leave a Reply

    Team Light Skin vs Team Dark skin bullshit is right. Get real. To the rest of the world, we are all black. My latest response to the people is “I blackuh than all uh wunna. ” My Concsciousness of the struggle and acceptance of self is not lesser because I am lighter.

    • Miko Bey
      5 December 2015 at 12:09 am
      Leave a Reply

      Lolol… ya damn right.

  • Thabiti
    5 December 2015 at 2:32 am
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    Worse for me was the fact that me & my sister have African names but my two older siblings have european names

    • Miko Bey
      5 December 2015 at 2:33 am
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      Hahaha… your parents had a good time with that, or saw the light somewhere like Saul on the road to Damascus. That must have been entirely entertaining…

  • Tracey
    5 December 2015 at 4:31 am
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    If you are mixed then you arent black! Why deny your other ethnicities? Maybe its a desire to belong that makes you falsely claim to be black. But its not logical in any way to outright claim to be black if you are mixed!

    • Miko Bey
      5 December 2015 at 10:43 am
      Leave a Reply

      “If you are mixed then you arent black! Why deny your other ethnicities? Maybe its a desire to belong that makes you falsely claim to be black. But its not logical in any way to outright claim to be black if you are mixed!”

      I have, never at any point denied my ‘other ethnicities’… but that has nothing to do with being ‘black’. Nothing whatsoever.

      I have EVERY right to revel, wine, sprawl out in, celebrate, defend, fight for and represent MY BLACKNESS. It’s mine. I own it. It belongs to me.

      My ‘blackness’ isn’t determined by you or anyone else outside my bloodlines. I also don’t need to ‘falsely claim’ it and I already belong to myself, my world, my life and I am not owned by anyone.

      I’m not sure why I need to say this again, but my father fought for his country, for the WHOLE Caribbean, and did heroic things to right the injustices against people of colour… MY FATHER IS/WAS a red man.

      My father said to me once, that every rebellion and every revolutionary attempt by people of colour against the oligarchy, was supported by so-called ‘red’ people, funded & fueled by them, and every single one of those rebellions, revolutions, has been betrayed by a darker-skinned person trying to get in good with ‘massa’.

      In the case of Julien Fedon, he was a RED MAN, who deposed the British and ran Grenada for 16 months in the early 19th century. Was he FALSELY claiming BLACKNESS??? Did you know of all the leaders of movements against the European powers in the Caribbean, Julien Fedon is the ONLY MAN OF COLOUR NEVER TO BE CAUGHT OR KILLED. To this day, no one knows what happened to him.

      What is BLACK? WHAT IS IT? Seriously… historically and sociologically. What is it? You can’t even answer that question with real discourse, because ‘black’ and ‘being black’ is not what you think it is, and you’re allowing EUROPEANS to keep DEFINING YOU and YOUR LIFE.

      It’s a word used by Europeans to ensure we fall under ‘COLOUR OF LAW’. When you SELF-IDENTIFY as Black you give them legal power of you that you cannot imagine until some nasty shit comes along a fucks with your program. COLOUR OF LAW is the absolute basis of this black white debate.

      Between us, I see that you have one way of seeing the world “Tracey”. Hopefully this reading and discourse can help open up your mind, but I won’t be sitting here trying to convince YOU of my so-called blackness, because that you even said it on this thread shows me something very real about you.

      You love and revel in your colourism…

      You need to read some more history, learn some more about who YOU are, before you come up in my piece trying to talk about false claims, cause you falsely claiming something in this thread, but I’m trying to be gentle and polite with you despite ya being damn fast with yourself.

  • Olutoye Walrond
    15 December 2015 at 4:50 pm
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    I am appalled at the details of your experience. Is this the Barbados education sytem we vaunt ourselves so much about? And to think they are people now who would celebrate those tyrants masquerading as Teachers back then.I won’t even bother to address the racial thing.

    • N’Delamiko Bey
      15 December 2015 at 5:09 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Well I maintain it taught me a lot about the world Olutoye. However, it’s remained one of life’s defining experiences, and it never squelched or suppressed my Spirit.

  • Melva Vallery
    20 December 2015 at 9:32 pm
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    How fortunate you are to have had and continue having such full life experiences. My son is your age. I am sorry young people in varied areas are experiencing colorism in this day and time. I grew up in uptown New Orleans and when I read of issues within our own race I am relieved for my life experiences. I can truthfully say I was never treated differently because of my color. Almost every family, including my own had varied complexion immediate relatives. I was the darkest of my siblings and one uncle referred to me lovingly as ‘blackie’. Never an issue in school, we had kids who could absolutely pass for white (blond haired blue-eyed) and the deepest dark chocolate … all loved and liked and cherished for their ‘life’ and personality. You make me want to write about my experiences in this area.

    I sincerely wish you well and appreciate having been sent your article.

    • N’Delamiko Bey
      20 December 2015 at 9:54 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Melva!! I too have family members running the rainbow in terms of colouring, and in our family it made zero difference. If we had grown up in Trinidad–most of my family is Trini–I doubt it would have made as much of an impact. I think it’s Barbados in particular. ‘Red people’ are not as common there, and the line between self-hating Negropean and self-loving multi-hued people of the Americas is very hard and unforgiving. Hate saying it but it’s true..

      I deeeply appreciated your comment Melva. I do hope you subscribe and stay in touch with us. Feel free to follow me on FB, my link is up there in my author’s profile.

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