September 2, 2009
I sent a version of this to the Gleaner; I doubt they will publish it.
While I may be one of the few Jamaicans who do not care for the annual Miss Jamaica skin parades ie. “beauty pageants”, I find some of the criticisms about this year’s selection rather disingenuous and void of basic historical perspective. To suggest that a light-skinned woman is not authentically Jamaican – ie. is a foreigner – and therefore should not even be in competition with or selected over a dark-skinned (more authentic?) Jamaican woman makes absolutely no sense. While I agree with the basic critique concerning the everlasting lightness (with a few dark ones sprinkled in between) of the beauty queens, and agree that the judges’ choice reflects a pervasive racist notion that is rubbed in our face in an expensive and public way each year ie. that the closer one is to European-ness, the more beautiful one is considered. However, I want to deal with the “authentic vs. foreigner” issue which keeps coming up – “she look like a foreigner” – because I think this way of framing a legitimate issue is historically and socially inaccurate, really disrespectful and utterly divisive.
The ancestors of those of us of darker African phenotype came to these shores often on the same boats as many of those European traders, sailors, etc. who are the ancestors of many Jamaicans, including Kerrie Baylis. Their histories are intertwined with ours in a complicated, sometimes exploitative and violent way, but too often, the cultural nationalist impulse to brand Jamaica as “Black” allows us to choose to ignore or forget these details, and to call them “foreigners”.
True, far too many of the brown elite will happily retrace their history to the 16th and 17th centuries when their forebears came as traders, merchants, bankers, etc. to these shores, and carefully ignore the role those foreparents played in chattel slavery, indentureship and colonization.
And it is true that many of the brown elite do treat this country as if it is their playground and black Jamaicans their natural servants, all the while claiming Jamaican-ness while distancing themselves socially and culturally from those of us who are of African descent and phenotype.
However, it is a mark of the Jamaican-ness of this same light-skinned elite that they can be such a fixture in these beauty contests for decades, since the “Ten Types – One People” beauty contest was launched in 1955!
That *particular* women have been regarded as the icons of Jamaican beauty is hardly an accident, but one that is carefully structured into and replicated in our everyday lives. Indeed, our willful acceptance (and sometimes defense) of social hierarchies based on colour and class certainly helps us perpetuate what many are now railing against with the latest MJW decision. Just think about this the next time one accepts that the light-skinned woman\’s needs MUST be more important than yours when she talks over your head and gets service before you who has been waiting to be acknowledged in a respectful way. Many black Jamaicans have been very invested in the notion of brown women as somehow more desirable; those of us who can have altered our bodies to ally with this racist notion; others of us have resisted this idea by championing “black is beautiful.” But all of us are intimately aware that these ideas are built into the beauty contest.
What is of issue here – and which is not being addressed – is not whether or not light-skinned women should even be in the contest. I don’t think there should be a mandate – which is what many people are suggesting – that the Miss Jamaica contests should be reserved for dark-skinned women, or that light skinned women should never win. I certainly don’t see how a parade of dark-skinned women would be a more just version, or would make me feel like the winner was a more “authentic” representation of Jamaica.
But I do think that if they are going to keep this ridiculous contest going, the judges etc. ought to raise the bar quite a bit so that is not just light skin and rich relatives that will determine the outcome. They ought to know something (besides what they read in Wikipedia or the Gleaner) and stand for something (besides world peace and saving the children).
Frankly, it is quite frightening that the worth of young women is often assessed based on whether or not she “looks” like she could win a beauty contest or be a model. In this day and age, shouldn’t we be encouraging young women (of all hues) to ascribe more value to themselves than to specialize in “pageantry and aesthetics” i.e. parading up and down in bathing suits and expensive gowns before gawking audiences in a completely biased and ethically compromised beauty contest? Where’s the beauty in that experience? Can there really be a winner in this situation? I don’t watch or listen to these beauty contests because I believe that they consistently lower the standards by which girls/women are measured and measure themselves. I don’t want my daughter or any other girl child I know to aspire to be some man’s shoulder candy and to be applauded for making a basic statement that everyone already knows to be true. That’s humiliating and I won’t support it.
I also wonder whether we have the courage to publicly acknowledge the social handicap that darker-hued women have had since the beginning, and to even call for an end the farce of the “beauty pageant” once and for all. Indeed, it is only when this competition gains some integrity and moves beyond being the skin parade that it is, that it will be less of lightning rod when it comes to dealing with the entrenched antipathies about Blackness in Jamaica, as reflected in this particular cultural event.
Until these shifts in our thinking take place, many dark-skinned Jamaicans will continue to feel that history has been vindicated when a Black woman wins the competition, and denigrated when a light-skinned woman – who can only be distinguished from a “foreign” European woman by the “place of birth” on her or her parents’ birth certificate – wins. And in a way, they will be right.