Our harmful characterizations of one another


A casual conversation with a fellow Jamaican became suddenly uncomfortable when the person made a reference to hair type that felt like being dragged a hundred years into the colonial past.

It can be difficult to acknowledge the ugly reality that far too many in our Black society see one another through the eyes of the dominant culture even as we struggle to reclaim pride in ourselves through Black consciousness. We relentlessly fight against those repellent connotations but have not yet escaped them.

We fight to hold on to our true selves while we are swayed by unconscious beliefs that people of African descent are not as deserving as other types of people. Often, without thinking, we allow an unacknowledged disdain as the measuring stick against what is considered superior, leaving us lacking in each others eyes whether we are willing to admit that or not.

What we must do for the sake of repairing our psyche as Black people is to continue in a rigorous effort to breakaway from the harmful messages about ourselves as a people that we have absorbed and which reside in our unconscious. We have internalized the atrocious interpretations projected on to us by the dominant culture even as such images jostle with the ones we know to be true about ourselves.

There is no pretense here of fully grasping the depths of the imprint carried in the myth of racial inferiority as it affects peoples of the African Diaspora, but this is to remind those of us who care that we must be alert within ourselves to that corrosive influence, even though it can be deeply camouflaged.

There are expressions of this deformation in many overt and subtle ways. So it is a mammoth task for many of us to push from our thinking the kind of negative messages that have been foisted on us over generations. To pretend that we are not influenced by it is to continue to live in denial that harms all of us.

This trauma plays itself out in a million ways in our daily lives such as the way we people of African descent still elevate those among us with features and skin tones that fall closer to that of Europeans. We reinforce these unconscious prejudices with sickening frequency in conversations like the one that somehow drew in mention of hair texture, giving unspoken status of social superiority to people with hair more closely resembling that of Europeans.

Those of us who are drawn from the Caribbean may have overcome the blinders of colonial class prejudice but there is still deep psychological dissonance in how we interpret each other. Too often it is by using the code of the former colonizers and slaveholders.

It is most wounding when our own people take those hateful ideas and apply them to ourselves. Despite the individual and collective achievements of people of African decent throughout the world, we continue to echo these denigrations.

Many of us have been able to pull ourselves away from these destructive characterizations, but then again far too many still have not.

There are no easy answers for how to dissolve these images, for how to view them with objectivity so that we can fully recognize them for the distortions they really are and disconnect from them. Except, that is, to stand ready for when they surface and commit to replacing them with what we know to be absolutely true about ourselves as a people.

Bob Marley said: “Emancipate yourselves from metal slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” And Marcus Garvey called on us as well: “Up, up, you mighty race.”

We must respond to these calls, for we see the damage that has come from accepting a definition of ourselves that is not organic.

A note on what were they thinking…

So there was no one at the Université de Montreal’s elite business school, Hautes Etudes Commerciales, to put some historical context into explaining to first year students why donning blackface to become ‘Jamaican’ was not a good idea for frosh week – or any week for that matter? Mainstream news reports made a point of explaining that no harm was intended when the juniors decided to dress up as world record holder Usain Bolt, including one who reportedly costumed himself in shorts featuring monkeys. It was offensive – “in poor taste” – but no offence was meant. So that makes it forgivable?

Time for Université de Montreal to institute mandatory Black history courses for all first year students.

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