THURSDAY March 21st to Wednesday March 27th, is the week declared by the United Nations General Assembly to be the Week of Solidarity with the Peoples Struggling against Racism and Racial Discrimination. Not many people are aware of the fact, but this week in March was particularly designated for that particular observation forty years ago in the year 1979. It is a time in which people from communities across the globe are called together in the fight for racial equality and tolerance.
It is a disappointment for some, to see how much this observance is not being observed. The United Nations has stated, that “Knowledge and information on the diversity of human races, ethnicity and customs contribute to overcoming racism and is a conduit for a better understanding, tolerance and acceptance,” and yet, the governments of the member states of the United Nations themselves have been accused by their own people of not doing enough to eliminate racial discrimination and inequality. The truth is; no single government can ever do enough in the fight for racial equality. Governments are comprised of a small fraction of the people which is magnified only through the lens of authority. But it is the people who hold the microscope and it is up to them to recognize the authority within themselves to make a change, for it is the perseverance of those who fight for justice and equality that makes a difference.
The texture of racism and racial discrimination has changed since 1979. The systematic oppression of an entire race of people may no longer exist in blatant form, but there are many forms of oppression that continue today. The fires of racism are still flaming; but time has proven that although the years of incessant effort have not extinguished the flames, at least they have been effective in containing them. The purpose of this week’s celebration (though many have never heard of it), is to give support and a listening ear to those who struggle with racial discrimination.
The relevance of this week’s celebration in relation to those living in St. Lucia and the rest of the West Indies may be questioned. Surely the West Indian people cannot deny that racial discrimination exist in their own homelands. Many prejudices are disguised as preferences nowadays, which make discrimination a bit more obscure. It is however a fact, that certain people are unaware of their own unconscious biases in regards to race. The existence of racial discrimination in the region has also been denied on the grounds that black West Indians are the numeric majority, and assume most of the leadership roles in Caribbean societies. Due to this majority, racial discrimination in the Caribbean is not pivoted solely on white racism, but revolves among all the ethnicities instead.
According to various studies including one which was conducted by Ishtar O. Govia of the University of the West Indies, entitled ‘Shades of the Past: Experiences of Racial Discrimination among a Sample of University Students in Jamaica’, the prevalence of racial discrimination in the Caribbean was reported to be high. Over fifty percent of university students declared personal experiences of racial discrimination in Jamaica. The prevalence rate of racial discrimination was higher for the lower-middle class than it was for the upper-middle class. Similarities of this situation in Jamaica have been noted in other Caribbean countries well.
One form of racial discrimination that is popular in our region stems from what has been termed ‘Internalized Racism’, and this is a form which manifests in different ways. You find many West Indian people of African ethnicity who discriminate against African attributes, in favour of another kind. Govia stated that, “Regardless of ethnicity, Caribbean people endorse negative stereotypes of black people.” There appears to be a general obsession of certain racial features, and distaste for others. For example: straight noses are prettier than the flat and broad variety; soft hair is ‘nice’ and coarse hair is not; Long hair is beautiful but short hair is not; light skin is pretty and dark skin is not… and of course there is the ‘Shabin’ who is enthusiastically sexualized, while a different kind of emphasis is placed on darker skin tones.
The author Charles V. Carnegie sums it up in his book entitled ‘Postnationalism Prefigured’, where he states that “Among present day black populations in the Americas preoccupation with hair texture, shade of blackness, and the shape of nose and lips… points to the continued availability of older racial meanings.” Does the aforementioned statement suggest that black people have a greater fondness for black features? Is that not the sort of thing which leads to racism in the first place; when a people regard their own race above all others? But that is another topic altogether.
Certainly, more Caribbean women than men of African descent suffer from racial discrimination. The feminine beauty ideal or modern standard of beauty, which is mainly influenced by the opinion of a particular race, has placed tremendous pressure on women to embrace attributes which are not their own. Racial discrimination against people of darker skin tones, along with the prejudices and preferences that it inspires, has turned ‘skin-lightening’ into a ten billion dollar industry.
Perhaps the significance of this “Week of Solidarity with the Peoples Struggling against Racism and Racial Discrimination” in our region, is to come together as the family we are, in order to eradicate discrimination and prejudice among ourselves, and to value everyone for no reason other than the fact that they are equal members of the human race. Perhaps we could achieve this one day if we encourage constructive dialogue in our schools on the subject of racial discrimination. At least that could help us to understand what it is that we do not like about ourselves as a people and why. There is no justifiable reason whatsoever for racial discrimination and inequality. However, there are many reasons for people of different ethnicities to come together in solidarity, to fight against racial discrimination.