Recently, Joe Pinsker, assistant editor of The Atlantic, wrote an article about the financial consequences of saying ‘Black,’ vs ‘African American’. According to Pinkster, 100 years ago, ‘coloured’ was the typical way of referring to Americans of African descent. Then 20 years later, it was purposefully dropped to make way for ‘Negro’. Then by the late 1960s, that term was overtaken by ‘black’. And then, in 1988, Jesse Jackson, United States civil rights activist, declared that ‘African American’ was the term to embrace. That one was chosen because it echoed the labels of groups, such as ‘Italian Americans’ and ‘Irish Americans’, that had already been freed of widespread discrimination.
A study found that ‘black’ people are viewed more negatively than ‘African Americans’ because of a perceived difference in socio-economic status. As a result, ‘black’ people are thought of as less competent. There is a black problem.
It is always difficult to find the politically correct name for any ethnic group. And, some will argue, what is in a name? However, companies spend thousands of dollars to get the right name because a name carries weight, power, meaning and prejudice. The word ‘black’ carries negative connotations, so for that reason Jamaicans should avoid the use of ‘black’ as a designation to Jamaicans of African descent.
In my book, The Cross and the Machete, I showed that the classification used to stratify the population in the 19th century was mainly according to colour, namely ‘whites’, ‘coloured or brown’ and ‘black’. Many 19th century writers used ‘black’ in a derogatory way, meaning ‘retarded’, ‘backward’, ‘evil’ ‘stupid’ and ‘powerless’. People were said to be ‘dark in mind, as in complexion’. ‘Black’ was used to depict that which was unwholesome. Hamilton Hume, Australian explorer, in defence of the 1865 reprisals by Governor Eyre, lambasted those persons who ‘in their desire to whitewash the black man, too often blackened the white man’. Hume’s racist symbolism had ‘white’ representing purity and innocence while ‘black’ represented impurity, evil and wickedness.
Catherine Hall, British scholar, said that for the missionaries ‘blackness’ could mean ‘Africa, superstition, heathenism’, which would be in need of transformation while ‘whiteness’ could mean ‘order, civilisation, Christianity, rationality, modernity and industry.’ ‘Black’ can also mean non-rich or non-human.
In post-independence Jamaica, ‘black and white’ denoted not skin colour but attitudes and status with ‘black’ being a negative. It was a common dictum, ‘If you are white, you’re alright, If you was brown, stick around, But if you’re black, stand back.’ Being perceived as black can affect one’s job prospects, winning a beauty contest or getting acceptance in certain social circles. Hence, persons of African origin continue to bleach their skins with the hope of attracting the right person and making socio-economic and political advances in the society.
This negative connotation is not confined to Jamaica but, as Orlando Patterson, renowned sociologist, demonstrated that, in both Latin and non-Latin West Indies there was a “pattern of marrying lighter [skin colour] with upward social mobility”. One sure way of advancing was through a fairer skin colour.
Since there is no colour called ‘white’ and technically no human being is ‘white’, then the term is designed to symbolise something over and above the colour of one’s skin. Since there are few people who are really ‘black’ in colour it is time we find more appropriate designations.
So instead of ‘Black History Month’ we should say ‘African Descendants History Month’, and instead of calling our people ‘black’ we could say ‘African Jamaicans’ or people of ‘African origin or descent’, and hopefully it will lead to the eradication of discrimination against that class of people who have such colour.
Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of ‘The Cross and the Machete’, and ‘Rebellion to Riot’.
The article was originally posted in the Jamaica Gleaner. All Credits Observed.