Public Secrets: Race and colour in colonial and independent Jamaica


Prof Henrice Altink, Department of History, University of York


It was on my first visit to Jamaica as a PhD student in the 1990s that I noticed the importance of race and colour in Jamaican society. When I went to the bank to cash some travellers’ cheques, I noticed that the doorman was darker than the cashier, and that she in turn was darker than her manager. On subsequent visits, I observed further manifestations of the salience of skin colour in such wide-ranging areas as transport, religion, politics, and education. And I also quickly learned, by reading local newspapers and talking to locals, that it was not deemed appropriate to talk about race and colour. It was after writing a chapter about the role of African-Jamaican women on the labour market for my second book Destined for a Life of Service: Defining African-Jamaican Womanhood, 1865-1938 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), setting out the difficulties that dark-skinned educated women encountered in finding a job, that I decided to explore the role of race and colour in Jamaican in the decades before and after independence in more detail.

In my book, I argue that skin colour discrimination in Jamaica has long been a public secret –something that everybody knows exists but for one reason or another people cannot easily acknowledge it. I focus on several case studies in the decades before and after Jamaica gained independence, including the labour market, education, marriage and the criminal justice system, and demonstrate the existence of different forms of ‘shadism’ as well as white-on-black discrimination, and explore their impact as well as how these were talked about, ranging from denial and minimisation to using more euphemistic terms, such as referring to ‘shadism’ as ‘classism’. I also explore what happened to those Jamaicans who transgressed the unwritten rule not to talk about race and colour, and in a final chapter examine the salience and silence of skin colour discrimination in Jamaica today and offer some suggestions how it can be reduced.

The unwritten rule not to talk about race made it difficult to find information about race and colour discrimination and how Jamaicans responded to it. Yet I found snippets – often discussed in terms other than race – in such varied sources as the governors’ confidential letters, newspapers reports, memoirs, contemporary fiction and film, and anthropological and sociological studies, especially by outsiders to the island. Although a growing field, especially since the introduction of cheaper methods of self-publishing, there are still relatively few memoirs and other first-hand accounts by African Jamaicans that address the period under consideration. I tried to supplement existing first-hand accounts with oral history but struggled to find interviewees because of the general reluctance to talk about race and colour and also my positionality.

As the sociologist Liz Stanley has argued, the social and cultural environment in which we as researchers are located and our beliefs, values and personal experiences inform the questions we ask, the methodologies we adopt, the knowledge we foreground, and also how we interpret our data.[i] I am a white woman working in a university in the UK. Although I have lived for many years in the UK, I did not grow up there nor hold UK citizenship. Furthermore, while through my education and occupation I am now firmly middle-class, I did not grow up in a middle-class household – neither of my parents went to secondary school and I am the only one of my extended family with a university degree. These personal characteristics  – race, gender, class and nationality – along with my experiences, beliefs and values have influenced in various ways the research for this book. It has not only meant that I have struggled to find interviewees as I am not an ‘insider’ but it has also shaped some of the questions that I have asked or the foci that I have adopted. For example, growing up in a household in which two children went to academic secondary schools and two to vocational secondary schools but where parents did not value one type of education over the other, I was particularly drawn to explore the pressure that many African-Jamaican parents put on their children to get into an elite secondary school so that they could obtain a white-collar job and in other ways become ‘white’.

Being an outsider to both the society and the experiences studied  has shaped this book in various ways other than the difficulty of finding interviewees. It has also meant, for instance, that I may not always have picked up the more subtle forms of discrimination conveyed in the source material or may have misinterpreted some statements. Yet as an outsider I have been  able to look beyond common-held assumptions and practices and ask where they came from, how they operate and connect, and how they are sustained. For many researchers from within the region, race and colour hierarchies are nothing more than a background in which they operate. As an outsider, I have been able to foreground the issue of race and explore the mechanisms by which race and colour hierarchies have been sustained over time and the impact that they have had on both individuals and society at large.

[i] Liz Stanley, ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’, Sociology, 27.1 (1993), pp. 41-52.


Public Secrets: Race and colour in colonial and independent Jamaica is published by Liverpool University Press

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About the author: Henrice Altink is a professor in Modern history at the university of York and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development centre. She has published extensively about gender, race and health in the Anglophone Caribbean during slavery and in freedom. She has been been a long-standing executive member of the Social History Society and is deputy editor of Women’s History Review. 

One response to “Public Secrets: Race and colour in colonial and independent Jamaica

  1. To this day my Jamaican born and raised cousins will talk about this as class differences and insist on distinguishing race issues in the country from those in the U.S. and U.K. I remember a book by my uncle, Frank Hercules, describing how sometimes brothers in pre-war Trinidad would not acknowledge one another in public due to skin color differences and their social implications.

    Bad as it was in the English Caribbean, it pales by comparison to the situation in Ibero-America. Pres. Bolsinaro of Brazil remarked a couple of years ago that Brazil should have done what Argentina did. He was referring to the drafting of hundreds of thousands of Black men into an unwinnable war in the 19th century. So many Black men died or fled the country that Argentina did not have to have a color bar. The Dominican Republic was, for many years, ruled by a ruthless dictator who massacred people of Haitian descent and openly proclaimed a policy of ‘Whitening’ the country. This meant keeping Black women as concubines for White men, while eliminating Black men one way or another. Other Latin American countries also had such policies. It’s reasonable to assume that this was a major factor in the forced Black convict labor in the American South after Reconstruction: keeping Black slave labor while reducing Black birth rates.

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