Analysing the Diaspora and Colourism from a Martinican Perspective

Russell Green, KINGSTON

Jessy Patrice and Thierry Ballance are Martinican researchers who have studied several socio-cultural issues in the French West Indies. Having earned her PhD in Communication Studies, Jessy has studied the French Caribbean diaspora living in France, documenting their plural experiences. She has also collaborated with Thierry, who holds the same academic title, to study the issue of colourism in the French West Indies, a topic well-researched in the English-speaking Caribbean but hardly covered in the French West Indies. Currently, both researchers are focusing on publishing their next academic piece which delves even deeper into the issue of colourism. The two passionate, young researchers share the fruit of their research with CaraibEtude.

Question & Answer

THE DIASPORA (Jessy Patrice)

What was it about the French Caribbean diaspora that sparked your interest?

My doctoral thesis focused on the identity and cultural practices of Martinicans living in France. I was actually having a conversation with one of the members of the jury (for the defence of my thesis) when she informed me of the similarities between Corsica (a French territory off the coast of Italy) and Martinique. It was then that she suggested the topic of the diaspora, a topic I had already begun to research. My thesis, therefore, explored the comparison between the Corsican and Martinican diasporas. Subsequently, I furthered my studies in this topic through post-doctoral research in which I further investigated the concept of ​​the Martinican diaspora to a greater extent.

What similarities and differences did you observe between the Corsican and Martinican diasporas?

Both populations have a strong love for their islands and actively maintain their culture. In particular, they maintain their cuisine and have great pride in their language (although Martinicans are much more attached to their language than Corsicans, whose language is slowly falling into disuse). Also, as it relates to establishing organisations representing each population, Corsicans have already established organisations that unite their diasporas whereas this is not as common among Martinicans. However, Martinicans have a larger presence on social media than Corsicans. Ultimately, the two populations are similar in many ways despite these slight differences.

What are the most common problems faced by French West Indians living in France?

Generally, all the studies on French West Indians who emigrate to mainland France show that they experience a lot of discrimination in the workplace. There is also the issue of culture shock. French West Indians, upon entering such a new environment, have to get used to a totally different mentality and culture.

According to your research, how do Martinicans preserve their culture and identity whilst living away from their island?

Caribbean cuisine tends to occupy the central position at special events such as the Christmas and Easter holidays and birthdays. On such occasions, one would find foods such as accra (fritters) as well as Martinican beverages. In the same way, Martinican families speak Creole among themselves to strengthen the cultural bond. They also listen to a lot of zouk (French Caribbean musical genre) and Martinican radio stations.

How do Martinicans born or raised in France deal with identity, being both Martinican and French?

Having two identities is not really a problem for such Martinicans. According to the results of my research, however, Martinicans feel more Martinican than French, because they adhere to their own culture. I think it’s the same for Corsicans and Britons, for example. We have no problem with having two identities; what matters is the feeling of being close to one’s region, language and culture.

Is there any kind of discrimination against those who have left at a very young age and do not necessarily speak Creole, when they go back home?

Yes, of course. There are some who believe that being able to speak Creole is a requirement for French Caribbean people. So, for such persons, a French West Indian who does not speak Creole is not a « true » French West Indian. However, we all need to remember that speaking Creole is not all that makes us West Indians.

What can be done to remove the restrictive stereotypes imposed by people from mainland France?

Firstly, one must recognise that these are social constructs that are transferred from generation to generation. To fight this problem, there must be proper representation in the media, for example, and education that promotes tolerance and peaceful cohabitation.

What solution do you propose for the brain drain problem in Martinique?

It is true that in Martinique, the youthful portion of the population is steadily decreasing. This is because many youths leave in order to pursue higher education in mainland France or elsewhere. In addition, there aren’t as many job offers in Martinique as in France. However, their departure is necessary for their improvement, at times. Still, it is very important for these same youths to come back to Martinique to contribute to its development. It is also important to sensitise young people in Martinique about this brain drain and its consequences, so that they will be willing to return and foster entrepreneurship. Even if they do not come back physically, they can ensure that they use their skills learnt abroad to contribute to the development of Martinique.

COLOURISM (Jessy Patrice & Thierry Bellance)

Could you provide a definition of colourism and explain its significance in the Caribbean context?

TB: Colourism questions how people perceive others based on the colour of their skin. Some people experience either favourable or unfavourable treatment. A fairly classic example is that a person with dark skin would experience discrimination while someone with fair skin would be favoured or better treated. This occurs in all aspects of society, including romantic relationships and in the workplace, but it is focused more so on women.

What is the history and current situation as it relates to colourism in Martinique?

TB: In relation to the French West Indies, colourism goes back to the plantation society and the slave trade, particularly in the 18th century, when social stratification went according to skin colour. The whites were at the top of the pyramid, then the mulattoes (further classified by colour), and the blacks were at the bottom. Three centuries later, we find ourselves in a similar situation due to the vestiges left by this colonial model. Even today, the major landowners in Martinique are white, while the Blacks who do own large portions of land are few.

Give an example of the colourism that takes place in Martinique.

JP: In the school environment, colourism more often affects young women with darker skin, especially those who have kinky hair. Our research shows that they are seen as less attractive in comparison to black girls with smooth, straight hair, for example. As a result, these girls are pressured to straighten their hair because they do not submit to “preferred beauty standards ». It’s the same in the workplace, where there is some resemblance to the colonial model of a colourist social hierarchy. So, you find that in the French West Indies, there are still some professions that are almost exclusively occupied by people of a certain skin colour.

Do you believe that current policies and laws contribute to colourism?

JP: Apart from the colonial social hierarchy, there was also the Code Noir (Black Code) which promoted colourism and created this stratification based on skin colour. Frankly, we do not know if there is any link between this and current policies. It’s really the mentality of people. At the same time, the majority of government representatives are white or fair-skinned.

TB: We believe that it is necessary to carry out an exploratory investigation first to present the issue in the academic world, because it is not addressed as much as in Jamaica or the United States, for example.

What are the effects of colourism on all individuals involved?

TB: Dark-skinned people are most negatively impacted because it affects their self-esteem and they begin to view themselves as unattractive because of their dark skin. However, our research has shown that fair-skinned people are also negatively impacted. These people have skin that is considered « too fair » for them to be acknowledged as true West Indians, according to some. They are, in effect, ostracised for being white or fair-skinned. So, while there is a dichotomy between the discrimination against dark skin and the favouring of light skin, we have concluded that, in some way or another, we are all victims of colourism.

JP: On the other hand, we’ve encountered light-skinned people who were not aware that they possessed some form of privilege due to their skin colour. In fact, they stated that whenever a dark-skinned person made them aware of this reality, they would think that s/he was jealous of them.

TB: It should also be noted that our research focused not only on colourism but also on racism, because we included white people in our surveys. This was necessary because they too experience colourism. For example, a young white Guadeloupean woman recounted her experience of discrimination in which a black person insulted her, blamed her for the slavery that “her ancestors” had caused, and told her to return to her country, even though she was born in Guadeloupe and she speaks Creole!

Do people openly discriminate based on skin colour?

JP: Yes, discrimination is rather open and verbal, because people openly say things or use expressions that are offensive. For example, they may compare dark skin to the colour of coal, say that a person is so black, s/he is blue or purple, say that a person is black like the night, etc. To refer to the physical traits associated with whites, people may say that a person has « pretty » (smooth) hair, « clean » (light) skin, etc.

TB: So all that is fair/white is beautiful. And for a dark-skinned person, if s/he is attractive, some will specifically say that s/he is a « handsome black guy » or a « pretty black girl ». However, if s/he had lighter skin, they would simply say that s/he is a “handsome guy” or a “pretty girl”, as if having fair skin translates to being beautiful, and the opposite for those with dark skin.

What is being done to solve this problem?

JP: I do not think the problem is being solved. Still, there are actions that can mitigate or eliminate altogether such colourist mentalities. For example, since the 2010s, « natural » hairstyles are becoming more and more popular, even if it is just a fad, and there are many YouTube channels specializing in natural haircare. In addition, there are several conferences on this topic. It is likely that all the above is helping to eliminate the ridicule that many women with natural hair face.

What steps should be taken to improve this situation?

TB: Actually, colourism is still a taboo topic of conversation in Martinique. Neither do we discuss it within the family nor do we address it in the greater society, despite being aware that it is a major social issue. It is, therefore, necessary to put in place more ambitious educational policies that promote discussion. Caribbean universities also need to contribute more research on colourism and more young future researchers need to be sensitised on this topic in order to better approach it. Local musical artistes also have an important responsibility because their songs sometimes contain lyrics that favour fair skin as an attractive physical trait.

JP: Undoubtedly, it is very important that we integrate the theme of colourism into school curricula by linking this phenomenon to the topics of slavery and colonialism. Children should know the story behind this problem. The younger generation has to be taught so that the problems of the past may not be repeated. In addition, we often do not realise the powerful effects of the media on our mentalities. If we always see a dark-skinned person in a negative situation (e.g. being presented as being ugly or unsuccessful) and people with fair skin in favourable situations (e.g. being rich and popular), what will be the impact on our perception of what it means to have the dark or light skin?

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