Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…

The problem of skin bleaching in Jamaica is discussed and linked to the problem of language, and the privileging of English over Creole.

Khani LTD Edition # 1_21inx21in_ mixed mediaonpaper_2008 by Ebony G. Patterson

All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.

It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.

Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!

One morning, as I waited for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent.

The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant would have to pay.  The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed.  The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal.  This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.

At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to translate her comments for the defendant.  She agreed.  As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it.  What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?”  To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”

To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.

It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”

I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .

It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.