To celebrate Black History Month and the diversity of the Peace Corps Volunteer community, we asked PCVs of color to write about their personal experiences as Volunteers in Jamaica. The following piece was written by Group 87 Volunteer Stephen Crimarco.
While racism in America still persists, Jamaica struggles with “complexionism.” Complexionism and racism are two different issues, but with similar roots. Complexionism tends to be between people of a similar race. It can be described as a bias or prejudice from an individual against another person of a similar race, but is darker in complexion. Complexionism places the value of beauty, self-worth, and power based on skin tone. Social class also influences attitudes about complexionism. Historically, Jamaica’s upper class has been comprised of mostly fair skinned people, while darker skin people tend to make up the majority of the working class. The intersectionality of race and social class in Jamaica has a major influence on the country’s culture. This culture has directly affected me as a mixed race Peace Corps Volunteer.
To be candid, I identify as mixed-race, but I have a lighter complexion. In America I am often mistaken for being Hispanic or white. In Jamaica I have been called every racial label because of the shade of my skin. It is important to understand a majority of the labels are in fact harmless and have no malice behind them; however, in instances when the name-caller assumes I am from a privileged background, it becomes frustrating. It is common for strangers trying to get someone’s attention to quickly call out to them based on how they physically look. In the market place the majority will scream out “Indian,” “White-rasta man,” “Italian,” “Brownin.” This is because the caller does not know my name and wants my attention. No harm is intended behind it. However, I have had beggars beg me because I am “white.” From their point of view I surely must have money to throw out! Despite the fact that, like all PCVs, I live on a small stipend similar to the people of the country we serve in…
Very early on into my service when I was helping my farmer’s group to bill land (clear land) to cut down overgrown brush with a machete. A member of the group at the time said, “Wow I did not know Peace Corps officers do Black man’s work! He bills land, and picks up cow manure with his bare hands. Are you sure you can manage this work? I thought you only did book keeping?” While most Americans would be offended and proceed to have a dialogue about race and ethnicity, I simply have found sarcasm and humor to be far more effective in explaining myself to others. I use jokes in a situation like this to tell others that you cannot place labels and assumptions on someone based on how he or she looks. I bantered back, “Boy, plenty of white man cannot manage the book keeping thing either and would rather pick up sh*t and chop bush!” The entire group erupted in laughter and my complexion has never been brought up again in my community. In fact my farmers’ get very defensive when we are outside of my community and I am being called labels. One day in Port Antonio, the closest shopping town to my site, a merchant in the market said “White man! I…” But before he could finish his sentence, one of my farmers angrily snapped at him and said “Look at his locks, do you think he’s a white man!?” The merchant smiled and said, “Yes boy him is mixed up like Bob Marley.”
I think what makes complexionism even more frustrating than racism is the fact that it is mostly the same people hurting one another. I have had many positive experiences as a mixed-race American as well. Before I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was still a trainee in St. Thomas parish, a farmer said to me after our training had ended, “Stephen you really look like us. It is nice when volunteers look like us.” At a community meeting with all 18 environmental trainees in the room, a community leader said, “I do not know what the Peace Corps has done this year. But I see more Black volunteers and I am happy to see more people that look like us.” This is why diversity is important when it comes to being a Peace Corps Volunteer. By having a diverse workforce in the Peace Corps, Jamaicans will see that Americans also come from all shades, all classes, all nationalities, and all walks of life.
I have a very pragmatic view for dealing with racism and complexionism. You may not be able to change someone’s attitude against you, as differences in race, class, and cultural are inherently apart of human life all around the world, but you can choose how to respond to that person. A majority of racists and complexionists have stubborn pride. Stubborn pride is even when someone is corrected on his or her ignorance, he or she still believe they are right. As long as at the end of the day embrace your own identity and acknowledge there may be times when you are challenged, then you will be successful at dealing with any conflict, including racism or complexionism. I believe volunteers should refer to Peace Corp Expectation #8: Use personal judgement, as a majority of your service will be based on personal judgment.