Coloured, black, dark, red, half-caste, were the descriptions I became familiar with during my early school years. I was born and grew up in Northwest London to Jamaican parents. As an infant it never once occurred (Was it ever mentioned by my parents?) that colour pigmentation differences were something I needed to be aware of.
I lived in a neighbourhood which had experienced gradual change, with migrants from the West Indies and Asian Sub Continent coming to Britain during the fifties and sixties. At the age of five I remember playing with children of varied skin colour. Though there was an obvious difference in colour, there was no sense that either was superior to the other. However, three-hundred years of false ideology on race had already stamped its mark on the world in which we were growing up, and our childhood innocence would be shattered one day soon. Later, the name-calling began in the playground, `Black nigger', `Wog', `Go back to Timbuktu'. Graffiti-painted walls bore the words `nigger, nigger pull the trigger', `blacks out', etc.
The images in our schoolbooks and on TV were all of white people, which became my measure for beauty and success. Anything associated with Africa was considered demeaning, and to be identified with it was offensive. Nothing I can remember in school made a positive reference to Africa that I would want to have a sense of pride about. I didn't have the same feeling about Jamaica. Whenever other black children asked me where I was born, I would say, `Jamaica'. Later, I learnt that I wasn't the only one who disassociated myself from my British birthplace--many others felt the same. Perhaps it was because we could embrace our parents' sense of pride in their Jamaican nationality of the West Indies, without the feeling of inferiority and rejection.
During my adventurous and sometimes painful delinquent years, in search of self-identity, I began to wonder why my Jamaican parents made no mention of Africa. I came to realise that they had suffered like many others from an identity crisis. African people were transplants as opposed to being indigenous populi of the Caribbean and diaspora, which meant never truly being able to assimilate into society because of colour coding or colour differences.
The displacement of Africans to the Western Hemisphere has had harmful and painful repercussions. My quest to know my forefathers' history, and my passion to replace the negative myths about Africa with the truth and a positive view, has helped me know and accept myself more. The word `slavery' evokes so much pain, that many transplanted Africans would sooner forget one of the ugliest human tragedies. The scars of the past are visible in the attitude and behaviour of both blacks and whites. Acknowledging and healing the wounds of history by dealing with the vestiges of the slave system are a necessary way forward.
The word `race' has a long and embattled history. Modern dictionary definitions show that in earlier centuries, the term was used to mean `lineage' and was almost identical with `kin'. The term `race' first appeared in the 16th century; only in the 19th century did it become biologised. It was then that evolutionary thought became the basis on which the `races of mankind' were classified and hierarchically ordered with whites inevitably at the top. It can be no accident that these ideological constructions roughly coincide with the development of Nationalism and Colonialism.
There is no denying that human beings come in different shades, shapes and appearances. What is debatable is whether these external physical differences in any way correlate with other inherent characteristics, such as attitudes, talents or psychological make up. Modern science gives no support to essentialist racial theories. Underneath the skin, all humans are alike. There is no such thing as `black blood' or `pure blood' and the distinctions of blood--blood types--have nothing to do with race.
In recent years, researchers have traced all human beings to a common female ancestress, an original Eve, who lived approximately 200,000 years ago in Africa. One of the implications of these findings is that all human beings originated in Africa and the essential, `natural' human race is one, mutating into different groups over time due to geographical migration.
Racism is a spiritual problem, a distortion of the Creator's grand `rainbow' design and a perversion of his intent that there be variety among his creation. If we are to get to grips with tackling racism, then uprooting it from the human psyche will require a change in attitudes, and honest conversations beyond blame, guilt, denial and rationalisation. If we are to resolve some of the falsehoods, then this is one positive way forward.
Lawrence Fearon, UK