Over my final weeks at the orphanage, I witnessed the lighter skinned boys being favored in every aspect of their lives. The staff members were easier on them. They were the first kids that short-term volunteers from America gravitated to, and I was told that when Guyanese people come to the orphanage hoping to adopt, they look for the lighter skinned boys. One woman, I was told, asked to see a boy who would be available for adoption. A boy was brought to her. She instantly rejected him, saying his skin was too black. She asked to see another boy. A second boy, the first boy’s brother, was brought to her. She looked him over, saying that she preferred his lighter skin tone but that his hair was still too “black-ish.” The woman was then asked to leave the orphanage.
Skin is the largest organ of the body. We’re all wrapped up in it and, most of us would agree, the color of it has far too big of an impact on the way the world at large works. Skin color impacts people all over this earth, including in the United States (duh), but I’m going to focus on what I observed in Guyana while working at the orphanage. This is one post that I’ve had tucked away for a while. I’m afraid if I don’t get it out now, the thoughts and feelings may begin to fade, and this is something too important to overlook. So, here it goes.
The Guyanese claim six races in their country. According to the World Fact Book the ethnic groups shake out like this:
East Indian (Indo): ~45%
Black (Afro): 30%
Amerindian, Portuguese, European, Chinese: 25%
Much like in the United States, there is a large variety of skin tones that exist in Guyana. There are very, very few individuals who claim Guyanese citizenship and are “white”. As a fatter of fact, I never met a white person who was Guyanese. There were so few people in the country who were white at all, and the handful of people I did meet were expats, only living in Guyana temporarily. For the most part, the color of skin in Guyana ranges from light brown to very dark–whatever that acually means.
I am paper white. Drop me in a pile of loose-leaf paper and you’ll likely be unable to locate me. I had to wear SPF 70 the majority of the time I was in the sunlight in Guyana. If I didn’t have sunscreen on it was because I was either outside in the evening or night hours or I was able to get from one shaded area to another with minimal direct exposure to the sun. My hat, umbrella and clothing helped protect me too, obviously. When you have light skin, you take precautions. But the point I’m trying to make here is: My skin would have been burning had I been wearing even SPF 50. Is that not the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard? This is why, logically, you wouldn’t think it would make sense for this idea that ‘lighter is better’ to be a part of Guyanese culture, but it is.
In the orphanage, the boys are well aware of where they are on the color spectrum. Those who come from East Indian parents are better off than those who come from African parents. I say “better off” because the color of their skin dictates how smart they feel, how liked they are by their peers and the staff, how much confidence they carry with them out into the world everyday; it basically dictates every aspect of their lives in one way or another. I’m sad to say, I didn’t pick up on this form of institutionalized racism right away. As a matter of fact, I broke the mold a little bit. Two of my favorite boys ended up being two of the darkest skinned boys in the orphanage–this happened due mostly to the amount of time I got to spend with them. I got to know them on a more personal level than many of the others. Would I have otherwise fallen victim to the typical rhythm of things? There’s no way to know. Maybe.
Once I had been clued into what was going on, my ears opened wide. The VERY NEXT interaction I witnessed between two boys involved a 15 year old saying this to a 10 year old:
You’re so black your mom dropped you off at this orphanage because she be so embarrassed of you. You’re as black as black cake.
The color of our skin dictates how our lives will be lived. As I reread that sentence, I can’t help but feel completely embarrassed to be a part of ‘it all’. The color of our skin dictates how we live our lives. Unreal!