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Shades of white: gender, race, and slavery in the Caribbean

Both whiteness and blackness were stratified along gendered lines in the colonial-era Caribbean. Many of the norms this engendered persist today.

Linen Market, Dominica ca. 1780 by Agostino Brunias. Wikimedia Commons.

Racial difference was invoked to justify the forced transportation and enslavement of an estimated thirteen million African people via the Transatlantic slave trade. This enduring system not only involved the deployment of racist images regarding what it meant to be black, it also required reflection on what it meant to be white. It is within this context that the valorisation of whiteness went hand in hand with the devaluation of blackness, with gender playing a key role in both sides of the equation. Rational,  white masculinity came to symbolise culture and civilisation, while moral virtue, sexual piety, and physical fairness came to define the parameters of white womanhood. This image of a ‘pure’ white womanhood stood in sharp contrast to the supposedly grotesque sexuality, physical ugliness and excessive fertility—a metaphorical trope for Africa itself—of “hot constitution’d” African women.

These enduring images of gender and race frequently made white women into a social and political problem. Colonial slavery was not exclusively perpetrated by men. European women were also deeply implicated within its structures, both ‘at home’ and ‘out there’ in the colonies. Wealthy women made profitable investments in the apparatus of slavery, financing shipbuilding and associated slave trade industries, including the insurance and banking houses that underwrote slavery. Many, of course, owned slaves themselves. Women of the poorer classes also found opportunities for economic and social advancement in the colonies. They farmed small plots of land, ran taverns and shops, and imported consumer goods and labourers for road and bridge building works. They also worked as domestics on plantations and as itinerant traders. Colonialism created opportunities for socioeconomic advance for white women, particularly the unmarried and widowed.

Shades of white

White women benefitted from slavery in many ways, but their presence was nonetheless understood in terms of problem and peril, both for individual white women and for the category of whiteness more generally. The sun-scorched and disease-ridden tropics were reckoned physically and psychologically intolerable for white women, especially those of genteel birth. Maria Nugent, wife of the governor general of Jamaica (1801-1805), wrote in her journal that she was disturbed by the malignant effects of climate and ‘creolisation’. Creolisation, at its most basic, refers to white people born and raised within colonial societies, and were thus neither ‘European’ nor ‘Caribbean’ in terms of their domestic and social manners. Nugent saw the torrid heat and prolonged proximity with uncivilised Africans as degrading forces to which she attributed the disconcertingly corrupt creole drawl, debilitating languor, and self-indulgence of the local population. Intellectual barrenness made for “perfect viragos” (violent or bad-tempered women) and their slatternly domestic housekeeping rendered them poor wives, inattentive mothers, and shrewish mistresses of enslaved peoples. Neither English nor African, white creole women occupied a middle terrain of ‘Other whiteness’—one that threatened to undermine ideals of white womanhood.

Nugent’s censorious criticism of white creole women echoed colonial anxieties about the potential for the white female body to become the conduit of white racial degeneracy and imperial decline. Creole women were racialised as white—albeit a creolised whiteness—but the innate weaknesses of their female minds and bodies rendered them unreliable guardians of whiteness. They therefore stood in need of social and sexual surveillance. Women who transgressed the socio-sexual norms of colonial society risked punishment, such as social exclusion and the loss of social status.

Furthermore, while white males of all stations freely appropriated and exploited the sexuality and reproductive labour of African women, they rigorously enforced prohibitions against relationships between ‘their’ white women and all black males.

This regulation of white colonial womanhood became the essential aspect upon which whiteness would stand or fall. Sexual relations between white females and black males posed a profound threat to the racial social order. Colonial law dictated that, for unfree individuals, children followed the legal status of their mother. This ensured that African women’s bodies were the literal embodiment of unfreedom, while white wombs served as the incubators of freedom. As white males could not imagine a future population of free coloured people, they secured both their own patriarchal power and white supremacy through the regulation of white female sexuality.

As Ann Stoler and others have demonstrated, the question of who wedded and bedded whom was never left to chance in colonial societies. For example, seventeenth century poor laws in Barbados limited parochial relief—basic social welfare for the poor—solely to white women and men considered ‘deserving’. Poor white women who undermined the boundaries of whiteness through relationships with black men were not considered ‘deserving’. Instead, their children were removed and placed in industrial schools. The mothers themselves summarily dropped from parochial relief rolls, literally cast out of whiteness. This example points to the many layers of whiteness, which were never simply a question of skin colour but also defined through social performance. Successfully staged whiteness conferred privilege—social status and material benefits—so that even poor whites situated on the borderlands of whiteness could access social and economic privileges withheld from even free/freed blacks.

An examination of property relationships further illuminates the complexity of gendered whiteness in shaping social relations under colonial slavery. Barbadian property laws imposed informal restrictions on white women’s access to property, but all white women enjoyed the right to own and control the productive and reproductive labour of enslaved peoples. Numerous petitions from separated and divorced wives who successfully claimed custodial ownership of enslaved people held as joint marital property in Barbadian courts testify to the power of legal claims to human property

White women in Caribbean slave societies were denied some of the freedoms enjoyed by their male counterparts, and were subject to surveillance and control. However, there is little evidence that they recognised enslaved women as sisters in subordination. Unlike some plantation women in the American south, a collective anti-slavery consciousness eluded white Caribbean women. Retaining white privilege required their racial and social alignment with white males, even though they were subordinated by ideologies and practices that constrained their actions and regulated their sexuality. Yet, colonial authority was never so constraining as to limit entirely white women’s autonomy. In their ownership of enslaved peoples white women wielded extraordinary power over the bodies of others, underscoring how images of race and gender both constrained and enabled the exercise of white privilege.

The colonial present

The colonial past is always present in Caribbean societies. It resonates in popular images of gender, race, class and sexuality, and discrimination on all of these grounds persists. Peoples of African origin represent the majority population in most English speaking former colonies. As the late Rex Nettleford observed as a reminder of centuries of racial intermixing, “while nearly 80 percent of the population is unmistakably black some 95 percent of Jamaicans are people with some degree of African blood”. Black bodies—male and female—remain sexualised, commodified objects, subject to violent regulation across public and private spheres. The region’s ‘exotic’ allure contributes to its popularity as a major destination for western tourists in search of sun, sea and sex, giving rise to a thriving sex work industry, other types of exploitation, and what is often referred to as human trafficking.

In theory, the growth of the black middle and upper classes suggests that ‘race’ retains little salience, and commentators often claim that social class is now the dominant hierarchical principle of social organisation. The current image of the Caribbean as a non-racial multicultural cosmopolitan space—a melting pot of African, European, Indian, Syrian, Chinese and other ethnicities and cultures—sidesteps the ways in which gender, race, class and sexuality remain intertwined. The residual social and cultural value attributed to whiteness and white culture speaks to the pervasiveness of colonial ideas about race, gender, class and sexuality.

Whiteness continues to signal social and cultural capital to this day, This is evidenced by the concentration of white and lighter skinned people within the elite. A rarely acknowledged but nonetheless palpable colourism means that light skin remains a key benchmark for standards of physical beauty and cultural worth. This has given rise to the ubiquitous and dangerous phenomenon of skin bleaching practised by women and men of all social classes. A celebration of whiteness and white cultural values furthermore permeates society. This informs sexual and marital choices—social mobility and capital may be acquired through ‘marrying up’—as well as notions of cultural worth. African/black derived linguistic, oral, and literary education are viewed as aberrations from normative white cultural standards, as are similarly derived family life and structures, religion, governance, and aesthetics. Some scholars refer to these ongoing racialised, gendered and classed inequities as the afterlife of slavery. This shorthand describes the resilience of underlying inequalities rooted in colonial slavery and reproduced within the post-colonial societies. It is for the recognition of the long-lasting effects of racial slavery—this afterlife—that reparationists rest their case. But reparations alone cannot relieve the pains of the past. Honest conversations about how that past reproduces racial privileges in the present  are also necessary for dismantling structures that reinscribe colonially-derived social inequities that rest on hierarchies of race and colour.


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