Video: Black in the Caribbean - Race and class in Haiti and Jamaica

 In the wake of the recently aired documentary Black in America, it's interesting to see how Caribbean societies have dealt with skin colour issues, especially Haiti and Jamaica.

Ingrained in Caribbean culture is an unfortunate system of bias based on someone's race, ethnicity, income, and pedigree. Two scholars, Ives Colon (Haiti) and Heather Russell (Jamaica), discuss the origins of this class system and the way it influences both island life and large Caribbean-American communities abroad, such as South Florida.

Video: Class system in the Caribbean

Video: The Haitian-American journey "La Belle Vie" ("The Good Life")

A long excerpt of the documentary "La Belle Vie" of Haitian-American filmmaker Rachelle Salnave. La Belle Vie takes a look into a filmmaker's journey to discover her Haitian roots by examining the complexities of the Haitian society but also chronicles her voyage to find hope in this nation on the brink of a new Haiti. Watch it on Vimeo here.


In a discussion on Afro-Europe about the show Black in America and effects of the one-drop rule, the origins and the politics of the class structure of Haiti were also debated. Since it’s also relevant for this posting I’ve added the comments.

Haiti does not abide by the one drop rule. Far from it! The racist hatred against the dark-skinned Haitian masses from the wealthy business mulatto, Middle Eastern (primarily Syrian and Lebanese), and white French elites is like Apartheid era South Africa.

Until the 1960s, with the rule of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier," a Black Haitian my complexion (I'm the same color as the actor, Denzel Washington,) was not even seen in exclusive mulatto social clubs like the Bellevue, the Port-au-Prince Country Club, or any of the wealthy clubs in Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince.

In Haiti it goes like this:
The elite: Blanc (white), mulatre (mulatto,) and post Duvalier several dark-skinned Blacks have joined this class, but mulattoes still hold economic power.

Blanc: The word means white, literally, but there are many dark-skinned Haitian-Americans, Haitian-Canadians and Haitian-Europeans who return to Haiti with wealth and education acquired abroad, and paradoxically they are often referred to as "Blancs". Blanc also refers to white foreign wives and husbands of Haitians who have moved to Haiti. Dominicans living in Haiti of any complexion are usually called Dominicain.

Griffe: A light skinned mulatto, usually with green or hazel eyes. Hair can be wavy or curly.

Marabout: A very dark brown "black" person with European features and naturally straight hair. They are NOT considered to be the same as a "black".

Negre: A Black person. They comprise the masses of Haitians. It is practically unheard of for a "negre", a "noir," to marry a mulatre or a griffe UNLESS that negre has lots of money and comes from a Black elite family.

@ John

Yes I understand that it doesn't. Initially in the Constitution of 1804 it was decreed that all Haitian citizens were declared "black." This was implemented to get rid of the racial hierarchy.

This was basically a one drop rule and for obvious reasons did not work out in a majority black country.

@ Anonymous: You're so right. Dessalines, Toussaint, Boyer, et al DID apply the One Drop Rule---RIGIDLY!---when the Constitution was written. Sorry. I misunderstood you.

What they did not take fully into account, however, was the fact that not all the "mulatres" (mulattoes) were killed or immigrated along with the white French colonizers. The city of Jeremie, for example, even up to today, was a stronghold of these biracial Haitians who escaped genocide, and there was a tacit agreement that if they would not try and re-enslave or economically crush the African-Haitian masses, their lives would be spared and they would be left alone.

Fffffast forward to the 1915, 1916 invasion of Haiti by United States Marines and high-ranking members of the U.S. government, who dominated Haiti for over fifteen years, and you will see how, step by step, Americans helped re-instate the mulatres and even the lighter-skinned octoroon and quadroon Haitians as the commercial and educated elite of the country.

I hope I don't sound "treasonous" for saying what I am going to say, but I can only read the pages of history as they are written: The United States is to blame, in a large part, for the rigid, unfair, racist class structure that we still see in Haiti today.

From the time of the 1804 Haitian Constitution up until the Nineteen Teens, there was actually a dark-skinned AFRICAN-Haitian upper class, and there was even strong business and commerce in Haiti. But, the United States and other European Powers refused to administer aid or even recognize this new independent Black country as even being "legal", so they were on their own. Nevertheless, Haiti survived.

If this sounds incredible, please read the old book written during the time of the United States Occupation, (by a white American racist of the time), "The Magic Island", and you will see how it was the intent of the American invaders to disempower Black Haitians and to SUPEREMPOWER mulatto, quadroon and octoroon Haitians as the rulers of the country.

"The evil things that men do".....

Needless to say, there is of course a huge difference between mixed-race people today in the US and Europe and the mixed-race elite in post-slavery Haiti.


  1. Thanks for bringing this information to the fore. I believe things are not changing. I have family in Jamaica and the class issue there is really big. I think, though, the difference between the class issue here and there is that is is very apparent, but here in the States it's a bit hidden. Often the upper class blacks in the U.S. will mingle with the lower classes, however they will not marry anyone of a lower class period.
    Interesting enough in the video the question is asked if a upper class person from Haiti wants to marry someone from Jamaica would the questions be asked about their family and pedigree. I have a very good friend who is of the upper class here in the States, she married a man from the Bahamas. No doubt the pedigree of his family was reviewed as well as hers I am sure. So, it does work both ways even with people from the States marrying someone from outside as well as the other way around.



    1. Thanks for sharing this. I wonder what kind of pedigree they are looking for.

  2. Thanks for featuring these videos. I wish that these videos were transcribed, as the entire conversation was quite informative & thought provoking.

    It was interesting to hear that the Haitian & Jamaican commentors believe that skin color/class is much more rigid in their nations than in South Florida, and, I guess by extension, in the rest of the USA. Their major point was that in both of those nations light skin color & upper class status are intricately meshed together. One of the things that I found interesting which the Haitian commentor shared was that in Haiti, politics is reserved for a portion of the brown skin class, and commerce is reserved for the light skin class. The Jamaican commentor shared that there are seven families that rule Jamaica's commerce/upper class and there was a huge uproar recently when a son from one of those families married an Indo-Jamaican (a Jamaica with East Indian ancestry).

    There were other interesting comments such as those which aren't readily available to or known by people who aren't from those nations.

    As a coincidence, prior to seeing this post, I happened upon a music video about Jamaica's 50th year of Independence, and featured it in this post on my cultural blog:
    SMS - 50 Years Of Independence (Jamaican video, information, & comments)

    I'm going to add the links to the first two videos as related links in that post.

    Btw, and as an aside, I removed the "Ms" from my screen name. I had added it because I didn't want to be mistaken for a male, but it began to bother me as I think it evoked a high brow or snooty connotation that isn't me.

    -just Azizi :o)

  3. This is one of the more interesting things I've watched in a while, thansk for presenting it.

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