The Problem with Red Woman (And Red Man)

The problem with “red woman” isn’t really an issue of individual red women, per se, but rather it’s a response to, and emblematic of the ways in which we, as a society, process skin colour, beauty and desirability. In the end, it ends up muddled into an expression wrapped in humorous observation that puts folks of the lighter-skin persuasion on the defensive but really, it eh have nutten to do with you on a personal level.

What’s really taking place is a quasi-examination of desirability privilege and beauty privilege (conversations not often had on the Trinbagonian pop cultural landscape) via these observations, but the observations themselves are rooted in the historical and social capital many of us tend to place on colour. These are systemic concepts not meant to attack individual red people, though individuals are complicit in the ways in which these ideas remain rooted and passed on.

Two popular videos currently trending in the Trinbagonian social media network, “Top 5 Worst Women to be with in Trinidad” and the “Top 5 worst men to hook up with in Trinidad” both posit individuals of a “red” skin tone — the only skin tone singled out by shade on both lists — as people to be wary of getting romantically/sexually involved with. The subtexts  of both vids, with regard to colour are fascinating and revelatory. Fascinating, perhaps more so if you get the subtext.

Responses by red-skinned individuals on social media, particularly women, fell into the existentialist “what allyuh have with red woman so?” and “why the hating on red woman?” categories, as though the listing themselves indicated anything less than a preferential inclination toward light skinned men and women–the irony being that this was cast (ironically) as a bad thing, but clearly, obviously, it’s not (that’s in the subtext).

I mean, the biggest problem with red men (according to the vid) is that you will have to fight other women off yuh man. And for red women, “their attributes allow them to stand out in a crowd, thereby drawing attention.” This woman also has multiple men, allegedly, doing her financial bidding. And why is this woman standing out? Among other things, Trudy at Gradient Lair informs us that: “When people speak of “traditional beauty” and those considered attractive, several factors come into play. For women, it’s Whiteness in general, or light skin for women of colour, its thinness, it’s height/weight distribution (i.e. curvy but not too curvy), it’s length of hair, it’s texture of hair, it’s hair colour, it’s eye colour, it’s facial symmetry; it’s how these all interact with class and overall appearance. (It’s also time. Different eras in time meant different conceptions of beauty.)” Trinidad and Tobago, like much of the diaspora, as a product of colonization, imperialism, slavery, indentureship and Eurocentric norms means that we also grapple with similar notions of what it means to be beautiful and “stand out” because of that perception of beauty.

2013 has been an interesting year for conversations on “redness” in the Trinbagonian community and its diaspora online. The “finding redman” meme was also huge for a while, floating around everywhere and sparking a TV 6 interview and many online discussions mainly centered around 1. whether the now infamous “Redman” constituted a real redman (he’s really more brown skinned several said) and 2. the virtual sigh of disappointment ricocheting around when “Redman” was finally revealed to be an older gentleman, not “red” enough by many standards and not a pretty boy. Again, the companion discussions showed the extent to which the construction of redness inside the cultural imagination, even without setting eyes on this man, meant that so many folks had a preconceived level of expectation already set for his good looks. All because he was called a “redman” anonymously in a viral video.

The cultural tone of casual conversations around red women in Trinidad often borders on derisive (allusions to stooshness, big egos and using might arise) on the one hand, but still are always steeped in longing and mutuality. Red women end up embodying the racial mixed race fantasy at the core of an important aspect of Trinidadian identity. They are not purely black, because pure African is boring and nothing to write home about (though esteemed by many too), and pure Indian is likewise also boring (and similarly esteemed by many), whereas mixedness always seems to be used to elevate us to another plane of being when some Trinis talk about our cultural identity.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Trinis in the States use “mixedupness” to allude to Trinidad having progressed racially or in exemplary comparison to the United States. We are better because of this. Praise be to douglarising the nation, the red Spanish and all the mix up people. True, we have always forged identities through our (re) mixing, our creolising to quote Kamau Brathwaite, but Brathwaite, crucially, never loses sight of the source. The source is the spark and the mix is like a child born of the source. Who are we without all of that?

So the problem with red woman and red man isn’t so much that we have a problem with them on a societal level. Trinis love their red woman and red man. Jamaicans love their brownings (as Buju and Patricia Mohammed have astutely reminded us) so it really isn’t a problem in that regard. Popular local colloquialisms about redness like “if yuh eh red, yuh dead” and “de only good red ting is ah dollar” (see image of the Trinidad and Tobago dollar in its crimson glory for reference) exemplify both aspects of the equation: we love redness (and recognize its benefits) but we try to be dismissive of that love. Which I think is also why red men and red women end up on those vids. It’s a very Trini kind of contextualizing to point out what we love and twist it at the same time. It’s like picong. You have to be able to take the jamming. But more so than not, it comes from a place of love.

My mother is a lovely, dark skinned woman born and raised in Georgetown, Guyana. A daughter and grand daughter of educators and musicians, she has said to me more than once that she is so glad that she did not grow up in Trinidad as a dark skinned woman because she feels that she has encountered so many Trinidadian women of her generation who have irreparable scars of colour complexes in ways that she cannot imagine. Which is not to say that colourism and racism doesn’t exist in Guyana but that she felt shielded from it in her family background. While you might find a Jamaican who may be likely to have a frank conversation about classism and colourism, it’s really hard to do with many Trinis because we have been fed a long diet of “rainbow people”, and mixed identity utopia and “all is we is one” which we cling to so hard that it almost obscures everything else that is also taking place.

And sometimes, we just don’t like to talk about things and it’s hard to fix anything if you don’t want to acknowledge that it’s taking place. We don’t like to talk about Akiel Chambers, a sad and unbearably tragic interpolation of class, colour, connections, money and death. We don’t like to talk about “white nights” at certain night clubs during the 80s and 90s though this was widely known and accepted. We also don’t like to talk about mas band colour/class segregation. All of these things are connected. Or, when you try to, someone unleashes a ridiculous woe-is-the-red-woman speech/article that completely misses the point.

Someone pointed out to me once that if you were a pretty red girl in Trinidad, you will never want for a job. Repercussions of beauty privilege are real and have tangible consequences for women especially, and who-yuh-know is the bane of social existence in Trinidad and Tobago, plus Trinis are pretty superficial people (love allyuh bad, but on the real, we are). So, it’s not “hating” to point out the obvious. Traditionally, red women were hired as bank clerks in post colonial Trinidad and everyone knew that they predominated the flight attendants on the national carrier for many years: women of a certain look/social class. Throughout the Caribbean region, they were often the earliest beauty queens, and in many places, it would be umpteen years before a dark-skinned beauty broke the colour barrier.

Those videos are amusing and may be irreverent to some and they beat anything ever created by Buhwamoder any day, who I hope has disappeared off the radar for good. But most of all, they expose some of our particular cultural love and anxieties around skin colour: the constant fear of a red man being “taken” away clearly exemplifies how prized he is to hold on to at all costs and how much all other women must covet him; the red woman who “stands out” and juggles multiple men purely on the basis of her desirability to them and for them to be connected to (is entirely looks-based and colour-based because she is not sleeping with any of them as the vid clearly notes). These are very poignant constructions of the hierarchy of skin colour for both men and women and like it or not, very much representative of who we are as people.

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One Response to “The Problem with Red Woman (And Red Man)”

  1. Of #prisonbae and Beauty Ideals | creative commess Says:

    […] sayin’.” Also true. Coming from a West Indian culture that has a whole construct for the Red Man (with Meeks’ image clearly being a prototype) and what that means for attractiveness and […]

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