Social Organization. The complex social structure of urban Martinique involves a combination of the following factors: income, occupation, education, skin color, language, family organization, and religion. Distinctions of social class are primarily a matter of one's income/occupation and one's skin color. Refinements in the hierarchy are often determined by education, the success of one's children, the degree to which one can freely associate with lighter-skinned people, and the number of socially important parties one can host and attend.
Martiniquais informants describe the local color hierarchy in a precise system involving distinct linguistic terms, which identify a particular combination of skin color, cheekbone features, lip size, and hair consistency. In brief, the most common distinctions include the following: Mulatre, the offspring of a White and Black parent, generally with very light skin, smooth hair, and Caucasian facial features; Chabin/Chabine, the offspring of a mulatto and a Black parent, generally with light skin, broader features and light brown, kinky hair; Chappe cooli, pure East Indian parent and Black parent, generally with wavy hair, well-defined cheekbones, narrow nose, and small lips; Câpre/Câpresse, offspring of a Black parent and a mixed-race parent, such as Chappe cooli and Chabin, or Chabin and Brune, generally with kinkier hair and less well-defined cheekbones than the Chappe cooli; Brun/Brune, brown-skinned, of mixed-race parentage, generally with kinky hair and African facial features; Rouge/Marron, of Chabin ancestry and therefore with lighter skin but stronger African features; Noir/Negre, pure Black parentage with very dark skin, kinky hair, and broad, African facial features.
Some color terms are used for political reasons. "Noir" may be used as the term "Black" is used by English speakers in the United States: for example, a Chabin man might refer to himself as "Noir." "Negre" is considered old-fashioned, and derivatives of it are used perjoratively in Creole, whereas "Metis," a deliberately nondescriptive term, is typically used by people who, for social or political reasons, prefer not to refer to their specific mix of parentage.
Skin color generally darkens as one follows the occupational ladder down to the least-skilled workers and the unemployed. Because of the early economic benefits accorded the mulatto offspring of unions between masters and slaves, the tradition of prestige associated with lighter-colored skin continues to exist today. Along with White Metropolitans from France, light-skinned blacks tend to dominate the professions and highest offices of government.
The small group of endogamous Békés, representing about 1 percent of the population, remains a dominant minority in terms of economic power and social status. In addition to their large-scale retail and import/export concerns, Béké families continue to hold the bulk of productive land and employ the vast majority of agricultural workers in production of bananas, rum, and tropical flowers.
Political Organization. Political power in Martinique is in the hands of the Creole population, irrespective of the economic prominence of the Békés. Since the island's designation as a département outre-mers, its political pyramids have been effectively inverted so that the mixed-race, Creole majority of the population controls the local affairs of government and represents island interests in the French legislative bodies.
Conflict. The price of full French citizenship and economic dependency is high and takes a psychological toll on the Martiniquais. Underneath the overlay of aspirations to be European lies a recognition of a Creole reality made of truths that are neither wholly French nor African. These truths live in the native tongue of French Creole, are told by the old group of conteurs at traditional funeral rites, and are felt swelling up from a collective consciousness during the Chanté Noël songfest at Christmas.
This resilient Martiniquais culture offers the mixed-race majority both hope of self-understanding and despair of ever becoming completely French. The distinctly non-French or only French-in-part traditions and attitudes of the Martiniquais recall hostilities and struggles for dignity born in a time of slavery.