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An Analysis of the Impact of Eurocentric Concepts of Beauty on the Lives of Afrikan American Women

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Abstract

the capture of the mind and body both is a slavery far more lasting, far more severe than conquest of bodies alone… " Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons " (p.33) Perhaps the most insidious effect of white supremacy racism has been its impact on how people of color view their physical appearance. Throughout the world the globalization of Eurocentric standards of beauty has resulted in the development of industries that support it, the marketing of images that reify it, the structuring of policies that reward it, and the enactment of interpersonal and personal behavioral routines that emulate it. In India, one of the most recent and disturbing manifestations of the obsession with European standards of beauty can be observed in the development and marketing of a product called 'Clean and Dry' which is designed to lighten dark vaginas (Pal, 2012). Throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and in the United States the devastating effects of skin bleaching can be seen in the faces of women whose skin though lighter, exhibits thinning and who are requiring dermatological treatment to deal with the destructive health effects of skin bleaching (Catherine Saint Louis, n.d.). In the United States, the effects of European standards of beauty are most evident in the Black community and have their greatest influence on the outcomes of Afrikan American women in every realm of our lives: education, occupation, income, family relationships, male-female relationships, female-female relationships, mate selection processes, mental health, physical health, and self-esteem. In this chapter we will discuss the marketing of Eurocentric standards of beauty through the imposition of white supremacy racism, the history of colorism in Afrikan American communities, its manifestations in our institutions, organizations, families, and relationships, its psychological effects, and strategies for expelling and eradicating the injurious presence of internalized racism.
An Analysis of the Impact of Eurocentric Concepts of Beauty on the
Lives of Afrikan American Women
Huberta Jackson-Lowman
“…the capture of the mind and body both is a slavery far more lasting, far more severe than conquest of
bodies alone… Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons “(p.33)
Perhaps the most insidious effect of white supremacy racism has been its impact on how people of color
view their physical appearance. Throughout the world the globalization of Eurocentric standards of
beauty has resulted in the development of industries that support it, the marketing of images that reify
it, the structuring of policies that reward it, and the enactment of interpersonal and personal behavioral
routines that emulate it. In India, one of the most recent and disturbing manifestations of the obsession
with European standards of beauty can be observed in the development and marketing of a product
called ‘Clean and Dry’ which is designed to lighten dark vaginas (Pal, 2012). Throughout the Caribbean,
Africa, and in the United States the devastating effects of skin bleaching can be seen in the faces of
women whose skin though lighter, exhibits thinning and who are requiring dermatological treatment to
deal with the destructive health effects of skin bleaching (Catherine Saint Louis, n.d.).
In the United States, the effects of European standards of beauty are most evident in the Black
community and have their greatest influence on the outcomes of Afrikan American women in every
realm of our lives: education, occupation, income, family relationships, male-female relationships,
female-female relationships, mate selection processes, mental health, physical health, and self-esteem.
In this chapter we will discuss the marketing of Eurocentric standards of beauty through the imposition
of white supremacy racism, the history of colorism in Afrikan American communities, its manifestations
in our institutions, organizations, families, and relationships, its psychological effects, and strategies for
expelling and eradicating the injurious presence of internalized racism.
Definition of Terms
White supremacy racism: The belief in the superiority of people of European descent mentally,
genetically, and in physical appearance.
Internalized racism: The endorsement of myths, images, stereotypes, values, and beliefs that
support the oppressor’s construction of the oppressed.
Eurocentric standards of beauty: The belief that the preferred feminine model of beauty must
adhere to European characteristics in terms of skin color, facial features, hair texture and length,
eye color, and physique. Thus, women whose skin is fairest, with long blond hair, blue eyes,
Nordic facial features, and thin bodies are elevated to the highest level and projected as the
model of what is beautiful for all groups of people, regardless of race/ethnicity and culture.
Colorism: Oppression based on skin color, typically expressed as favoritism towards those of
lighter complexions and rejection of those of darker complexions.
Globalizing White Supremacy
Over the past five centuries white supremacy racism has steadily eroded the cultures, values, and
standards of people throughout the world. This process has been slow and gradual, sometimes planned
and sometimes unintended, and more recently, as the result of technology, rapidly expedited. The
effects of this globalization are most notable throughout the continent of Afrika where European
invasions beginning in the 1400s brought turmoil, chaos, and destruction, which persists today in the
21
st
century in many Afrikan nations. Although not the focus of this chapter, the effects of Arab
intrusions on Afrika must be acknowledged as well and perhaps can be seen as setting the stage for the
later European conquests. The complexity of the interaction of these external forces plus the internal
dynamics of Afrika, often epitomized by ethnic warfare, have been discussed in depth by scholars such
Chancellor Williams, Ben Jochannan, John Jackson, and John Henrik Clarke (Kambon, 2012), and must be
understood as critical features that have facilitated white supremacy racism’s intrepid domination in
Afrika and throughout the world. One of the most debilitating aspects of the globalization of white
supremacy has been the resulting conflation of power and what is defined as beautiful. Those who are
deemed most powerful are often emulated in terms of their physical appearance, their behavior, their
standards and values. Furthermore, those in power project themselves as the ideal physically, mentally,
and spiritually and construct reality to support their beliefs. Thus, policies that reward those that look
like them and punish those that least resemble them are put in place from the type of clothing that one
must wear to the language that one must speak. The least powerful, in their attempts to survive their
oppression, often reorganize themselves and reconfigure their lives and bodies in order to benefit from
the reward structure created by their oppressors. This process does not occur without resistance both
formally organized and informal; however, through tactics such as ‘divide and conquer’ oppressive
forces have often been able to marginalize their resisters within their own communities. Numerous
authors have discussed in detail these dynamics and should be consulted for more elaboration of the
history of this globalization process and its effects (Ani, 1994; Rodney, 1982). For purposes of this
discussion it is important to understand the scope of white supremacy and to recognize that the
negative effects that arise in the Afrikan American community as a result of it have not solely affected
Afrikan Americans but have been reinforced by worldwide submission, again not without resistance, but
nevertheless sustained through the use of industries, technology and the media. Thus, skin color
discrimination, obsession with Nordic facial features, and desire for straight blonde hair have more or
less affected nations throughout the world, and most decidedly Afrikan people whose physical
appearance is most distant from that of Europeans. Understanding how these effects have occurred
requires recognition of the Eurocentric worldview as the fundamental cosmology undergirding white
supremacy racism.
Eurocentric Worldview
Worldview refers to the lens through which we engage the world. Typically, this lens is invisible, applied
unconsciously, and goes unrecognized by its users; yet, it influences everything that we observe and
interact with. It carries with it certain assumptions and values that shape how we view reality. In the
case of the Eurocentric worldview, these assumptions include the emphasis on control and mastery over
nature, survival of the fittest, either/or thinking, competition and aggression; focus on individual rights
and on the material/physical aspects of life in contrast to the spiritual; and belief in the supremacy of
Europeans over other groups of people, including the patriarchal domination of men over women
(Kambon, 1998; 2012). These beliefs manifest themselves in every area of human functioning:
economics, politics, military, religion, education, science, technology, sex, family, and the media.
It is easy to see how Eurocentric assumptions and beliefs permeate conceptions of what is beautiful.
The operation of a single standard of beauty which ascribes physical beauty to certain European
characteristics, e.g., very fair skin, straight blonde hair, blue eyes, Nordic facial features, thin bodies, and
ranks the beauty of other racial/ethnic groups against this standard reflects the belief in the superiority
of Europeans. The belief that “white” is good, beautiful, attractive and “black” is evil, ugly, and
undesirable is a reflection of either/or thinking which does not recognize the possibility that both
whiteness and blackness can exhibit any of these characteristics. Eurocentric standards of beauty also
reflect the operation of patriarchal domination over women. Men determine what is “beautiful” and
reward and punish women based upon these standards. Finally, the emphasis on the physical aspects of
one’s appearance leads to the objectification of women. As objectified bodies whose main purpose is
the satisfaction of the sexual appetites of men, women of all races and ethnicities are subjected to this
single standard of beauty which is utilized to assess their worth and value. Once Afrikan Americans
adopt the Eurocentric worldview, they are set up to denigrate all things Afrikan in themselves and other
people of Afrikan ancestry. Thereby, we become the arbiters of our own oppression.
The Roots of Colorism
The tentacles of oppression take root in the consciousness of the oppressed as well as the oppressor. It
is an unfortunate reality that the victims of oppression often reenact their oppressive experiences.
Sadly, the emancipation of enslaved Afrikans did not eradicate the system that had been created by
White enslavers to ensure their power and control over their victims. Having instituted a system of
privilege and division based on a color caste system and supported by a host of laws, with little or no
support and no intervention to rectify the wrongs that enslaved Afrikans had endured, the same system
was recreated in the communities of freed Afrikan Americans. A complex and often contradictory
history ensured the persistence of the color caste system in the Afrikan American community.
Miscegenation Laws
As early as 1622 the first miscegenation law sprung up in Virginia (Russell, Wilson, & Hall, 1992). This
law was created because of the race-mixing that had begun between Afrikans and Europeans. Race-
mixing threatened the developing institution of slavery and was troubling to European men, in part
because of the scarcity of European women. Efforts by White men to exert control over relationships
between enslaved Afrikans and Europeans took many forms. In Maryland, sex between enslaved Afrikan
men and White female servants could result in a life sentence for the woman; however, as a means of
increasing their enslaved population, some White enslavers encouraged the rape of these women by
enslaved Afrikan men (Russell et al., 1992). Another law passed in 1662 in Virginia declared that mixed
children born to enslaved Afrikan women would share the legal status of their mother. This law stood in
stark contrast to traditional English law which mandated that children take the status of their fathers.
White enslavers were able to benefit from these laws and increase their enslaved populations. In
essence, the miscegenation laws contributed to complicated sexually exploitative relationships between
Whites and Blacks and between men and women.
The development of miscegenation laws occurred parallel with the presence of free mulattoes who
were not enslaved. Other laws were instituted to ensure the marginalization of communities of free
mulattoes. Laws forbidding property ownership, voting rights, and seeking political office were passed
to ensure the separation of these mixed blood Afrikans. Later, the “one drop rule” would be instituted in
the upper South including Virginia and Maryland, proclaiming that any amount of Afrikan blood resulted
in one being labeled ‘Black.’ Another reality was also taking shape that further complicated racial
relationships. Because of the scarcity of European American women, many European American men had
sexual and emotional relationships with enslaved Afrikan women. The mulatto children that were
produced were in some instances freed and sometimes these mulatto children were granted the same
privileges as their White peers or siblingsgiven other enslaved Afrikans and assisted with launching
businesses or farming. Thus, a new class of ‘Coloreds’ was created. In colonies, such as South Carolina,
mulattoes were able to apply for status as ‘Whites,’ and in other cases they simply passed. All of these
developments and events led to the formation of a three-tiered color caste system composed of Whites,
Coloreds, and pure Afrikans. The Coloreds served as a buffer class between Europeans and Afrikans.
Whites conducted business with the Coloreds and the Coloreds were used to minimize tensions
between the groups (Russell et al., 1992).
The Formation of Mulatto Communities
The Revolutionary War led to the darkening of mulatto communities. Enslaved Afrikans who joined the
British army were granted their freedom after the war (Russell et al., 1992). Additionally, enslaved
Afrikans who sometimes substituted for their enslavers in the Colonial Army frequently took advantage
of the opportunity to escape to freedom; and further, a few slaveholders, in the spirit of celebration,
liberated their enslaved populations when the colonies declared their freedom from England (Russell et
al., 1992). As these newly freed Afrikans entered mulatto communities, concerns emerged amongst
mulattoes about losing their privileged status as buffers. In an effort to protect their status, mulatto
communities sought to clearly distinguish themselves from their pure Afrikan counterparts. They
established color-based distinctions and discouraged intermarrying and interacting across color lines.
The arrival of Creoles from the West Indies in the late 17
th
and early 18
th
century added another
troublesome dimension to the already challenging intra-group rivalries developing within the Afrikan
American community (Russell et al., 1992). Settling in the Charleston and New Orleans areas, the
Creoles brought with them deeply embedded attitudes about skin color from their relationships with the
French. Once in the United States they separated themselves from other Afrikans and only married
within their group.
Prior to the Civil War the majority of free Afrikans were mulattoes (Hughes & Hertel, 1990);
however, most mulattoes were enslaved. Their experiences of privilege in slavery contributed to the
ever widening wedge between darker and lighter skinned Afrikans. In reality their privileges did not
come without substantial physical and emotional costs. Often granted preferred positions as artisans,
craftsmen, valets, housekeepers, and cooks, while their darker-skinned peers were consigned to toiling
in the fields, their proximity to their enslavers, on many occasions, led to abuse including rape, physical
attacks, and beatings. Mulatto children and enslaved Afrikan women often evoked the jealousy of their
White mistresses who could clearly see the resemblance between these children and their husbands,
but blamed Afrikan women for these transgressions, frequently attacking them and their children in
extremely sadistic ways. On the other hand, sexual relationships between White mistresses, as well as
their daughters, and enslaved Afrikan men did occur as well. Sometimes these relationships resulted in
pregnancies with highly disruptive consequences, such as divorce and evacuation of the pregnant girls,
many of whom took refuge in the Black community. Afrikan men caught up in these relationships risked
castration, severe beatings, and death.
Another macabre feature of the color caste system was the commodification of mulatto women.
The commodification of Afrikans was an integral component of slavery; however, because mulatto
women were viewed as more attractive and desirable, they experienced some unique consequences.
At slave auctions they brought higher prices than their darker-skinned sisters and were often purchased
specifically for the purposes of sexual exploitation and increased economic benefit. Of course all Afrikan
women were potential victims of sexual molestation and it was rare for any to reach the age of 16
without having been molested by White enslavers or their sons. But, there were formalized processes of
sexual exploitation that emerged in regard to mulatto women. In New Orleans and Charleston, the
development of Quadroon balls served as sites for which mulatto women were specifically bred,
creating Quadroons (1/4
th
Black) and Octoroons (1/8
th
Black), for purchase by White men (Russell et al.,
1992). At these balls these women were auctioned off to the highest bidder becoming mistresses to
White men who, if they lost interest in them, would simply cast them off and purchase another. For
some, though, these were lifelong relationships that offered them certain privileges not granted to
other women of Afrikan ancestry.
Institutionalization of Color Divisions in the Black Community
After the Civil War, mulattoes created institutions and organizations designed to maintain the color
divisions within the Afrikan American community. The Bon Ton Society of Washington D.C. and the Blue
Veins of Nashville were social clubs that applied strict color standards for admission (Russell et al.,
1992). Though less characteristic today, Jack and Jill and the Links also maintained color barriers in their
clubs. Neighborhoods composed primarily of lighter-skinned Afrikan Americans arose in many large
cities, e.g., Chicago, Philadelphia, New York. Even churches designated specifically for lighter-skinned
Afrikan Americans sprung up. The split off of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (C.M.E.) in 1870
from the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) was based on skin color issues. The 20
th
century
saw the emergence of the “paper bag test” and the “comb test” which were used by color conscious
churches and some social organizations to maintain their lighter-skinned membership. The paper bag
test required potential members to place their arm in a paper bag. Those that were lighter than the
paper bag could gain admission, while being darker than the paper bag resulted in rejection. Some
churches painted their doors light brown communicating to those who were darker than the door that
they were not welcome. Still other churches hung a comb at their doors signaling that only those with
hair textures more like Whites should enter. Black preparatory schools and historically Black colleges
and universities such as Wilberforce, Howard, Fisk, Atlanta University, Morgan, Hampton, and Spelman
were known to discriminate against darker-skinned Afrikan Americans (Russell et al., 1992). The use of
color tests occurred at some schools. Selection of homecoming queens on Black campuses, even when
darker-skinned students were present, was typically limited to the very light complexioned coeds. In
1964 Howard University selected its first brown-skinned homecoming queen.
This history of privilege based upon skin color has led to the solidification of an elite group of
mulattoes and lighter-skinned Afrikan Americans who have served as the intellectual and political
leaders of the Afrikan American community (Hughes & Hertel, 1990). Certainly, darker skinned Afrikan
Americans have risen to positions of leadership, but the preponderance of the leadership in the Black
community has reflected the favoritism based upon color that has existed since slavery. The 1960s, with
the emergence of the Black Consciousness “Black is Beautiful” Movement, represented a temporary
reprieve from these dynamics; however, by the 1980s the benefits of this movement had significantly
waned. The effects of this long, complicated history of privilege and discrimination based upon skin
color persist and may be observed in Black women’s perceptions of themselves, relationships with other
Black women and Black men, mate selection, family dynamics, educational and occupational outcomes,
income levels, and their mental and physical health.
Black Women & Concepts of Beauty
Because it is with our bodies that we meet the world, the issue of physical appearance has been and
continues to be a source of great ambivalence, despair, and sometimes shame and pain for many
women of Afrikan ancestry. From birth, beliefs about the desirability of our skin color, hair texture, and
facial features are imposed on us and used to evaluate our worth and value. Whether subtly or directly
communicated, these messages begin to shape our self-perceptions. The messages come to us through
all forms of the mediaboth print and electronicthrough our interactions with family and friends, at
school, and in employment settings; and they consistently inform us that the more closely our physical
appearance resembles that of Caucasian women the more attractive, desirable, and acceptable we are.
In the Black community certain sayings and proverbs have been passed down that reflect our
experiences around skin color discrimination and our attitudes about beauty (see Figure X). Yet, even
when we grow up in families that exude Afrikan consciousness and appreciation of beauty from an
Afrikan-centered perspective, it is extremely difficult to escape the critical gaze of a society that
depreciates those members whose appearance differs from the projected standards of beauty.
DISCUSSION & DIALOGUE ACTIVITY
As women, what messages have you received about your
skin color, hair, features, body and its attractiveness &
desirability?
As men, what messages have you given women, e.g.,
sisters, girlfriends, etc. about their physical appearance,
beauty?
The torrential historical experiences of Afrikan Americans have contributed to a diverse range of
complexions within the Black community. At the extremes of this continuumthe very light and the
very darkthe greatest amount of hostility, jealousy, and resentment and rejection, disdain, and
malfeasance is directed. For Afrikan American women the intensity of the critical gaze on our physical
appearance is magnified by the prevailing presence of controlling images of Black womanhood. Images
of Black women as Mammies, Jezebels, Sapphires, Matriarchs, and Welfare mothers interact with
Eurocentric standards of beauty pressing us into two-dimensional figures, distorting our relationships,
often severely limiting our choices, and constricting opportunities (Collins, 2000; Hunter, 2005). Very
light-skinned Afrikan American women are both privileged and cursed as a result of their skin color.
Viewed as more attractive, these women are sought after by Black men, often envied and taunted by
their darker skinned sisters, and challenged to prove their blackness; while also receiving preferential
treatment in the education, business, and employment sectors, and in the print, TV, and film industries
(Hunter, 2005). On the other hand, their very dark-skinned sisters are frequently the victims of even
more hostile rejection, vicious teasing, and taunting often within their families (Boyd-Franklin, 1989),
the Afrikan American community, and from institutions in larger society (Hunter, 2005). For them there
is no salve of privilege to help them tolerate the pain and suffering which they regularly experience at
the hands of their families and communities as well as larger society. Black women fiction writers such
AFRIKAN AMERICAN PROVERBS & APHORISMS ON BEAUTY
What do these proverbs & aphorisms mean? What values do they reflect?
The Blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.
Beauty’s only skin deep, but love/ugly is to the bone.
Beauty is as beauty does.
If you’re white, you’re alright; if you’re yellow, you’re mellow; if you’re brown
stick around; but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back!
as Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Zora Neal Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Mary Helen
Washington (Maud Martha), April Sinclair (Coffee Will Make You Black), and countless others have
poignantly depicted the brutally destructive and psychologically undermining consequences of this
internalized racism on the lives of Black girls and women.
Doll Studies
The deleterious effects of living in a society with deeply rooted color biases manifest early in the lives of
its citizens. The ground-breaking doll studies implemented by Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark in the
1930s and 1940s revealed that Afrikan American children, when given a choice of a Black or a White
doll, exhibited preferences for the White doll who they identified as “nicer” and prettier. Replications
of the Clark doll study (Michael Barnes in the 1980s; Darlene Powell-Hopson & Derek Hopson in the
1980s, cited in Russell et al., 1992) have yielded similar findings. To gain a better understanding of the
dynamics that influenced Black children’s preferences for the White doll, the Hopsons (1988) carried out
an intervention with Black and White preschoolers. Following the initial presentation of the dolls to the
children, praise was offered to those children who selected the Black doll and they were allowed to sit in
the front with the researchers, while those who had selected the White doll were sent to the back of the
room. Retesting, 15 minutes later, demonstrated that the intervention significantly affected the
children’s subsequent choices of the dolls. A shift from 35% to 71% preference for the Black doll by
Black children occurred post-intervention (Powell-Hopson & Hopson, 1988). Furthermore, the
responses of the White children also showed significant increases in preferences for the Black doll,
though not as great as those for the Black children. The Hopsons research illustrated the importance of
social learning in shaping the children’s responses and indicated that these responses were malleable, at
least temporarily. Unfortunately, more recent studies using convenience samples continue to reveal
preferences for White images by children, both Black and White (www.youtube, Black doll, White doll,
2007; Skin Color, CNN, 2010). What all of these studies suggest is that awareness of the color hierarchy
within the United States occurs very early in life and that Afrikan American as well as Caucasian children
recognize that on this hierarchy darker skin occupies the lowest rung. This message continues to be
reinforced in every arena of American society. Only when, as the Hopsons’ research indicated, there is
systematic enculturation that acknowledges the beauty of blackness, are Black children able to
overcome this conditioning.
Use of Color Names
JeffriAnne Wilder’s (2011) qualitative research study of 40 Afrikan American women with varying skin
tones revealed that the color names of the 19
th
century still persist. In her research a three-tiered color
hierarchy ranging from light to medium brown to dark was identified. While color names were
associated with the extremes of the continuum, very few names were attributed to those in the middle.
The women in her sample described internalized scripts that they attributed to Afrikan American
women with lighter versus darker skin tones. More positive qualities were used to describe women with
lighter complexions—‘trustworthy, amiable, nonthreatening, beautiful, pretty; while darker
complexioned women were stereotypically labeled as ‘ghetto, loud, unattractive, nonintelligent,
intimidating, suspicious, and violent.’ Having skin tones in the medium range was somewhat protective
for Afrikan American women in that these women escaped much of the hostility, jealousy, and rejection
often experienced by their lighter and darker sisters. Focus group members affirmed the felt privilege of
lighter skinned Afrikan American women in the areas of employment, interracial friendships, and
relationships. While dark skinned women vigorously defended themselves against the onslaught of
engendered racial myths and stereotypes, light complexioned women indicated that they had to
regularly defend their blackness. The presence of a three-tiered color hierarchy was further confirmed
by the responses of those women classified as “medium brown.” Some of these women distanced
themselves from being identified as “dark” and acknowledged the feeling that they had a competitive
edge over their darker-skinned sisters. Wilder’s study provides further evidence of the continued
presence of colorism in contemporary Afrikan American communities, albeit expressed in more subtle
ways than in the past.
Effects of Colorism on Afrikan American Women’s Outcomes
Research examining relationships between skin color and educational attainment, employment, income,
and dating and marriage consistently demonstrates the built-in advantage accorded to Afrikan American
women of lighter complexions (Hall, 1995;Hunter, 2005). These findings emerge from Hunter’s analysis
of a data set of 1,310 Afrikan American women taken from the National Survey of Black Americans:
Skin color is a statistically significant predictor of education for Afrikan American women.
A one-year difference in educational levels of lighter vs darker-skinned Afrikan American
women who shared similar characteristics was found, with lighter-complexioned women
advantaged.
There were significant differences in income for very light vs. very dark Afrikan American
women. A difference of $2600 in the income of light brown vs. dark brown Afrikan
American women with similar credentials was obtained, with lighter-complexioned
women favored.
There were no differences in marriage rates across skin color; however, significant
differences in the spousal education of light vs. dark-complexioned Afrikan American
women were observed. On the average Afrikan American women selected husbands
who had .58 years less education than they had; however, with each gradation in skin
color from dark to light, there was a .28 increase in the years of schooling completed by
the spouse. Thus, having lighter complexion enabled Afrikan American women to
secure husbands with more education.
The above findings provide compelling support of the operation of white supremacy racism within
larger American society and its endorsement within the Afrikan American community. Further, this data
offers evidence of the effects of living in a dissonant environmental context, defined by Rosenberg
(1975, cited in Keith & Thompson, 2003) as one in which the salient characteristics of the individual
differ from the majority of those in the setting. “…for darker-skinned African Americans a dissonant
social context might be one in which both the culture and the majority of people support the belief that
lighter skin tone is preferred and held in high social esteem whereas darker skin tones carry low social
esteem” (Keith & Thompson, 2003, p. 119). In a patriarchal and capitalistic society dominated by the
Eurocentric worldview which elevates the physical over the spiritual and objectifies women, beauty
becomes the most important form of social capital that women possess (Hunter, 2005). Within this
environmental context the narrative of whiteness, which ascribes qualities of cleanliness, purity, beauty,
intelligence, and desirability to “white” skin tones, while defining blackness as it polar oppositedirty,
evil, ugly, unintelligent, and wholly undesirable, is dominant. Thus, in the beauty queue, White women
are privileged because of skin color; and lighter-skinned Afrikan American women are privileged over
their darker-skinned sisters in both White and Black communities. These patterns are so regularly
modeled and rewarded that the connection becomes unconscious for most citizens and behaviors that
support these pronouncements are enacted unquestioningly with the resultant negative outcomes for
darker-complexioned Afrikan American women.
Skin Color and Self-Esteem
Thompson and Keith (2001), in their analyses of data from the National Survey of Black Americans,
found a direct and negative relationship between skin tone and self-esteem for Afrikan American
women. As skin tone became darker, self-worth declined, even after sociodemographic and
socioeconomic variables were considered and body image and racial context assessed. The importance
of childhood interracial contact for the self-esteem of Afrikan American women was also indicated in
this research. For Afrikan American women who attended majority White grade schools, self-esteem
was lower. This finding is consistent with Rosenberg’s (1975, cited in Keith & Thompson, 2003) research
indicating that dissonant environments have harmful effects on self-esteem; however, the effects of
these dissonant settings were not differentiated by skin tone. Regardless of skin tone, Afrikan American
women’s feelings of self-worth were diminished when they attended predominantly White elementary
schools. The benefits of privilege typically accorded to lighter-skinned Afrikan American women were
not evident in these majority White settings. The researchers suggest that racism functions as an “equal
opportunity operator” exerting, with equivalence, its deleterious impact on lighter as well as darker
complexioned Afrikan American women.
The most troubling finding that emerges from this study (Thompson & Keith, 2001) concerns the
interaction of class and color. The combination of low socioeconomic status and dark complexion was
particularly lethal, resulting in significantly lowered self-esteem for darker-complexioned Afrikan
American women. The convergence of four forms of low status in the United States, quadruple
jeopardyrace, class, gender, and colortakes its toll on the self-esteem of Afrikan American women
of darker complexions. However, a more complex picture of how issues of skin color affect outcomes
surfaces when physical attractiveness is considered. While lighter complexions privileged Afrikan
American women considered unattractive, being attractive appeared to neutralize the disadvantages
associated with darker skin tone. There were observable salutary effects on the self-esteem of women
deemed unattractive with increases in the lightness of their skin tones. It is interesting to note that
with regard to self-efficacy—“the belief that one can influence events in their life or master situations
(Bandura, 1977, 1982, cited in Keith & Thompson, 2003)neither skin color nor attractiveness were of
import. Rather, educational attainment and income were predictors of Black women’s sense of self-
efficacy, suggesting that these strategies have been utilized to confront the barriers posed by colorism,
particularly for Afrikan American women with darker skin tones. Not surprisingly, the struggles that
Afrikan American women and girls experience with regard to skin color are replicated with regard to hair
texture.
Attitudes about Hair Texture
For many Afrikan American women, the fact that their hair is “kinky” adds insult to injury. Since hair
grooming is usually a daily activity, we are constantly reminded that our hair, in many instances, does
not conform to prevailing standards of what is considered “beautiful” hair projected in the media and,
more often than not, valued by our peers and families. Like lighter skin color, hair texture that more
closely resembles the texture of most Caucasians straightis prized by many Afrikan Americans and
considered “good” hair. In contrast, the more Afrikan in texture our hair is, the more it is judged as
“bad.” These evaluations are often internalized by Afrikan American girls and women influencing self-
worth as well as feelings of attractiveness. Statements, like those of Don Imus in 2007, referencing the
Afrikan American young women on Rutger’s basketball team competing for the national championship
as “nappy-headed hos,” are multi-purpose ‘zingers.’ Their intention is to inferiorize Black women so that
even when we are displaying excellence, we are castigated, prevented from fully enjoying our success,
and collectively given the message that we are unacceptable images of women.
The Hair & Beauty Industry
Every year Afrikan American women give billions of dollars to a hair care and beauty industry, which for
the most part, is no longer owned by people of Afrikan ancestry. We buy straight, often Indian or Asian
hair for the purposes of weave and extensions, and purchase wigs and hair care products primarily made
by non-Afrikan people. Our obsession with our hair has literally made the owners of these industries
rich. In order for these industries to continue to thrive it is essential that women of Afrikan ancestry be
thoroughly indoctrinated with the myth of the inferiority of our hair. We must be made to believe that
our hair in its natural state is inadequate, unattractive, and stylistically limited. We must be shielded
from the negative repercussions of using certain hair products, less we begin to reconsider our
investment. We must be bombarded with images of both Black and White women with long, flowing
hair. We must be reminded and sometimes taunted by our peers and family members about the
undesirability of our hair in its natural state. Print and electronic media are highly complicit in the
dissemination of these messages, including the few that are Black-owned.
Personal Experience
Growing up the most challenging aspect of my physical appearance was my hair. Like many
other girls in the 1960s my hair was straightened. However, the bane of my existence was
taking swimming class in high school. Fearing that our hair would “go back” if it got wet, the
Afrikan American girls would wrap their heads in plastic and then cover it with a swimming cap.
Much to our chagrin, often when we emerged from the pool, our hair had gotten wet and in
fact returned to its natural state. Feeling a sense of shame I would go through the remainder of
the day unwilling to look others in the eyes. With the onset of the “Black is Beautiful”
movement, after seeing images of Angela Davis and other Black women with Afros, I garnered
the courage to begin wearing my hair in a natural. This change in my appearance was not met
by favorable responses from my family; however, I stuck it out determined to overcome my
sense of shame about my hair and to embrace and accept all aspects of my physical
appearance.
Body Image & Beauty
Control of the black hair care and beauty industry has shifted from the hands of Afrikan Americans to
Europeans and Asians. One of the earliest innovators of black hair care was Madame C.J. Walker, and
she became the first woman millionaire in the United States. Her fortune was accrued through the
development, marketing, and sale of hair, scalp, and skin aids which targeted Black women’s concerns
Good Hair
by Stacey Lyn Evans
when I was a little girl
me and my friends had good hair
thick black
happi to be nappi
greased, fried,
laid to the side
rebellious, short, kinky and strong
twisted, braided, curly, snappy,
wavy and long
we had good hair, cuz we had
black girl’s hair
t
Journaling Activity: Hair Story
What is your hair story?
Describe your feelings about your hair.
If your hair were telling the story, what
would she say? How does she think
you feel about her? How does she
think you treat her? What changes
would she suggest that you make in
your treatment of her and your
attitude towards her?
about their hair and skin coloration. While Ms. Walker is often accused of capitalizing on the insecurities
that Black women held about their physical appearance, she states that she was merely offering Black
women products that would enhance their natural beauty.
Understanding the motivations of Afrikan American women who perm their hair, and/or wear
weaves, extensions, and wigs is fraught with difficulty. On the one hand, arguments can be made that
they have internalized society’s attitudes which denigrate natural Afrikan textured hair; however, on
other hand, there are many personal, political, social, and economic factors that impinge on the decision
making that Afrikan American women make about their hairstyles. Some of these factors include ease of
care, work demands, desire for variety, and desire to please those closest to us (Okazawa-Rey,
Robinson, & Ward, 1987). For the sake of our healthboth physical and emotionaldisentangling these
motivating factors is essential. More and more evidence is amassing that reveals the harmful effects of
the use of certain chemicals to relax and perm our hair. When we make decisions to relax and perm our
hair in the face of this evidence, are we trading our physical health for social acceptability? Are we
attempting to manage feelings of shame while simultaneously risking our physical well-being? Are we
buying into a racially gendered view of what beauty is and reinforcing the existing Eurocentric standards
of beauty? And what of the economically debilitating effects that this behavior has on the Black
community? By pouring billions of dollars into the hair and beauty product industry, again most of
which is not owned by people of Afrikan ancestry, are we stripping the Black community of resources
needed for its stability and progress?
Body Image & Beauty
"BLACK women are less attractive than white, Asian and Native American Women. And there's
scientific proof."
In a 2011, accusations of “peddling racist psuedo-science were lodged against Psychology Today by the
Association of Black Psychologists and individuals across the United States, when it published the above
claims in a blog by controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa’s (May15,
2011). The blog entitled, “Why are Black women rated less physically attractive than other women, but
Black men are rated better looking than other men?” created a nation-wide stir in the Black community
and among some feminists. Yet, this attack on the physical appearance of Black women is only the most
recent of many. One of the earliest attacks on the image of Afrikan women is recounted in the tragic
story of Sara Baartman, also pejoratively known as the Hottentot Venus (Baker, 1981). Baartman’s
misadventure begins in 1814 when she is persuaded by an Englishman to travel to Europe where, he
promises, she will be able to earn money exhibiting herself. Instead when she reaches Paris, she is
abandoned to an animal exhibitor and exhibited under the name of “La Venus hottentote.” On exhibit
throughout England, she is persuaded to remove her clothing and thereby, paintings of her naked image
are obtained. Her near nude body was exposed to the gawking gazes of European men, women, and
children who threw money at her, and were both fascinated and titillated by the size of her buttocks
which they likened to animalistic qualities. By the end of the year she succumbed, supposedly to an
undescribed inflammatory disease; however, her early demise estimated to be around 26 years of age,
was likely precipitated by the inhumane treatment she received. Her abuse continued after death at
which point she was dissected and her genitalia were placed on display in France. In 1817, Cuvier made
a presentation focusing on her anatomy, displaying her genitalia to the audience, and exposing her
enlarged labia minora. Her genitalia remained a part of an exhibit in France until 1985
(http://icarusfilms.com/new99/hottento.html). Baartman has been cast as a symbol of the savage
sexuality and racial inferiority of women of Afrikan heritage. Rap videos are saturated with images that
associate Black women with savage sexuality which is a continuation of the objectification of Black
women noted in Sarah Baartman’s tragic story.
In spite of the saturation of negative images of Afrikan American women as ‘mammies, jezebels, and
sapphires,’ in the media, for the most part Black women have been able to maintain relatively positive
views of our bodies. Our ability to resist the dominant emphasis on thinness may be attributed to the
fact that Afrikan American men are attracted to the “thick” bodies of Afrikan American women. Full hips
and curved bodies have evoked the praise and admiration of Black men. “Big is beautiful” is a
resounding echo heard in the Black community accentuated through such references as “phat, big
boned, healthy, thick, and brick house” which idealize the body types of large Afrikan American women
(Alleyne, 2004). Black female comedians, like MoNique, have normalized “big-is-beautiful” in the
attempt to empower overweight and obese women; however, simultaneously, this cultural preference
minimizes the health risks associated with obesity which is a significant problem for Afrikan American
women. Alleyne (2004) suggests that the social tolerance of obesity in the Afrikan American community
may be an influential factor in its acceptance by Afrikan American adolescent girls. National Health and
Nutrition Examination Surveys conducted in 1976-1980, 1988 - 1994, and 1999 2000 revealed obesity
prevalence rates respectively of 31.0%, 39.1%, and 50.8%, for adult Black females over the age of 20
(Alleyne, 2004). For complex reasons, many related to ecological factors such as living in food deserts,
Afrikan American women, wrestle with issues of being overweight and obese. Our body image has been
a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Afrikan American men praise us for it but they also collude
with White men in our objectification, dissecting us into parts much like Sarah Baartman. On the other
hand, though the majority of Afrikan American women reject the thinness ideal presented by larger
society, being overweight or obese frequently leads to chronic physical health conditions and sometimes
reflects unresolved psychological issues that need our urgent attention. Adopting an Afrikan-centered
concept of beauty may provide a corrective to the damaging effects that internalization of Eurocentric
values and standards of beauty have exerted on Afrikan American women.
Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman (before 1790 29 December 1815)
[1]
(also
spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at
least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show
attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot
Venus"Hottentot" as the then-current name for the Khoi people,
now considered an offensive term,
[2]
and "Venus" in reference to the
Roman goddess of love. (Wikipedia)
Afrikan Cultural Identity & Attitudes about Beauty
Within an Afrikan cultural context, character plays a prominent role in the assessment of beauty. As one
Afrikan American proverb suggests: “Beauty is as beauty does.” Utilizing the Afrikan worldview, which
stresses a diunital approach (both/and), a single monolithic standard of beauty is untenable. Nature
with its phenomenal diversity provides a model of the range and variety that beauty may assume. Thus,
a lily is no more beautiful than a rose; an oak tree no more beautiful than a palm tree; and an opal no
more beautiful than a pearl. Each is beautiful in its own right and each has unique value and plays a
special role in nature. For Afrikan people, particularly prior to colonization, beauty had no meaning
outside of the group. Comparisons across groups were therefore meaningless. Beauty was “being a
functioning being who strives for harmony.” Thus, from a traditional Afrikan perspective, no one is
inherently beautiful because beauty is dynamic and contextual. Worth and value are assessed on the
basis of one’s character and contribution to the community, not their physical appearance.
When Afrikan American women succumb to Eurocentric standards of beauty, it results in denying our
unique essence, our value, and our authenticity as Afrikan women and perforce, indicates the
acceptance of an inferior status. By showing appreciation for our Afrikan features, we resist oppression
and challenge the status quo. Several research studies support the benefits of African self-
consciousness (ASC), a concept developed by Kambon (1998; 2012,) that measures the extent to which
people of Afrikan ancestry exhibit a positive orientation towards their identity as Afrikans. ASC has been
found to correlate with a number of prosocial and healthy outcomes among Afrikan Americans
(Kambon, 2012). In a study of skin color attributions, Chambers, Clark, Dantzler, and Baldwin (1994)
found that those individuals demonstrating high ASC associated significantly more positive attributes to
faces with Afrikan features than those with medium or low ASC. On the other hand, individuals with high
ASC did not make negative attributions to faces with few Afrikan features. Azibo’s (1983) research
revealed a relationship between strong Black personality scores and preferences for Black photos.
Falconer and Neville’s (2000) study of 124 Afrikan American women attending an HBCU indicated that
ASC, skin color satisfaction, and body mass significantly predicted appearance evaluation. This study
noted a positive correlation between ASC and Afrikan American women’s perceptions of their bodies.
Although more research is needed, these studies provide supportive evidence of the relationship
between an Afrikan-centered orientation and positive self-evaluations by Afrikan Americans.
Overcoming Internalized Racist Attitudes about Beauty
Just as Powell-Hopson & Hopson’s study revealed, it is possible to modify attitudes about our physical
appearance by changing the reward structures and by modeling positive responses to Afrikanity. To do
this we must take all or some of the following steps:
Significantly reduce the amount of time you spend viewing television, particularly shows which
reinforce Eurocentric notions of what is beautiful.
Never say: “She’s pretty to be so dark.” Such remarks are not only uncomplimentary, but they
reinforce the idea that being dark-skinned is unattractive.
Never put anyone down or tease them about their skin color.
Cease using color names such as “redbone, and referring to people as “black and ugly” as if
being “black” automatically indicates that one is also “ugly” and these two attributes are
inseparable.
Surround yourself with images of Afrikan peoplewalls at home, in your workplace, etc.
Buy magazines that present positive images of people of Afrikan heritage.
Read books and stories about the significant contributions that people of Afrikan heritage have
made to children.
Stop saying: “S/he has good/bad hair. Recognize that all hair that grows on your head is good.
Say complimentary things to darker-skinned women and girls about their physical appearance.
Challenge friends and family members who make negative remarks about other people of
Afrikan ancestry based on skin color, hair texture or the presence of Afrikan physical features.
Insist that educational curricula, at the elementary, middle and secondary as well as the college
levels includes courses on Afrikan /Afrikan American history and literature and the contributions
of ancient Afrikans to science and math, and demand that these courses occupy the same status
as courses with a Eurocentric focus.
Okazawa and colleagues (1987) suggests that “nothing short of structural change will permanently alter
our social relations in this society (p. 101). These researchers suggest that Afrikan American women
must actively challenge the social foundations of white supremacy racism in this society. To do this, they
indicate, requires a positive view of ourselves, an appreciation of the diversity amongst us, and
recognition of the history that brought us to this place.
Concepts of Beauty Exercise by Dr. Jessica
Answer these questions:
Have you ever taken a good look in the mirror, seeing your soul from your
eyes? Do you like what you see or represent?
Are you comfortable in your own skin?
Can you take a good look in the mirror and feel adoration and love for
yourself?
Essentially, can you see the love that you possess within your spirit and how it
showers downs and projects its image into the world?
ACTIVITY
Develop Pledge cards which contain a list of behaviors/actions that
individuals/organizations can implement to eliminate colorism and negative attitudes about
the physical appearance of people of Afrikan ancestry. Give a card to several of your friends
and to family members and request that they identify those behaviors/actions that they are
willing to engage in over the next year to reduce the negative attitudes and treatment of
people based upon skin color, hair texture, facial features, body shape, etc. Have each
person sign the pledge and publish the signed pledges in the school newspaper, on
Facebook or other social media sites.
References
Alleyne, S. (2004). Obesity among Black adolescent girls: Genetic, psychosocial, and cultural influences.
Journal of Black Psychology, 30, 344-365.
Ani, M. (1994). Yurugu: An African-centered critique of European cultural thought & behavior. Trenton,
NJ: Africa World Press, Inc.
Armah, A.K. (1979). Two Thousand Seasons. London: Heinemann Books.
Azibo, D. A. (1983). Perceived attractiveness and the Black personality. Western ]ourna1 of Black
Studies, 7, 229-238.
Baker, J.R. (1981). The ‘Hotentot Venus.’ In Race. Athens, GA: Foundation for Human Understanding,
pp. 313-319.
Black doll, White doll (2007). www.youtube
Boyd-Franklin, N. (1989). Black families in therapy: a multisystems approach. New York: The Guilford
Press.
Chambers, J. W., Clark, T., Dantzler, L., & Baldwin, J. A. (1994). Perceived attractiveness, facial
features, and African self consciousness. Journal of Black Psychology, 20, 305-324.
Collins, P.H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of
empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Evans, S.L. (2001). Good hair. In Ima Ebong (Ed.) Black hair: Art, Style, and Culture. New York, NY:
Universe Publishing, 73.
Falconer, J.W. & Neville, H. A. (2000). African American college women’s body image: an examination of
body mass, African self-consciousness, and skin color satisfaction. Psychology of Women Quarterly,
24, 236-243.
Hall, C.C. I. (1995). Beauty is in the soul of the beholder: psychological implications of beauty & African
American women. Cultural Diversity & Mental Health, 1(2), 125-137.
Hughes, M. & Hertel, B.R. (1990). The significance of color remains: a study of life chances, mate
selection, and ethnic consciousness among Black Americans. Social Forces, 68(4), 1105-1120.
Hunter, M.H. (2005). Race, gender, and the politics of skin tone. New York: Routledge.
Kambon, K.K.K. (2012). African/Black psychology in the American context: An African-centered approach
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nd
Ed). Tallahassee, FL: Nubian Nation Publications.
Kambon, K.K.K. (1998). African/Black psychology in the American context: An African-centered approach
Tallahassee, FL: Nubian Nation Publications.
Keith, V.M. & Thompson, M.S. (2003). Color matters: the importance of skin tone for African American
women’s self-concept in Black and White America. In D.R. Brown & V.M. Keith (Eds.), In
& Out of Our Right Minds. New York: Columbia University Press.
Okazawa-Rey, M., Robinson, T., & Ward, J. V. (1987). Black women and the politics of skin color and hair.
Women & Therapy, 6(1), 89-102. Retrieved from
http://search.proquest.com/docview/216253869?accountid=10913
Pal, D. (April 9, 2012). An intimate wash that exposes our dirty psyche. Mumbai Boss.
(http://mumbaiboss.com/2012/04/09/an-intimate-wash-that-exposes-our-dirty-psyche/)
Powell-Hopson, D. & Hopson, D. (1988). Implications of doll color preferences among Black preschool
children and White preschool children. Journal of Black Psychology, 14 (2), 57-63.
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http://icarusfilms.com/new99/hottento.html
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