It’s no secret that the impact of racism embedded in the western standards of beauty has had a detrimental effect on how black women and black people in general, view themselves. Our view of what beauty is has been impaired, and with efforts invested in reclaiming our truth, there are also long term-detrimental effects which are found in leaving out other black women outside of this emancipation movement.
Black women are reclaiming their place in mainstream media through making what was previously regarded as ugly, as beautiful and “mainstream”. In terms of hair, knots and afros were considered “ugly” and “undesirable”.
In South Africa, apartheid had women relaxing their hair to pass the much dreaded “pencil test” were the ease or difficulty of a pencil passing through your hair determined how “black” or “white” you are, and how much benefit or suffering you will then experience. Another aspect that is closely related to the pencil test, is that of skin tone. Over the years, black women have been conditioned to equating fair skin with beauty. The further away you are from the colour spectrum (darker) the uglier you are considered to be. Mainstream media has pushed this idea for years, marginalizing dark skinned women. Subliminally, the western culture conditioned us to this standard of beauty through light skinned blue eyed dolls that young ladies play with, and light skinned media figures. This subliminal conditioning dates back to 1947 were Clark and Clark conducted an experiment on 253 black children between 3 and 7 years, were two thirds of the children who were presented with identical dolls with one white and one black, preferred the white doll. The experiment, which was later conducted in 2006 and later post 2010, revealed the same results- children preferred the white doll and regarded the white doll as “prettier” than the black doll. Young girls grow into their adult life with the belief that light skinned women are more attractive. The idea of beauty being associated with a lighter skin tone permeates throughout one’s life course, all the way to adulthood.
In terms of skin tone and family dynamics, a recent study regarding family relations between black children with different skin tones revealed that while lighter skin was positively related to higher levels of pride in racial identity, darker-skinned individuals reported lower self-esteem. Many black females with light skinned siblings are familiar with the phrase “the light skinned one is prettier”. Furthermore, a study by Umberson and Hughes showed that from high school to adulthood, the stereotypes are reinforced by institutions, including the working class. The study shows that light-skinned black women are given preferential treatment from opportunities at school to opportunities at work.
On the other hand, over the years, the emergence of dark skinned media figures has redefined the perception of what beauty is, through women such as Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Kelly Rowland and Alek Wek becoming billboards of self-awareness and a fresh perspective on beauty as according to the black community.
Though perspectives are shifting and mainstream media is evolving, were does that leave other light-skinned black women, who are then subjected to rejection by their fellow dark skinned counterparts, because they represent what commercial and mainstream media is about. Not every black experience is identical. While we are all underprivileged, it would be irresponsible to deny that certain groups within the black community are more disadvantaged than others. How can we then, invalidate their “blackness” based on something they did not choose for themselves? Light-skinned actors have expressed the discrimination that comes with being light-skinned as it is attributed to privilege. The backlash received from the innate circle of black women to invalidate their “blackness” can be seen in the colloquial narrative of “yellow bones” assumed to having a better life whereas they are confronted with having to prove that there is no privilege that comes with being light skinned.
It is pivotal that we are clear that, redefining beauty as according to us black people does not disintegrate how black women relate to each other. Furthermore, this exercise is all inclusive – that is, it considers all black women and disregards no one. To go and call a light skinned woman “not black enough” or a “false representation of what a black woman is” indeed disintegrates our community of women- just as Apartheid could have wished. It speaks of how we view ourselves as rivals instead of a community of women who have a firm and accurate grasp of what being a black woman is. Lest we forget, in the eyes of any other race, irrespective of where we fall on the colour spectrum, we are black.
“Black Girls with dark skin have been reviled & rejected by society at large, and Light Girls have been subject 2 envy. Let’s just STOP!”— Angela Short (January 20, 2015)