Wednesday, March 19, 2008

UPDATE: Women's History Month blog carnival

A girl like me

If you missed Nicole's great post about the tensions colorism creates among women, check it out here. It occured to me after reading this comment to the essay:
Speaking as a white person here, my first reaction is to think this stuff is just plain bizarre. I suppose it's always that way, when you're told about a form of prejudice which it would never occur to you to participate in. I want to say, "What's the point in _that_?" And yet, what's the point in any kind of prejudice? I suppose that for just about every one of us, there's some category of people that we'd be willing to hurt.

...that many people outside of the black community may not understand colorism or even know that it exists.

There is no point to colorism. It has roots in slavery when lighter blacks, sometimes the children of their very owners, were seen as better and given preferential treatment. And it festered even after slavery, as Eurocentric physical characteristics (light skin, straight hair, narrow nose, etc.) continued (and still continue) to be seen as preferred.

As ALL women know, rigid definitions of beauty are particularly damaging to us. After all, we are the ones whose worth is too often measured by our beauty. For black women and other women of color this presents a problem, as in our society it is white women who are considered the definition of beauty and femininity. Most in the black community have absorbed these standards and often denigrate each other based on proximity to the standard of whiteness.

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Kenneth Clark completed a landmark study in support of the Brown vs. Board of Education case. The "doll test" study illuminated how black children absorbed messages of low worth based on physical characteristics. Recently, a very smart young woman, Kiri Davis, just 17, conducted the test again and received similar sad results:
In the 1954 test, Clark showed children a black doll and a white doll and asked black children which doll they preferred. The majority chose the white. The findings were not surprising for the time. In the summer of 2005, Kiri Davis, a high-school teen, sat with 21 black kids in New York and found that 16 of them liked the white doll better.

"Can you show me the doll that you like best?" Davis asked a black girl in the film. The girl picked the white doll immediately. When asked to show the doll that "looks bad," the girl chose the black doll. But when Davis asked the girl, "Can you give me the doll that looks like you?" the black girl first touched the white doll and then reluctantly pushed the black doll ahead. Read full text at Diversity Inc...

See Kiri Davis' excellent film, A Girl Like Me, below. Tell me your heart doesn't break seeing little black children choosing the white doll as the pretty doll, the good doll and the nice doll, over and over again, while finding the one that looks like them to be ugly and bad.


Nicole said...

Tami, thank you for the video. It's both heartwarming and heartbreaking to hear young women who are self aware enough to vocalize those feelings. It brings back memories - at 8 I was walking around with a clothespin on my nose, praying that would make it smaller. It also hurt to see the small children not only pick the white doll repeatedly, but acknowledge that they were doing so because of color. It seems like our kids are getting the message that they're worthless at younger and younger ages.

womensspace said...

Tami and Nicole, thanks for your powerful and insightful posts. I have a million responses. Being concise is never my forte!

Many years ago now I first heard this rhyme: "If you're light, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around, if you're black, get back." I understood it, of course, but I also heard it in a context that I think might be comparatively rare for most people now which is discouraging. Like you say, Nicole, it's as if things have gone backwards instead of forwards in some ways and particularly, I think, for girls and women. When I first heard of and discussed that rhyme, probably late 60s, early 70s, it was at the height of the "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" movement, a time of really thorough and ongoing analysis in leftist/civil rights/progressive circles at least, of the "invisible" racism in words, language, myth, metaphor,beauty standards, etc. It was a time where black people (and some white people) displayed posters, images, paintings, art depicting black women (and men) with "Afros", wearing their hair "natural," and presenting in ways which were an intentional and conscious rejection of white-centric-ness and white beauty standards. There was a real, very practical decentering of whiteness going on then that was organic and had an amazing energy, very inspiring to anyone who identified with the progressive/revolutionary politics of the times. After my freshman year at the University of Washington in 1970, I spent a summer in Cincinnati, Ohio as a volunteer in the inner city the summer following race riots. I was from the Pacific Northwest where comparatively speaking, there were not many black people, and in Cincinnati, there was a large, thriving black community, many many people wearing daishikis and Afros, palpable pride, many Black nationalists. It was an exhilarating and inspiring time, including for me, though I was white. There was tons of writing then about the importance of rejecting white-centricness and white beauty standards, white standards, period, all of the coercions of whiteness. I have held in my memory since that time a poem I read written by, I think, Toni Cade Bambera, but I could be wrong, where she writes eloquently about being a black woman along the lines of, "Our hair is too nappy, our noses are too broad, our backsides are too big, our feet are too flat, our mouths are too loud, we are just too damn much for everybody." Obviously, her poem is so much more than that, but it's significant that I have remembered it and carried it with me all of these years, it made such an impression on me. It was so exciting and amazing to me to see black women (and men) throwing off all of those shackles and just presenting, really, amazingly beautifully in ways that are possible only for black women in the amazing diversity of blackness to be beautiful. I will admit that at one point I gave myself a very tight permanent trying to have an "afro" myself -- and yeah, I know it was dumb, and it didn't "work," and I was co-opting and I only did it when I was very young -- but I thought this was such an elegant and, I don't know, proud, dignified presentation. As a blonde white woman I had the theoretically ideal hair, but I subjected it all of the time to all sorts of treatments like all women do, whatever our race, setting it on juice cans the way we did back then to make it really straight, perming it, ironing it with a regular clothes iron (!) (I am so dating myself), lightening it with peroxide, you name it. To see black women throwing off all of that stuff, cutting their hair very short, wearing the huge hoop earrings, or letting it grow naturally-- it was just empowering. And again, this was a time when everywhere if you were progressive or lefty you were reading about the way blackness/darkness was made to equal bad/inferior with lightness/whiteness made to be superior, and so a lot of effort went into challenging and confronting all of this. It's in this context that I first learned about colorism.

But it's like everything has gone backwards now, honestly. For women of whatever race, there is the dieting, the hair straightening, the cosmetic surgeries, the tanning, the full sets, waxings, bleachings, shavings. There isn't so much anymore the reveling in being who you are, in flouting convention and as we used to say "fascist beauty standards".

I know I have watched as my girls have used irons to straighten their amazingly lovely curls (that white women pay big bucks to try to imitate), and have done other things, I see them tanning, though their skin is already brown and lovely, one or two of them have experimented with dying their hair very dark. They have often experienced what you describe, Nicole, the "hoop earrings" treatment. One of my daughters who wants to attend an all women college for black women in Atlanta has been warned that because she is mixed race, she may have difficulties there (very discouraging to her). I don't know what happened to the days when it felt empowering and exhilarating to be oneself unmodified and confident enough to appreciate all of the many ways of being beautiful. I know it was no utopia and there was still plenty of colorism but the sense was that it was part of an old world that was fading away. Anymore I just wonder. It just feels as though so much has been lost.

Well, that's enough for now.


Tami said...


I did the towel or poncho over the head thing, for long, luxurious, flouncy hair.


Thank YOU for your insight. I often wonder what happened to that Black is Beautiful era as well. I wasn't born until late 1969, so I didn't get to participate (although their is a baby picture of me with an awesome afro puff), but it seemed like we were on the right track and then derailed somewhere with the dawning of the Reagan administration. (so much derailed during the Reagan administration)

As angry as I am at "society" and the media for perpetuating a narrow standard of beauty, I am also angry at black people,and particularly black women, for not waking up and seeing past it. It always strikes me, when I listen to the stories of other black women who wear their hair natural, that the majority of denigrating comments they receive are from other black people and specifically other WOMEN. We've got to do better, because if we don't lead the charge, no one will.

Incidentally, I hear that college that your daughter wants to attend (I'm pretty sure that I know what it is) has grown more conscious of late. I hope that is true and that it would be a great experience for her.

Anonymous said...

This video, seen then, again and again over the years, breaks my heart all over again. Indeed.

I have a light skinned but 'coloured' doll sitting just a few feet from me. Next to a toy wooden train. The doll has dusky skin, but blonde hair. This doll came from Sweden, so I'm not sure what their purpose was but I bought her in some desperate but ineffectual attempt to even things out. She is in perfect shape, because the little girls she was bought for knew she wasn't like them and really never played with her. Many of us tried but the trains and the 'coloured' dolls didn't always take. Children want to go with the flow. Black children picking white dolls, and white children pushing the black doll to one side.

Thanks for this post.


Linda D said...

Yes, that is indeed heartbreaking. I wish I could tell these young people that for my entire life, I have envied their beautiful skin tones, and wished I were NOT pale, washed out and white.


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