On race and beauty

smaller bird shot

This week I watched a seriously disturbing video where 8 black preschooler children are asked a series of questions about two dolls – one black and one white.  The results are horrific indeed when each of the children when asked which is the ‘pretty’ doll points to the white doll and which is the ‘ugly’ doll points to the black one. Furthermore when asked which is the ‘bad’ doll they point out the black doll again and of course the white doll is the ‘good’ one. Most upsetting of all, the video ends with a gorgeous little girl being asked which of the two dolls is most like her and she points to the ‘black’ doll having previously identified it as the ‘ugly’ and ‘bad’ doll.  If you want to watch it click here.  It is more than uncomfortable viewing – it’s heartbreaking – and you have to ask where these children who are not even yet at school have digested these messages into beliefs at such a young age.

Also this week I read an article on ‘Why black women don’t date white men’ – rather than stress that black women do not fancy white men (though this was one of the points made) the majority of the article pointed to the fact that black women assume white men don’t find them attractive.  As a mixed race women who has mostly dated white men I don’t agree with most of the points, however, unfortunately I could to a certain extent identify when I thought back to my formative years.

Growing up in Milton Keynes in the late eighties and early nineties my sister and I were two of only 3 mixed race people in our year and only five black kids! Despite my sister and I not being unattractive girls the boys at school would never really entertain the idea of ‘asking out’ a girl who wasn’t white.  This was an unspoken rule but understood by all.  You could be mates with a brown or white girl but you mustn’t fancy her!  This quite obviously gave me a message that I was unattractive to boys – particularly white boys as out side of school we would often be approached by black guys.  Maybe there were some boys that secretly fancied us but they would never say.  It just wasn’t trendy or cool to fancy girls of colour (for want of a better phrase).  The ironic thing is that now, twenty years later, Milton Keynes is a melting pot of races with every other child per class being mixed race!

My mum, who is white, got pregnant with my twin sister and I at just 18 years old – she’d only seen her first black person in real life when she was 16! So are some people inherently more accepting and less prone to judgement and prejudice?  But I digress, my point is it seemed to be long before accepted that black guys could date white girls before white guys could date black girls – Although I must say my mum tells me of incidents where black women accused her of ‘stealing one of their men’ when she was dating my dad.  I remember being extremely proud that my very existence symbolised two races whose history was one of hate and conflict coming together in the ultimate act of love.

Strangely, even now I have to say I have a weird admiration and respect for the white guy who will approach, let alone date, a black or mixed race girl.  I’m sure this is leftover from my childhood views when i would be secretly impressed by any white guy that would act on their own perception of beauty and attraction and not what they felt everyone else thought they should be attracted to.

The media has a lot to answer for.  Beauty’s description has long been pale-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and slim-figured.  But why do we, both men and women, so readily consume this fallacy?  Her description is so opposite to that of the black woman that no wonder she has struggled to embrace her own beauty let alone celebrate it.

At University for a Media Arts project I did an essay titled ‘BLACK BEAUTY: Changing ideas of beauty and ideal femininity’ so I guess the subject has occupied space in my mind for some time.  Anyway, in the essay I concluded:

The origins of the exclusion of black women from the arena of beauty lie in the mix of racism and sexism.  Early representations from pre-colonial times were consolidated by the treatment of black women in slavery.  Throughout the years, these representations along with the white western woman as the ideal beauty, have been reinforced by the media.  However, these images and ideals have been forced to change in recent years.  This has mainly been due to the progression of the status of black people as a whole in society and also, and to a large extent, individual black women breaking through into the fashion industry.  Society today is much more mixed and this is beginning to be reflected in the media and the fashion industry.  At last there is increasingly a place and a platform for diversity where difference is celebrated rather than condemned.

What I find so interesting about all this is the fact that we let the media and other people define beauty for us.  We let them tell us what beauty is and anything outside of that is ‘unusual’, freakish even.  Being mixed race has always forced me to celebrate rather than fear difference and I am thankful that now it is my default setting for most things – I seek out and am intrigued by and attracted to the unusual, things ‘outside of the box’, challenges to the ‘norm’ and those that buck the trend.

We all need educating on this issue of beauty – true beauty that is – men and women, black and white. If beauty is really in the eye of the beholder then let the beholder look through their own eye without being forced to wear a pair of fake 3-D glasses that distorts their view!