Sunday, September 25, 2011

Light Skin & Straight Hair: Black Women and Internalized Racism

I have low self-esteem and I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type...Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.

- Lil' Kim, Rapper

I was in the sixth grade when my mother finally gave me the green light to put a relaxer in my hair. I was so excited because I would not have to deal with my mom pulling and tugging my hair every morning before school. I remember how envious I was of the other black girls who had been getting relaxers since elementary school. In a sense, a girl getting her hair relaxed was similar to a “rite of passage” of sorts, but I am uncertain of what we became thereafter. Appealing? Beautiful? Accepted? A little bit more white? Once I had my hair relaxed, people suddenly began noticing me as if my natural hair had somehow made me invisible. They affirmed my existence...and I liked it even though I did not understand it. At the time, I was not aware of black peoples’ obsession with long, straight hair (as well as lighter skin tones).

Fast forward six years later: I am walking home from school and notice a little girl who could not have been more than five years old with relaxed hair. For some reason, the sight made me extremely uncomfortable. On the other hand, I had a relaxer, so who was I to say that a little girl could not get one? Age was nothing but a number, right? I suppose what was truly upsetting was the awareness of how painful (and dangerous) relaxers could be and it seemed cruel to make a five-year old suffer through that for straight, “manageable” hair. What the hell was the mother thinking?

Another seven years go by: I am reading a chapter entitled, “Black Beauty and Black Power: Internalized Racism” from Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks. I have been reading a lot of her lately and after each chapter in one of her books, I have to stop and put the book down. I have to give my mind time to process her words because the issues that she chooses to discuss are so relevant.

In the chapter, hooks discusses how black peoples’ standards of beauty have been warped by years of racism (1995). In this society which overvalues European standards, white women are the archetypes of beauty. Black women have come to believe that the straighter their hair is and the lighter their skin tones, then the more beautiful and desirable they are. It is a direct result of how whites preferred to interact with blacks who had lighter skin and this preference remained in the psyches of blacks and was imitated in their communities (hooks, 1995). The oppressed became the oppressor of the already oppressed (how ironic).

Blacks realized that to have light skin was an advantage. As a result, they developed a color-caste system amongst themselves (hooks, 1995). This color-caste system places light-skinned blacks at the top of the hierarchy and those with darker skin tones were given the bottom rung. The media is one of the main culprits who perpetuate this idea, including both white and black television networks, screenplay writers, directors, etc. Entertainers such as, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Drake, and Halley Berry are all revered in the music and movie industry for different reasons, but they all have one common characteristic: light skin tones. Entertainers who have darker complexions and still receive media attention, but they have to be exceptionally talented: Kanye West, Gabourey Sidibe, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, and Jamie Foxx.

Notice that the successful entertainers with darker skin tones, except for one, are male. Sexism is internalized racism’s right-hand man in the black community. It is acceptable for men to have darker skin tones, while for women it is not (hooks, 1995). As a matter of fact, darker skin tones for men are equated with power and strength while women with dark skin are treated as if they have been cursed (hooks, 1995). Unless they have some DD cups and a Buffy "The Body" ass (view at your own discretion...her derriere is no joke) to go along with it they are deemed undesirable and unwanted (hooks, 1995; Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005). Their value is literally being gauged by the amount of melanin in their skin.

As these messages furrow into our psyche, we begin to evaluate ourselves in these terms and devaluate our existence when we are unable to meet the standards (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2005). The result is internalized oppression along with internalized racism. Take a look at a magazine stand and see how many dark-skinned women are on the covers. With the exception of Essence, Sister2Siter, Sophiticate's Black Hair, Jet, and several other African-American publications, all the women are usually white (maybe a Latina once in a while). The black women who do get a covers on magazines like Elle and Vogue are light-skinned, such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. So, it is not surprising that black girls and black women strive to emulate these looks.
I do not say any of this because I am “hating” on light-skinned women or because I have something against the light-skinned celebrities I have mentioned. I think that all black women are beautiful, whether they have light or dark skin. And anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Beyoncé, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna (although I cannot really stand to listen to them for too long these days). We always become defensive when it comes to this issue. In regards to the sensitive issue of hair, black women tend to claim that we just want to “change our style” or “be different” or “manage our hair” (I thought you had to manage all hair types) when constantly getting relaxers or weaves. Women will say anything to ignore the fact that many of us do not feel beautiful with our naturally curly or “kinky” hair. We do not want to confront our subconscious self-hatred.

Perhaps we would be more open to the discussion if we realized that the European standard of beauty has found its way into numerous, if not all, cultures. Most notable is India where lighter-skinned Indians are also deemed as beautiful. I watch a lot of Bollywood movies and I have yet to notice a dark-skinned Indian in them. All of the women have light skin and light eyes resembling Aishwarya Rai (she really is gorgeous). The only exception was an actress who was playing the role of an undesirable, dark-skinned girl whose parents could not find her suitor because of it (seriously?). She was portrayed as loud, silly, and a bit awkward. But her cousin, who had European-like features, was portrayed as beautiful, sweet, elegant, and graceful. Maybe we should mention how popular blepharoplasty, eyelid surgery, is among Asians in order to create the look of “double eyelids.” Hell, even white women are trying to keep up with this unattainable standard of beauty!

See? Internalized racism and internalized oppression are especially dangerous when they are seen manifesting in young, black children. Children are impressionable and once they are taught that they are less because of skin color or hair texture it is difficult to raise their self-esteem. If you do not believe that children internalize racism, just take a look at how dark skinned children are treated by their peers. Just take a look at how dark-skinned girls treat light-skinned girls. Why do they hate them so much? Parents teach internal racism to their children. Those little snide comments adults make about dark skin color and nappy hair, which are considered as jokes, do not go unnoticed. Children are not stupid; they see right through the charade.

Internalized racism and oppression begins when adults give all their attention to children who have lighter complexions. It begins when little children are treated as a burden if their hair is a bit coarser than most. It begins when little black girls prefer white Barbie’s over black ones. It continues when girls are taunted for having dark skin. It continues when blacks try to stay out of the sun not to avoid health risks, such as skin cancer, but to avoid their skin from becoming too dark. It continues when we avoid entering a relationship with someone who has dark skin because we’re thinking of how dark our future children will be. It spreads when lighter-skinned blacks are able to advance farther in their careers. It spreads when the media assaults us with images of light-skinned women being the only ones who are beautiful. It spreads when we instill these self-hating values in our children thereby creating a vicious cycle that never ends (and it needs to end).

As for me, it’s been thirteen years and until a couple of months ago I was still relaxing my hair. It had become an integral part of my life(I was on that “cream crack”). I have since made the decision to go natural, which (ironically) means wearing artificial hair until my relaxed hair grows out and I can finally cut it off...go figure. I figured it was time I set my own beauty standards and not adhere to someone else's.

hooks, bell (1995). Black Beauty and Black Power: Internalized Racism. In Killing Rage: Ending Racism (pp. 119-132). Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Rockquemore, K.A., & Laszloffy, T. (2005). More Than Skin Deep: Appearances and Mixed-Race Identity. In Raising Biracial Children (pp. 114-130). Lanham, Maryland: Altamira Press.


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