Sunday, 4 December 2011

Racism and the Beauty Debate

Beyonce. Halle Berry. Leona Lewis. Barack Obama. What do all these people have in common? Answer: They are all mixed race. By which I mean that one of their parents can be broadly termed as ‘Caucasian’ and the other as ‘Black’. Because of course there are many ways to be mixed race and most of would discover that we are to a degree, if we took the trouble to trace our heritage.

Recently, I was in an East London all girls’ school. I asked any students who could name something they didn’t like about their bodies to put their hands up. One young woman raised her hand and said “I don’t like my skin, Miss”. The shock must have registered on my face. At an age where acne reigns, this girl had one of the most beautifully smooth, radiant skin types I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness first hand. “Errr, why?” I asked.

“Well” she said “you would probably look at me and think I’m mixed race”.( I confess I probably would have done.) “But I’m not” she continued “and I wouldn’t want people to think I am”.

However understanding and tolerant you believe you are as a teacher, there are certain statements which will inevitably get your heckles up. I have a complicated racial heritage and I have two younger brothers who are mixed race in the more literal sense of the word (same mother, different father, grew up together, the word ‘half’ doesn’t feature in our vocabulary). I took a deep breath and asked her why it should be so terrible to be confused with a mixed race person.

If I’d met this young lady on a social occasion, her statement would have induced a lengthy rant from me vis a vie her apparent intolerance of mixed race people. However, on this occasion, I’m so glad I took the time to probe further. Turns out she was bullied for being lighter skinned when she first started school (which is comprised mainly of black and Asian students) because of some ill-conceived notion that all mixed race girls are ‘loose’.

It’s relatively simple to figure out how this totally unfounded reputation came about. You very rarely see a dark skinned black woman held up in the mainstream media as being beautiful, and even if she is it’s with certain concessions (she will usually have poker straight hair, for example). As a result, lighter skinned and mixed race women, who happen to conform to our current beauty paradigms, have induced the kind of envy which only a well-placed rumour can quash. It’s the same reason all conventionally beautiful woman have constraints placed upon them by their peers, to some extent. It’s also the same reason why mixed race men are often automatically assessed as “gay” (oh, the stories my brothers could regale you with on this score. It’s ALMOST as if their insane good looks made other men jealous and feel the need to spread hearsay that would put women off and take them out of the competition).

There are two issues here, in my opinion. The first harkens back to, yes, I’m sorry folks, but that thing I’ve been banging on about since I founded Gossip School in 2008- The Spectrum of Beauty. If we saw a greater variety of races in the public eye, everyone could (rightly) feel beautiful, and no one would feel the need to sooth their jealousy by throwing racial slanders about their lighter skinned counterparts into the rumour mill. This really shouldn’t be difficult. I could name you a dozen breathtakingly beautiful dark skinned black women in my immediate circle of friends. Seriously, Vogue, call me – I’ll pass along their details.

The second issue might make me a little unpopular, but I feel strongly that someone needs to say it. Mixed race people need to embrace both sides of their heritage. They are not black. Neither are they white. The “first black woman to win an Oscar” (Halle Berry) was mixed race. The “first black President” is mixed race. The “first black female artist to cross into the mainstream charts” was mixed race (Etta James). We should allow mixed race people to be proud of who they are and the entirety of where they come from. In terms of the beauty debate, mixed race women should be allowed to take their place in the spectrum of beauty, alongside woman who have darker and indeed lighter skins.

Ethnic diversity is given lip service in the world of beauty and fashion as it is, without mixed race women being thrown into the same category as black women and the powers that be thinking “oh, that’s ok, we’ve ticked our racial equality box for this season”. All races, in their natural state, deserve a place in our notion of what beauty means.

Of course, by the year 3,000 we’ll all be mixed race, scientists predict, and this whole debate, thank goodness, will be utterly defunct. Until then, however uncomfortable it might be to address, we need to realise the detrimental affect our narrow ideals of beauty are having on society, and that in the beauty and fashion worlds, racism certainly hasn’t gone away.

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