Who is the “Fairest” of the Them All?

Don’t want to beat a dead horse here. But last month’s issue of Vanity Fair with the nine lily-skinned–albeit lovely and talented–young women with the banner declaring them the acting talent for the next decade really pissed me off. And I’m just not over it. 

The whole decade?

The last time I was this bitter was back in 2000 when Vogue featured Gwyneth Paltrow with a headline that screamed something about her being the “It-girl for the Millennium.” I’m sure that Ms. Paltrow is a fine human being but wasn’t the last millennium the millennium of the blonde, blue-eyed beauties? Do they get this one too?

Just so that we are clear: I am committed to the principle of unity. I believe at my core that at the end of the day there is only one race and that is the human race. And everything in my life bears witness to this belief.

Here is what I don’t love: Unfairness. Injustice. And piles of crap handed to me like it’s chocolate cake.

Have you ever heard of the doll experiments conducted in Harlem by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark back in the late 1930s? These series of experiments found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black ones. That when asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate. And most devastatingly, that when asked, African American children gave the color “white” attributes such as good and pretty, and the color “black,” bad and ugly. These experiments caused an uproar back in the 30s and contributed to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.   

Oh no, you say! That was eighty years ago! These are different times! This is the age of Obama, Winfrey and … I don’t know … lots of other folks. Well, sure, some things are different. There has no doubt been progress. But consider this: in 2006 a filmmaker recreated the doll study and documented it in a film entitled A Girl Like Me. In spite of everything that has changed, she found the same results that the Drs. Clark did in the 1930s and 40s.

I could have told you that watching my five year old and her friends these past few years, in spite of very explicit lessons that my friends and I have attempted to instill in our children of color. I myself have seen and heard things that have triggered a hysterical phone call or two to my girlfriends.

We don’t know exactly why children attribute negative characteristics to their beautiful brown and black skin. But many of us have our suspicions. And somewhere at the top of my personal list sits the images and messages they are bombarded with every day of their lives–very much like the one on the cover of Vanity Fair last month. Yes, Disney, you do get credit for Tiana and we do appreciate the bone you threw us but how about a true reflection of who we are and what we look like as a human family every single day and not just on special occasions? How about it, Hollywood? Are you in?

When I arrived in America on the cusp of my teens 30 years ago, I didn’t NOT feel beautiful. But I wised up very quickly. The message was loud and clear and explicit! Not only was I hearing: “You’re not pretty” (actually what I heard was: “You’re ugly” but … tomatoes, tom-ah-toes …), I also never saw anyone on TV, in the movies, in the magazines, anywhere, that looked like me (and who was considered beautiful). Remember, there was no bevy of ethnic beauties like Eva Mendes or Salma Hayek or Shohreh Aghdashloo back then. There was, however, Iman and Naomi and Tyra and a handful of Huxtable women. Oh and Diann Carroll.

Reflecting back, I realize that at some point I developed a coping mechanism: I started to interpret select images I saw in the media very literally as evidence of the possibility that I, too, may be beautiful. Here’s the short version of how it went:

I’m hearing some very negative messages about my beauty.

I’m not seeing anyone who looks like me who is considered beautiful.

I do see a few black women on TV and in the movies.

Black women have brown skin.

I have brown skin.

They’re brown like me.

These women are beautiful.

Maybe I’m beautiful too.

The bottom line is that our brown and black girls and boys need to see people who look like them achieving, inventing, excelling, curing, leading, creating, thinking, innovating, writing, being lauded, being recognized. They deserve it. They are entitled to it. (There, I said it! The word that makes so many people so uncomfortable. But I don’t understand why entitlement is treated like a natural-born right of some and as a favor for others.)

Our Caucasian children need to see people of color achieving, inventing, excelling, curing, leading, creating, thinking, innovating, writing, being lauded, being recognized.

You are doing every last one of our kids–no matter what race they are–a disservice. That includes you, Vanity Fair, and every one of your brethren across all media.

Stop barraging our children with the nonstop madness. Really! Because you might have gotten away with robbing us of our ability to feel beautiful–and comfortable–in our own skins but we have no intention of letting you do it to our sons and daughters too.

5 thoughts on “Who is the “Fairest” of the Them All?

  1. I feel you, Nazie! It’s a form of privilege that many white parents take for granted–to have their children be able to see people who look like them be heralded as beautiful and worthy of attention.

    I assigned “Girl Like Me” to my students for a seminar I teach on equity in education. The short film makes me sad every time (especially when the little black girl at the end says the black doll is “bad,” and then has to admit that the black doll looks more like her; when we watched it in class a few weeks ago, I almost started crying in front of my students when that moment came; I think it’s because I now have a little black girl of my own). But I was also disheartened to hear so many of my students say, “I’d never thought of that before.” Do you really have to be black or brown to realize this is going on? And the comment boards after a Yahoo article critiqued the cover really got me down; not only did people disagree with the critique, they were downright hostile to the very idea that there was a problem with Vanity Fair’s pronouncement. I had to stop reading after the 10th response that read “I don’t see white people on the cover of Ebony!!!!” People just don’t get it…

    There’s a lot of debate about integrating schools, but this very issue is one of the reasons I’m so staunchly in support of the integrative ideal. Based on the messages our children receive in society, when they are segregated in schools–whether or not it’s by legal decree–they internalize the experience, and come to believe that they’re segregated in that school because they’re black, and less worthy. Yes, there have been a handful of charter schools that undermine these messages of inferiority; and yes, based on the SCOTUS’s jurisprudence, those schools may be our only recourse (assuming you could even replicate it on a mass scale; which I’m not convinced you can…that’s for another post…). But for most black and brown kids who are isolated in majority-minority schools, that experience only serves to amplify the messages they’re receiving from the world, Vanity Fair included.

    Great post!

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  2. Re the integrative ideal as the answer to this problem – schools, by themselves, even if fully integrated, won’t make the difference. Because kids go back to their segregated neighborhoods at the end of the day. That was my reality. I still knew black folks were perceived inferior because I saw it every day when I went home. There were a few of us allowed to get out, but the vast majority of my people – I knew where they were and what folks thought of us. It wasn’t my school experience, but it was my life experience. And that’s the case for most black people in this country – most of us live in more segregated neighborhoods than whites do, regardless of income. And the Supreme Court can’t fix that. It can’t force whites to accept us, in large enough numbers to truly integrate a neighborhood. I just watched an Eyes on the Prize documentary the other night about integrating Boston schools in the 1970s. No court order can change that hatred, that fear. Busing children from their neighborhood to another also teaches them a lesson about what’s better, and you know that what you’ve been going to is thought of as no good, especially when “integration” is generally one way. So I’m pretty much ambivalent, at best, to the integration ideal.

    There’s a great article I just sent my students yesterday about racial segregation in this country and why it still persists. Camille Charles compiles the data. And the answer comes down to racial stereotypes and prejudice. Just like whites don’t want their daughter marrying a black man, they don’t want to live in a neighborhood where too many of the neighbors are black.

    Furthermore, even if integration was the ideal, just putting black and white kids together does little to change the perception of black at the bottom of the social hierarchy if integration is not also seen as a verb – within the school, students need to be actively integrated, in classes, in extra-curriculars, in the faculty and administration. There are many schools that have been “integrated” for decades that operate as two schools within one – one black, one white.

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    1. I am in no way suggesting that integration cures all of America’s ills, but I do believe it’s a major piece of the puzzle. I agree that the data suggests that residential segregation persists because of racism. But the data also suggest that students–both black and white–who attend integrated schools are more likely to prefer and seek out integrated neighborhoods later in life. If you start to break down residential segregation, you start to undermine school segregation. It’s funny you mention Boston. Even as the locale for one of the most bitter fights about school integration in our nation’s history, most parents polled in Boston today say they would prefer more integrated schools in the city, and want the government to do something about it. And you only have to look as far as Seattle–the site of the recent SCOTUS showdown on this–to see that parents, both black and white–can, and do, support more integrated schools, especially when they’re given some choice in the matter. In Parents Involved, it was the SCOTUS capitulating to a few entitled parents; the school district had a lot of support in the city

      When integration is done correctly–and that includes preventing second generation segregation within the schools–it can go a long way towards breaking down racial prejudices, and teaching important values about civic life. We talk about white children being taught messages of superiority; it’s important that they start to go to school in environments where they are not surrounded exclusively by people who look like them; even better if they start attending schools where they are not the majority.

      As to the benefits for black students, regardless of where they go home to, the data is pretty conclusive that there is a benefit, particularly when an integrated school means a school that is not a poor school. Ideally, integration should go both ways, and it’s not fair when blacks are always bussed to white schools. But I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic if it happens that way, and it’s not as simple as concluding that black kids will get the message that white kids are superior. If black and white kids are sitting together, you all get the benefits that the government is currently bestowing on white kids. You’re at the school because you deserve those benefits too, and it’s harder for the government to ignore you when you’re sitting next to kids whose parents have more power. You can make that lesson more complex for older kids, or less complex for younger kids, but either way, you can explain it so that they understand. We’re spending all this time talking about how to teach our kids about racism; might as well throw that lesson in there, too.

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  3. I strongly disagree that the data is conclusive; at best it’s mixed with many scholars on both sides measuring various academic and psychosocial outcomes for black children. I think you do identify “integration done right” which is certainly not the norm. But we can have this debate offline. Lol

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  4. I think the best way to fight back is by creating and distributing media that challenge dominant notions of beauty. I have been working on this a lot lately. I have gathered some for Clarke, first, and for my job, all of which were available right on the Net. I do not think that fashion and model culture is balanced towards brown folks, by any means, but I was happy to see that these images were in a “public domain.”

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