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.