The micro-sociology of racism within the concept of beauty
The goal of this piece is to highlight the ways in which racism is prevalent within the concept of beauty itself. This seeks to exemplify the ways in which ‘micro-aggressions’ (just aggressions in my opinion), can manifest themselves through beauty. I place the hegemonic conception of beauty as another element of white supremacist teaching. Furthermore, the goal of this is to sorta make sociology interesting. Mostly in order to highlight the ways in which we are oppressed in order for us to fight for a new world.
I started reading Don’t Touch My Hair By Emma Dabiri, which inspired me to read about the sociology of beauty. I will be using the work of Dabiri and an academic journal that I read called Historical Sociology of Beauty Practices: Internalised racism, skin bleaching and hair straightening by Imani M. Tafari-Ama.
The practices of skin bleaching and hair straightening are both examined in this project, which centres on the African and the postcolonial community. The post-colonialism itself is ‘the academic study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism, focusing on the human consequences of the control and exploitation of colonized people and their lands.’ As such, the postcolonial community is therefore comprised of people who have ancestry that is tied to being colonised.
Self-erasure in this context, is the erasure of Blackness as ‘anything too black nuh good’ (Imani M. Tafari-Ama). ‘Anything too black nuh good’ was taken from an interview with a person from the Carribean, someone who has direct experience with the impacts of colonialism on the concept of beauty. The history of colonialism and its hegemonic discourses, leads to Black people bleaching our skin and straightening our hair. This phenomenon is referred to as self-hatred in this project, to ‘self-erase’ blackness one must go through ‘performances of chemical self-transformation’. The cause of this practice is macro – it is white supremacist teachings which condition and coerce people into thinking kinky hair and dark skin is unattractive!
Cheryl Thompson (2009) argued, that it is estimated that between 70% to 80% of Black women straighten their hair. The rise of weaves has raised that bar higher. I remember as a young girl watching a cartoon and seeing all of the characters with straight hair. I remember feeling excited at the prospect of one day straightening my hair and being like all of the white girls around me. This was, of course, fuelled by the racist bullying I received from my white peers about my afro hair. So of course, I internalised this racism and begged for my mother to buy me a hair straightener. I see myself in this sociological analysis.
I am a light-skinned mixed race Black woman, so it would be ridiculous for me to talk about this without referencing my own privilege with having light skin. My proximity to whiteness is considered ‘valuable’ and coded as positive due to the long history of slavery, imperialism and colonialism on black bodies. Light skin within the Black community is unfortunately considered to be better than dark skin, this is called colourism.
In Dabiri’s (2020) book, Don’t Touch My Hair, she writes that colourism is extended towards hair type as ‘colourism is undoubtedly about proximity to racial whiteness, but proximity is determined by far more than just complexion. in addition to lighter skin, the texture of one’s hair, one’s facial structure, the shape of ones nose and lips and even one’s body type are assessed in calculating who has, and who is denied, proximity to whiteness’. Additionally, to add to this awful conundrum, Du Bois showed us how us Black folks tend to view ourselves through the eyes of our oppressors. He did this by analogising a veil, as the veil symbolizes how Black American’s are not seen as fully American or fully human, as there is a veil that covers them and Black American’s also struggle to see who they are due to this veil of racism. This is what Du Bois termed ‘double consciousness’, being conscious of how one is viewed from the white gaze, and also how we view ourselves.
Why is this so pervasive? Why has this been normalized? Well, hegemony is the culprit. Marxist theorist Gramsci in 1957, wrote about hegemony, or to put simply: the way in which the dominant discourses surrounding beauty are catered to and focused on whiteness, skinniness and straight hair. A Eurocentric look was the ideal for a long time, but I think now with the rise of the Jenner’s and Kardashian’s of the world, this has changed to making racial ambiguity the ideal. Of course, this really just means the ideal is white women with fake tan and full lips (mostly fillers, with fillers the lips are injected with serum to make them look fuller; imitating what, though?).
Beauty is performed in the mass media of ‘communication, including fashion magazines, television, newspapers and the World Wide Web, music and music videos’ and with all of the beauty influencers on Instagram these days, it is clear to see being white with dark artificially tanned skin and lip fillers is the norm these days, obviously stemming from white people’s appropriation of EVERYTHING Black!
The writers of this piece argue that self-hate practices such as skin bleaching are a microcosm of this ‘disease’ – the disease being white supremacist capitalism. There are beauty self-transformation tools which consequently leave the person looking whiter than before, and therefore ‘better’ for capitalism. However, it is the internalisation of racism which causes people to do this, and hopefully with consciousness of this phenomenon there will be more information on ways to avoid this horrible vortex.
In light of this, Nehusi (2002) wrote that ‘white supremacist stereotypes, imprison the minds and restrict the vision of so many who are often unaware that their vision has been engineered, their perceptions altered and their actions therefore predetermined by their enemies’. Internalised racism is psycho-social as it originates socially and is internalised mentally, and it can be exemplified through beauty rituals and practices such as lightening the skin or straightening the hair – ‘the black body, particularly its female embodiment, is a slate on which scripts of hegemonic narratives of identity politics have been inscribed’
Root causes of these behaviours:
White supremacy has actual impacts on our somatic system. In this instance, I mean how white supremacy has its impacts on the body of those it holds in its grip. Which is everyone, but mostly PoC. The traces of trauma are within us and need to be addressed through gentle forms of therapy which can help us. I am of the opinion, that we carry generations of stress within our bodies, especially if one’s lineage is consisted of peoples who were colonised. With the imitation of a European construct of beauty, it actually impacts the mental health of the person who tries to achieve this whiter, lighter ‘look’. However, the article I examined refers to this as a personality disorder and I would personally steer far away from pathologizing a whole group of people. I do understand how pleasure is tied into the ritual of beauty, healthy beauty regimes are normal and good for everyone, a little self-care never hurt anyone, until it does hurt your skin, scalp and body. There has to be a firm difference between self-hate beauty practices and self-love beauty practices!
The Beauty Industry as the culprit:
The Beauty Industry capitalises off of people’s misery. This is not news, everyone knows this, yet it is still so pervasively normalised in our society. This reminds me of Arendt’s Banality of Evil, which explains how evil is normalized in our society – for example, wage-labour and landlordism (Arendt was talking about The Holocaust in her context). The Beauty Industry itself is racist: ‘the hegemonic turn of institutionalised racism is explicit in the international industry of so-called beauty products, which reify perceptions of social advantage in whiteness and reinforce the social distinctions created by colourism and shadism’. Colourism is a phenomenon within the Black community that refers to the tone of our skin. The lighter your skin is, the more benefits you are awarded. These businesses then, are ‘capitalising on the systemic and psychosocial’ internalised racism of Black people.
The writers refer to this whole performance or event as Afrikans being in self-destruction mode in an ‘attempt to retrieve lost self-esteem in the idiom of racialised, sexualised, classist and anti-Afrikan version of self-identity’
I think that there needs to be a global shift in our conceptions of beauty. However, before any of this can happen and be successful there needs to be a world-wide revolution, ending the terror that is capitalism and freeing people from its chains. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote ‘those who do not move, do not notice their chains’. It is with our acknowledgement of the injustices surrounding us that we tackle it. But we can do the work of ending beauty-based oppression while fighting for economic justice.
Raising consciousness about the problems is another mode we can use to help end this misery. Additionally, institutions of socialisations such as schools, youth clubs, mass media, political institutions and the family should all be doing their best to prevent internalised racism from harming the body, for good. I think it is a phase that a lot of us people of colour go through in predominantly white institutions (internalised racism and Eurocentric beauty practices), it was certainly a phase I went through as a social being in my youth. I also think a focus on healing and cultural rehabilitation would be wonderful for survivors of this abuse, as we can share our stories together, learn and grow.