Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mixed Race Women and Beauty Politics: A Critical Commentary

It almost goes without saying that when you are mixed race and especially if you are a woman, you have to confront the issue of skin color privilege, exoticism and beauty politics.  So much of American social relations is wrapped up in a color grading system by which we are placed on a racial ladder by our physical complexion.  Whiteness most certainly goes to the top of the food chain all the way down to blackness.  Everything else is stuffed somewhere in between these two poles which ironically lends itself to those in the middle being less visible in the wider society.  Hell, we even have a way to describe the absence of those in the middle through the "black/white racial binary paradigm".  So, if you are brown (Chicano/a, Latino/a), yellow (Asian), red (American Indian) or rainbow (mixed race), you are generally absent from the conversation UNTIL the issue of beauty, body politics and attraction become the main topics.  Likewise, since much of our conversation about objectifying bodies is about women's bodies, it makes sense that a discussion about beauty and physical appearance includes talk about being mixed race.

Interestingly, the only time it is "good" to be mixed race in U.S. society is when it comes to discussing beauty and the body, especially if one is mixed with white and another race.  While whiteness sets the beauty standard by which all of us are judged, being mixed race affords women the opportunity to be both beautiful AND sexual.  In her essay, "I See the Same Ho: Video Vixens, Beauty Culture and Diasporic Sex Tourism", author Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues that the hip hop and beauty industries together promote a particular type of femininity in which women are expected to be hyper-sexual, fair skinned and ethnically mixed.  She goes onto say that hip hop music videos, particularly with the increase of black male sex tourism to Brazil, promotes the idea that being mixed race is the "best of both worlds" for a woman (at least from a beauty perspective).  A mixed race woman (particularly those who are white and black) is seen as beautiful for her whiteness and sexual due her blackness. Therefore she is prized over her black counterparts.  She isn't more prized than her white counterparts but is fetishsized as an acceptable alternative to a white woman. 

Whiteness and thinness have long been held as the yardstick by which women's beauty and bodies are judged. On the opposite end of the spectrum, black women have been viewed, as author Janelle Hobson puts it in her book, Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, as "simultaneously grotesque and sexually gratifying".  A black woman is grotesque not only for her dark skin but also for the size of her breasts and butt.  Yet, the same things which are viewed as grotesque on black women's bodies have also been viewed as sexually titillating and even used as a rationale for white male rape of black slave women's bodies.  The presence of whiteness in a mixed race woman's body is supposed to somehow erase black women's grotesqueness while maintaining their sexual allure. 

This presumed "attractiveness" of mixed race women, whether intentional or not, creates tensions between mixed race women and mono-racially identified black women (particularly those with darker complexions).  I have always found it ironic that black men can say some of the most incredibly ignorant and hateful bullshit about darker skinned black women but mixed race and/or lighter complexion women bear the brunt of black women's rage. I have been accused of "stealing their men" (Wait, what? So I'm not black now?), accused of using my light skin to make white folks feel comfortable about black people and generally viewed as a barrier to black women finding a good black men by luring them away into my "Mixed Race Light Skinned Lair" (okay, so I made up the lair part but you get my point).

Below is a sampling of some of misogynistic and ignorantly color struck comments from some Black male celebrities to give you a sense of what I'm referring to (click to enlarge):

While I cannot speak for all mixed race women, who wants to be with a man who shows such utter contempt for women who may share similar complexions to their mothers?  Granted, these men don't represent all black men but I have encountered a fair share who hold similar beliefs and are primarily interested in me because I'm a "redbone" or "high yella". WTF, am I a damn dog or something?  Ugh! I recall going to a record store (oooh, dating myself) and the owner was so color struck that he refused to ring up my order until I told him my racial mix.  We went back and forth for at least 5 minutes with me saying "I'm Black" over and over again and he refusing to accept my answer.  He even went as far as to tell me, "I bet you have some serious Indian in you."  Actually, I have less than 0.01 percent of Native American ancestry but my complexion fascinated him for some reason.  When I finally relented and said I was 1/8th Filipina, he responded "I knew you had to be mixed to be this pretty."  Deep exasperated sigh.

Comments like those always bothered me even as a teen.  I didn't want to be preferred because of my complexion, hair texture or ancestry. There is no relationship between my lighter skin and my worthiness as a mate. Likewise, it is annoying and quite frankly insulting when I hear other black women assume I'm dumb or easy because of my lighter skin.  My racial background nor my complexion are indicators of my sexuality or my intelligence and it's high time that we address the fundamental problems of ethnic sexist stereotypes which affect all women of color at some point in our lives. There is a litany of these ethnic sexist stereotypes that are used against Asian women (Dragon Lady or Suzie Wong), African American women (Mammy, Welfare Queen, Sapphire), Native American women (Squaw or Princess) and Latinas (Spitfires).  While there isn't a formal name for an ethnic sexist stereotype of mixed race women, the sentiment is similar to all the others: these women are sexually lascivious because of their race and shall be used for male pleasure because of their gender.  Sadly, I don't see these stereotypes being disrupted anytime soon and in fact, if reality television is any indicator, these stereotypes will only worsen over time.

The Mixed Race Feminist

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