Morrison, Race and Beauty

First posts are always the hardest. You want to write about something that’s riveting enough to keep the people who swing by engaged, but not too divisive to drive potential readers away. In the face of that, you still want to be honest about who you are and what you believe. Thankfully, the internet is, for the most part, faceless – so I’ll just jump right in. 

I’m reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, for a cross-listed grad/undergrad lit course. I’m not ready to go into too much detail about my experiences during our first discussion last night, but I will say that they were both enlightening and saddening. What I want to write/talk about is how the questions and discussions that came up last night pinpoint why African-American feminism is so important. 

This is my first time reading The Bluest Eye, and I’m only halfway through it, but its emphasis on beauty, black skin (and the way it has historically been demonized), and gender is refreshing. Especially considering how it highlights the issues I’ve personally had with gender, maternity and blackness. These issues are never far from my mind when I read any text – especially those authored by Black women. There’s a particular scene in the text in which Claudia, a young black character, is examining a white doll. (I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into further detail.) This scene prompted a young woman to ask if “Black women really thought that White children were more beautiful than their own?” How she arrived at this question from a young girl examining a doll is beyond me, but it gave me pause. 

I found multiple things wrong with this question because it privileged whiteness immediately and it dismissed the ways in which whiteness (note that I do not say white people) has historically been given superior status in the United States and elsewhere. It also played directly into the prescription of gender roles as it says nothing of how black men might view their children. 

Again, I have no idea how my fellow student arrived at this question from this particular scene, but I thought the assumptions housed in her question were interesting. Those assumptions are exactly why African-American feminism is so necessary. There are elements of black femininity and womanhood that the mainstream feminist movement will never understand because those that fuel it do not want to understand or have yet to be adequately taught. 

How do I, as a Black woman, explain to someone years, decades, CENTURIES worth of rhetoric aimed at demonizing my skin color and elevating another? How do I explain the colorism that goes along with that? More importantly, how do I explain that people who think that such things are exceptions and not norms? I don’t know, but this particular course is going to make me figure it out quickly. 

Honestly, I do not have enough time to explain the various and nuanced issues of skin color to every single person that makes assumptions about beauty and skin color, and I don’t even know if I could in a way that would make sense to them. But, there is a certain amount of privilege that white women are afforded that black women are not. I would never wish to be anything other than I am, but, damn, how I wish had those privileges. 

And that, for me, is what this scene is really about. Not a question of which skin color is more beautiful than the other, but a question of how one skin color is afforded a certain ease of navigation simply because it is the skin color of choice. I don’t think mainstream feminism is equipped to handle that discussion (especially not mainstream feminism at the inception of the 2nd wave). African-American feminism, however, is. It is poised to handle and dissect the questions and discussions that arise at the intersection of gender and race. I can’t wait to learn more. 

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~ by Kristen on January 18, 2013.

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