Month: January 2016

Beauty as resistance: On marginalisation, style & self-love


‘Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise?

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?’

Maya Angelou, Sill I rise.


On fashion

I have, for much of my life got attention for the way that I dress. To some degree, this continues today.  I love clothes. This is no secret. I love playing with what the different fabrics, colour and styles can do to the female body form and correspondingly to our psyche and sense of self. I have for long treasured the fantasy of designing clothes. Maybe someday… I learnt quite early and by accident, that there was much power in beauty and in elegance. My days in high school, even during teachers’ meetings were filled with conversations about the clothes I wore. On one occasion, the teachers’ feedback I received from the class representative about my academic performance was: ‘they said you think you’re on the runway’. That had been the only information provided to me about how to improve my grades on this particular term.

Even as a fourteen or fifteen year old, I knew there was something both fascinating and disturbing at play here. Something being contested. There was certainly violence and objectification in the interest so many white adults, primarily females, were paying to my body. But, I could not articulate what is was. Nothing I wore was extravagant. I have never got in trouble for wearing clothes which were deemed too ‘provocative’ or otherwise inappropriate, for example (French schools are non-uniformed generally). I think I just dressed beautifully. Even as a teenager -yes, I am going to say so myself.  And, that this went against expectations. Although I was an unremarkable student on balance, I did well in philosophy and literature and, excelled in English. But this did not capture the imagination the way the dresses I wore did.

The socio-political and historical context

It is interesting to look back at these memories through intersectional lenses and to relate them to the colonial gaze. My high school years were in the late nineties, in the banlieue of Paris. A time and place where many people felt challenged in their identity. Where new generations of French people of colour were starting to assert themselves, demanding space and visibility. This was a time when the social order was much more racialised with migrants and people of colour, by and large, confined to the poverty ridden banlieues and viewed as second class citizen, if at all citizens. And though to date, still, the notion of Black elegance/beauty continues to be controversial, it would have been much more of a challenge to social hierarchies then, particularly in a country that holds elegance and sophistication quite dear to its national national sense of self.

Colonial discourses and its associated voyeuristic fantasised representations of the Other have long promoted the consumption, devaluation and denigration of the black body. Their white supremacist and capitalist agenda spread the view that white people were superior (more intelligent, more socially adept, more civilised, & generally more sophisticated) than ‘indigenous’ populations. The promotion of white-cis-hetero-patriarchy has been central to the binary construction of femininity with, on opposite poles of the ideology, purity, grace and beauty arbitrarily accorded to white women and at the other extreme end, depravity, bestiality, androgyny fixed onto constructions of black womanhood. The ante-femininity. And, of course, conceptualisations of femininity only arose out of the need to assert (toxic) masculinity and manhood and to reinforce white men’s power.

Colonialism is directly engaged here. We are essentially talking about dynamics which occurred during the migration and settlement of populations from former French colonies and their children. The arrival of the colonial Other…Though colonial ideologies may seem absurd to most of us today, their legacy can still be felt. Constructions of beauty and femininity are intrinsically linked and, such constructions have always been central to systems of domination and marginalisation. They are strongly linked to privilege and can facilitate or deny access to structures of power. It is not coincidental that ‘low rank’ women (and people more generally) have been socially constructed as less beautiful, graceful and that correspondingly, elegance and style have for long been characteristics reserved for the more socially powerful groups.

Beauty as the ultimate resistance?

And so, the alleged lack of femininity of disabled women, Trans women, poor women, elderly women and women of colour continues to be used to dehumanise and marginalise. Watch how, for example, women with the above identities and who challenge implicit notions of ugliness eg. Beyoncé and Caitlyn Jenner, are acclaimed or over-consumed. Marginalised women reclaiming beauty may be dismissed as vain, self-centred or as manifestation of internalised oppression by those whose appearance more closely resemble Eurocentric beauty standards and who are privileged enough to see themselves represented and in mainstream media, folklore, literary, artistic manifestations and outlets. Such analyses are nevertheless reductionist. Black scholars including Maya Angelou have written about the importance of style and beauty as means of defiance and self-actualisation.

In Still I rise, she powerfully articulates her capacity to connect with her beauty and her eroticism. Qualities which despite violent erasure attempts, remain.  Maya Angelou evokes the misogyny and racism, contemporarily and historically, that she and generations of Black women before her, have endured. Yet her poem is one of triumph: they have survived. Indeed, not only have we survived, we are thriving and gaining strength, beauty and power not despite but because of racial adversity. Though this may challenge common wisdom around the hierachisation and posited pyramids of human needs, there is a long history of marginalised people seeking affirmation through beauty. Black artists and others, for example have used fashion and style as means to resist oppression, for centuries. From the slaves who took particular pride in their appearance and beauty by dressing in their Sunday best, to the dandies of the Harlem Renaissance and the Sapeurs, of central Africa during and after colonisation.

These efforts were never simply about vanity, narcissism or emulating the master. They have always been about politics, about challenging colonial narratives about self-affirmation and self-definition. I have recently heard about the work of a human right activist who described how Muslim women in war torn Bosnia used beauty to resist war.  Wearing lipstick during the conflict had become a way for them to assert their humanity. This activist recounted the story of such a woman who had spoken about how important it was for her to die beautiful and that if she was to be killed by a sniper, she wanted her killer to know that he was putting to death a beautiful woman. Few domains exist where marginalised women can feel valued and take control of how they are represented. The subornation of our needs is socially expected and as part of that, self-negation and self-hatred are viewed as standard.

Marginalised women are bombarded with messages that explicitly or implicitly state that they have little to no value and that they are worthless.  This breeds feelings of helplessness and resignation in the face of injustice and, thus serves the status-quo.  To love oneself as a Black woman is ‘to love blackness’. This, according many theorists including bell hooks, is dangerous and threatening in a white supremacist culture.  bell hooks refers to self-love for Black women as a ‘serious breach in the fabric of the social order’. The ultimate power for any marginalised woman and indeed any woman of colour may accordingly be to reclaim beauty. Doing so has always been central to liberation praxes. It buffers the impact of racial injustices and of marginalisation. At its most fundamental, caring about the way we look, is caring about our body and by extension, our life. It is rejecting notions of inferiority and inadequacy. It is proclaiming I believe I am entitled to love and thus, to justice and equality. It is quietly saying I am a human being. Like you.  Perhaps, this is what so many, have a hard time accepting.


Maya Angelou


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Activism and psychology: A few thoughts

Like other citizens of the world psychologists are confronted with injustices. Many more of us are pledging to act on the world to change it for the better through the prism of activism. As a profession we have become much more vocal and visible when it comes to socio-political issues. Many of us are initiating political conversations, seeking exchanges with politicians, organising, publicly protesting and even demonstrating around social justice. Speaking out has become a recurrent theme both within social media and within formal professional conferences and engagements. I have welcomed these developments. I have supported colleagues who have put their head ‘above the parapets’ and I have myself probably been more vocal than most of my peers on issues of equality. I am now wondering whether, the time may be right to pause and to start to question ourselves and to perhaps even to re-evaluate.

The importance of activism

Using indignation and anger as catalysts for change has been what many of us have been doing for centuries, even when it could/has cost us our life. Political activism has been central to the survival and resistance of marginalised groups throughout the world. It gave birth to women rights, the emancipation of colonised nations, and the extension of civil liberties to oppressed minorities, LGBT and disability rights amongst many others. It is fair say, campaigning and organising have made the world a better a place. Now that the myth and harm of scientific neutrality have been thoroughly exposed, it may be befitting for psychologists to follow in these historical footsteps and emulate marginalised groups’ relationship with the world. Indeed, whether we intend it or not, we are bringing this historical context into the room when we address social justice. Clearly, there are many benefits to be drawn from activism which may help increase the influence of the profession.

Being more engaged politically may raise our profile. It may increase our profession’s relevance. It may help us to share psychological knowledge with larger numbers of people. It may even help us reach many of those who would not traditionally access our services. It may demystify our subject matter and thus make it more accessible. Indeed many psychologists have argued we have an ethical duty to tackle the causes of emotional distress invariably, this would include helping to reduce social inequalities, injustices and addressing policies and practices which damage psychological well-being. I would agree with these propositions. I can’t imagine any peer or colleague seriously taking exception here. How we go about achieving the above and defining the processes to follow may be more contentious questions.

My personal experience of activism

In honesty I have been conflicted by some of the campaigns and organising that I have seen. I have witnessed groups of privileged people speak on behalf of the marginalised and do so with very little awareness that they were reproducing social hierarchies and marginalisation. Becoming more vocal about oppression and injustice, embracing activism and taking discontentment to the streets does not suddenly make us immune to biases, prejudices and blind spots. It does not mean we develop sudden acute levels of self-reflection when it comes to our own privileges. I’d argue there are good chances,in fact, activism might allow us to perpetuate the very inequalities and injustices we’re protesting against as equality rhetorics can easily fool us and others into believing we’ve shed any oppressive skin we might have.  It is not part of psychologists’ training to be skilled up to become facilitative and anti-oppressive ‘allies’. Let’s remind ourselves that as a profession, for example, we are still to address issues of culture competence. How do these issues affect our activism? Do we need to think about this?

As a multiply minoritised person, there has been a certain degree of confidence from self-proclaimed allies and activists taking up social justice causes that has been painful to stomach. Many have campaigned while seeming to have little to no understanding as to the limitations, dynamics and structural difficulties of their ‘benevolent’ intervention(s). It is mind boggling to me that the scholarly and political contributions of marginalised thinkers and activists to social justice and political action ‘s bodies of knowledge remain invisible in the profession. This invisibility is problematic. And it is racialised. It is problematic and racialised because historically disenfranchised groups including Black women and other Black theorists who have been key contributors; have faced marginalisation and ridicule and worse, for embodying the very values and worldview psychology now appears to seek to embrace.

Interrogating activism

Any drawing from the legacy of minoritised lived experience and its resulting scholarship which is going to increase power and influence for psychology is arguably presently, going to raise ethical questions because power and influence are not equitably distributed along racial axes and others within the profession and, because by and large, people of colour and marginalised groups stand to benefit the least from any growth and development in psychology. The most important social justice work has always been done by the communities directly affected by the injustices they were fighting against: those who have been the hardest hit by poverty, those who have systematically endured state violence and those who have had to carry the burden of race discrimination, for example. This work has always been transformative. It has been transformative without the intervention of privileged allies and activists.

Does the above mean psychologists and other professionals should steer clear of activism?  Not necessarily.  I personally think anyone committed to equality, social justice and liberation should be given a chance.  People with skin, class, gender and other systemic privileges can of course pursue social justice activism.  However, being politically engaged on issues that one is privileged not to be directly affected by, may require different configurations thus, I am asking whether those of us who aspire to be ‘activist-practitioners’ need to pause to interrogate current processes and become better aware of the discourses and narratives they may propagate. I am asking whether we are sufficiently attuned to the systemic violence we may be enacting. There are multiples ways of being an activist or an ally, building the capacity of the groups, individuals and communities whose needs and experiences we may want to represent is one of them.  Seeking and recognising the skills and knowledge they have to offer is another.  I am asking that we consider committing more time to supporting those who have been doing the work that many of us have suddenly developed a taste for.  This support may not need to be visible.  Various evidence based models and conceptual frameworks for such participatory and anti-oppressive action exist.  They have been written by scholars we continue to exclude from our curriculums.  That so many, before us, have campaigned with little limelight, support or recognition whilst contending with serious structural backlash and violence is testimony to ‘our’ privilege. It is also, in my opinion, a call to reflect and self-evaluate.

The ally test (short version)

I have devised this very brief ‘test’. There is no scientific claim behind it. I am hoping it may be useful as a starting point to allies and activists in the profession to reflect upon their personal motivation, privilege and the processes of their activism.

  1. Do you call yourself an ally?
  2. Is this title self-ascribed?
  3. Are you socially privileged amongst most of the key identity domains (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, cisgender)
  4. Have you led any social justice/equality campaign?
  5. Were you put in this leadership position by privileged individuals or groups?
  6. Is your activism/campaigning accountable to privileged individuals or groups?
  7. Have you personally benefitted from or received recognition for your activism?
  8. Have you personally promoted your activism?
  9. Have most of the people who have promoted/recognised your activism been privileged?
  10. Do you find the possibility that you may NOT actually be an ally ridicule or offensive?

If you answer positively to most questions above, I seriously doubt you can continue to call yourself an ally without doing some serious reflecting (and changing the current configurations of your activism).


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All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.