feminism

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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Race and sexual competition: Some initial thoughts.

Please don’t read this as a rant!

I really don’t want this article to sound like I am ranting but I have a feeling some may well read it as such. If this is a rant, I will try to make it as psychologically and socially informed as I can… I feel the need from the get go to make a couple of disclaimers: one, I have nothing against interracial relationships. Two, I do not harbour any particular resentment against White women or any other group of human beings for that matter. There is absolutely no but on the way to qualify these statements. The felt need for such disclaimers may become clearer within the rest of the article. As one may be able to gather from this short introduction, interracial relationships will be touched upon in this article, particularly the Black man-White woman dyad. Nonetheless, beyond these, I hope to ponder upon wider potential relational issues between White women and Black women. Essentially, the question I wish to reflect upon is this; do we carry some unspoken ‘baggage’?

The source of my inspiration…

Grazia published an article on racism a few weeks ago. Racism through the eyes of a White woman who was in essence describing how being in a relationship with a Black man had awakened her to the reality of racism. In her own words ‘Racism didn’t happen in my world until I fell in love with Raymond’ (some people at this stage might feel the urge to reach for a bucket; it was hard for me to continue reading her article after this point too). To give the author some credit and the benefit of the doubt, she was tackling a sensitive subject and was speaking candidly from her perspective and experience, let us assume and; in all probability her article would have been subject to much editorial control. All the same, I am always pleased when discussions about racism take place.

To see an attempt at broaching the subject seriously within the pages of a mainstream glossy magazine was quite satisfying, initially. Sadly though, the article went on to trivialise a number of important issues, some may argue; in the interest of increasing access to the debate, necessarily so. However, the use of stereotypes and clichés may be more difficult to defend. Let’s start with the illustrative picture; which itself was intuitively discomforting. It made me stop, look closely and unpick what it is I was having a hard time dealing with as it was not instantly intelligible to me. Upon paying closer attention, I started to get a sense of what I was reacting to. Here is what appears on the photograph (the actual photograph of the couple).

The illustrative photograph

The photograph is quite powerful and rich in symbolism. There is a Black man who is dark-skinned and looks quite ‘buff and rough’: he’s got a shaved head, he’s obviously muscly and well-built and got tattoos on display. He is looking directly at a White woman, I would argue covetly. His love interest is a much smaller (appearing about three time smaller actually on the picture) White woman who has been physically positioned at a much lower angle than him evoking sexual submission (again, I would argue). The symbolic domination of the Black man is reinforced by him appearing to have a grip on her arm evoking control or force. The White woman stares directly into the camera lenses rather than at her love interest. There appears to be a slight squint in her eyes and her lips seem firmly and unnaturally close.

There is no obvious display of affection, tenderness or sexual interest in her body language or within her gaze. The Black man makes no eye contact with the camera (he is staring at her) and therefore his gaze escapes the viewer’s scrutiny. Arguably, this creates a sense of mystery. That his eyes are firmly fixed on her, positions the woman on the picture as the coveted object, the lust object. One of the messages being communicated indirectly here is: the Black man wants the White woman. The parties’ sexual interests are not portrayed as reciprocal or of similar intensity yet, in terms of attractiveness, the man and woman are on a par. The image consequently stereotypically strips the White woman of her agency and thus reinforce both the discursive notion that Black men are after White women and to some degree, the expectation of sexual passivity and submission in women.

Defiance or scorn?

I can also perceive a degree of defiance and/or something of an air of arrogance in her facial expression. Of course the possibility that I might well be projecting into her and potentially imposing an unwarranted interpretation because of my own prejudices must be considered. I am open to this eventuality. Nonetheless, the themes within the following passages from her article seem to illustrate exactly what I picked up from the picture.

‘I’ve also experienced reverse racism when I was recently out with a friend of a friend, who is black. At first she was really friendly, but when Raymond arrived, she became cold and withdrawn…

‘Yet I’ve got a message for all the haters… you’re not winning. Far from having a negative effect on our relationship, experiencing racism as a couple has only made us closer’

‘They acted as if I was doing something rebellious by going out with a black guy’

There is much that is problematic in the above statements, from the misconceived and trivialized conceptualisation of racism to, in my view, the distasteful appropriation of Black slang terms in the context of the article. But what I will focus on here is the loaded portrayal of Black women as ‘haters’, envious of White woman’s supposed ‘grip’ on Black men (allegedly though here implicitly, due to Black women being White women’s subordinates in terms of beauty and femininity). Anyone with an IQ above 50 would probably know that Black men, men or just people in fact, are not objects/property which can be stolen or guarded and that of course, for the overwhelming majority of happy couples today both parties are willing and consenting participants. Human beings have feelings and free will, well at least to some degree.

Femininity, masculinity and sexual competition.

A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to empirically establish Black women as less than. Is it any wonder that in a world still dominated by eurocentric beauty standards, that portrays White women as the epitome of beauty and femininity and on the other hand Black men as hyper-masculine and as the most virile beings on earth, that both groups would naturally be attracted to one another? Of course that is not to say that other factors bear no influence, we are complex creatures… Nevertheless, from a societal perspective their mutual attraction makes perfect sense and indeed, Black men-White women couples seem; of all possible gender and ethnicity combinations, the most frequent interracial pairing. There is something that seems quite symptomatic and revealing in the social construction of Black women as envious and bitter.

Something that is often difficult to put a finger on or to name. Something which possibly gets played out when some White women who despite (or perhaps due to) being in relationships with Black men, treat Black women with contempt. The same something I suspect that made a fellow White student (with a passion for Black men) only feel the need to describe the most graphic details of her sexual encounters whenever I was around (we were not friends and hardly spoke, if at all, outside of these x rated group conversations). Perhaps also the same something which made my attractive (and educated) sister; and a number of Black women; wonder if they should commit to dressing more modestly than their co-workers and be unnaturally unassuming at work lest they triggered negative responses by behaving in the exact same way as White women and/or, by not conforming to tacit expectations of inferiority and, as a result threaten the implicit (and internalised) social order.

The baggage of the past

In therapy, I have repeatedly been asked, what it is like to be an attractive Black woman and I have consistently avoided considering the question. It has for long felt too awkward to discuss. It seems I have learnt that physicality is one of the unspoken dynamics not to be unpicked but which influences both racial and gender relating and thus most aspects of the social and psychological. The behaviours of the White women described above are not consistent with behaviours that someone assured of one’s superiority, attractiveness or relationship would display. Quite the opposite. They may actually reveal that Black women are believed to hold more power than is usually conceded. Although, various interpretations could be proposed and indeed the potential sexual competitiveness of women may offer an explanatory framework (women have after all been socialised to view each other as competitors for ‘the scarce male’) in the constructed social hierarchy, a woman who is Black, attractive, confident (and educated) may create discomfort, for some, simply because she disrupts expected power dynamics. She’s moved from her (hierarchical) ‘place’.

It is well accepted that on-going constructions of Black men have historical (and imperialist) origins. Thus, it is interesting to note that from a historical perspective, Black women have often been positioned as the sexual rivals of White women as White slavers and colonizers have commonly kept Black women as concubines, mistresses and/or sexual servants throughout history and across continents. The patriarchal and oppressive context of such relationships is naturally of central importance (as of course, rape and sexual exploitation was in fact what was taking place here). Still, one may wonder about the (unconscious?) lingering of such historical baggage which may be reinforced by the on-going over-sexualisation and devaluation of Black women; in terms of White Woman- Black woman relating. Such dimensions may add further complications to the dynamics and the way we see each other.

Thank you for reading.

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The Angry Black Woman: Covert Abuse, Overt Anger?

A Big Black woman on the train…

I had been on my train back home from University a year or so ago for about one hour when a Black woman entered the train carriage I was sitting in. She was of a fairly large built and was struggling to make her way through the carriage to get to a seat. She was casually dressed but looked somewhat umkept. As I noticed her, I started to observe the behaviours and faces on the train.  I picked up a sense of discomfort and I imagined that passengers may have been anxious about the possibility of her sitting next to them.  As she walked past, most people looked firmly down.

She took a seat within a section of the carriage which was unoccupied a few meters away from my seat and sat directly opposite me. To my left was a group of six middle aged women. They appeared to be friends or possibly work colleagues.  They were quite formally dressed. They were all White.  A few of their faint whispers attracted my attention. Upon observation, I noted smiles, sneers and ever so discreet short looks toward the other Black woman.  This went on intermittently for about 10 minutes. She and I were the only Black people in the carriage. I felt angered and disrespected. The Black woman’s face was looking increasingly aggravated as she was being denigrated-ever so subtly and politely.

Unexpectedly, the Black woman got up and walked up to the group. She asked them to stop what they were doing and said that she could see them. I could hear from the trembling in her voice that she was close to tears. The women looked surprised, denied any wrongdoing and took turn looking at each other and at other passengers feigning cluelessness. This infuriated the Black woman further who burst into screams, naturally, attracting looks of disapproval from most passengers.  She eventually walked back to her seat alone and in complete silence stared at by almost everyone as the women who were taunting her escaped scrutiny.  As the train was approaching my stop, I got up to exit and purposefully walked toward her. I said to her that I had seen what the women had been doing and put my hand on her shoulder at which point tears rolled down her face. She thank me.

Intersectionality

In popular culture and discourses, Black women are often characterized as angry, hostile, difficult and/or rude.  The stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is a persisting one in many western countries that not only portrays Black women as one-dimensional beings but also prevent their voices and often painful experiences from being acknowledged and validated. I believe this stereotype has impacted on many of my social interactions, that of countless Black women and that of the Black woman on the train.  When she screamed, there is no doubt in my mind that she became the ‘Angry Black Woman’.  Nothing in that woman’s behaviour justified the treatment she received from the group of friends/colleagues. Nothing at all.  Except her being overweight and Black.

Being both of those things meant she had ceased to be a person the moment she was spotted by the group of women.  Not being a person meant derisory behaviour toward her stopped being reprehensible and, her experience could simply be denied. Becoming angry when denigrated and disrespected seems perfectly understandable to me.  In most circumstances, no one would bat an eyelid if someone who had just been abused screamed in indignation and in pain or in an attempt to seek the support of onlookers. It seems to me that, often, Black women are not afforded such liberties.  I accept that women’s anger is disapproved of socially in part because it threatens gender norms and role expectations. Nevertheless, the privilege of getting angry without fear of being stereotyped is also race dependent. Oppression does not act independently of the various social categories and axes of identity capable of their own of contributing to injustice and inequality.

Instead, it interrelates and create systems that reflect the combination of multiple forms of discrimination each in turn amplifying the other. It is notable that I was not targeted for ridicule. Perhaps being lighter-skinned, slimmer and thus (in the eyes of many) a more ‘attractive’ Black woman, mean I am afforded more ‘privileges’, one of which may be to escape abusive treatment because of my appearance.  Hence, whilst White women’s anger may similarly be disapproved of, it is not mocked or ‘Othered’ in the same way that Black women’s anger is.  Thus, it appears the lower your ‘rank’ the less tolerable your anger is and the more problematic your resistance to subjugation will be deemed.  The reality of the interaction was defined by the group of respectable looking White women and seemed to have been tacitly accepted by the rest of the carriage. What chance did that Black woman have to get her version of reality across when she became nothing but a stereotype?

On Invisibility

As she screamed perhaps in an attempt to get some form of validation of her distress; she disturbed the peace and became the problem within the train carriage. In this moment, whilst her presence became ever so visible, her pain and experience fell into oblivion, essentially annihilated by the stereotype. Symbolically, to me, the collective silence in the face of her dehumanization and the looks of disapproval she received when she raised her voice sent a very clear message to that woman: we see you but we do NOT want to see you, stop forcing us to notice you.

Some may find reassurance in the possibility that perhaps, the passengers onboard had not noticed that she had been taunted and was distraught, sadly, this does not fill me with much comfort.  Some people’s suffering simply does not appear to get noticed. In the hours preceding David Bennett*’s death, he was distraught because he had been racially abused but nursing staff did not notice the high level of his distress or the cumulative impact of the racism he had been subjected to on the ward. When his life was slipping away as he laid on the floor, face down, thrashing about trying to break free, the nurses involved in restraining him did not notice this either. He had also become a stereotype.  That of ‘The Big Dangerous Black Man’ also known as ‘big, bad and mad’. It thus appeared perfectly befitting that he was restrained by four to five men.

The common failure to recognise  ‘depression’ amongst Black groups is a serious public health concern. Many Black people do present to primary care services but, it appears that often, their distress is not seen so that many end up not receiving the support and care they require in a timely fashion, if at all.  My sense is that Black people are simply not seen as vulnerable, are all too often left to cope alone and problematised by any manifestation of anger which can then attracts further dehumanisation. Who would dare ask someone being kicked on the floor to turn the volume down? Some forms of violence are extremely subtle and seemingly innocuous but their cumulative effects can be more toxic and equally traumatic. Next time you see a Black woman angry, please consider what you may not have noticed. This may help ensure our life’s journeys stop mirroring the train journey of that big Black Woman.

* David ‘Rocky’ Bennett was a Black mental health service user who died in 1998 at a medium secure mental health unit. An independent inquiry found that he died as a direct result of prolonged face down physical restraint and the amount of force used by members of staff during the incident. The inquiry made specific recommendations about the use of physical restraint, especially with regards to face down or prone position restraint and in relation to the need for culture competence training for Mental Health Staff. Critically, the enquiry accepted the presence of institutional racism within Mental Health services.

To access the Independent Enquiry Report into the death of David Bennett (click here).

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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.