Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Check out this astounding ad from India for "Fair and Lovely":

You don't need to understand the language to get the odious message. Thanks to Natasha Chart at MyDD who posted this one, and also linked Loryn Wilson's reaction to it.

This reminded me of a recent piece by Vanessa Williams: at The Root:

It’s true: A lot of black women fell for Barack Obama the moment they saw his wife.

If a black president represents change, a dark-skinned first lady is straight-up revolutionary.

I won’t apologize for taking note of Michelle Obama’s physical appearance. Plenty has already been said about how she, with her double Ivy degrees, six-figure salaries and two adorable daughters, is crushing the image of the struggling black single mother. She is a real life Clair Huxtable! But the true breakthrough here is that sisters who look like Michelle Obama seldom become cultural icons, aesthetic trendsetters—a proxy for the all-American woman.

And don’t roll your eyes and ask why we have to go there; we haven’t completely gotten over our prejudices about skin tone and hair texture. Despite years of scholarly, literary and popular debate—from Dr. Kenneth Clark’s baby-doll tests, to Toni Morrison’s tragic characters in The Bluest Eye, to the showdown between jiggaboos and wannabes in Spike Lee’s School Daze—too many of us continue to accept a standard of beauty that does not favor ebony-hued skin, woolly hair and full lips (and not those surgically enhanced smackers, either).

I know from first-hand experience. I remember being taunted and shunned by some people who didn’t believe that old saying about the blacker the berry. Back when we were Negroes, the word “black” was used to describe the dark-skinned among us, usually not with affection. My mama assured me that I was a pretty black girl, but it was the brothers on the streets, cooing such compliments as dark ‘n lovely, chocolate drop, brown sugar, who convinced me.

Now that we’re all black—folks aren’t quite as open with their intraracial biases, but those old beliefs still haunt us. The lingering effects of racism and sexism, coupled with a beauty industrial complex that constantly assaults our senses with images of female beauty that trend toward the lighter end of the racial color wheel, has rendered dark-skinned women nearly invisible in mainstream media.

Skin color is its own specific issue, but this also goes beyond color alone. One of the things I love about America is its multiculturalism. Race and ethnicity have been a major factor throughout our history, and many of our greatest shames are related to it – slavery, treatment of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow laws, miscegenation laws, and the bigotry in too many contemporary discussions of immigration reform and the Middle East. As Paul Krugman covers in The Conscience of a Liberal, the push for universal health care failed under Truman in part because of racism – there was anxiety in the South about white doctors and nurses being forced to attend to black patients. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland chronicles (among many other things) how central race was to 60s politics. Reagan of course pitched his fictional welfare queens, Lee Atwater exploited similar resentments, and our most recent presidential election certainly featured issues of race (if sometimes discussed obtusely).

However, for all its problems, for all the road left to go, America as a whole has also dealt with issues of race and ethnicity more than many other nations. America has long been an immigrant nation, but resentment over that among some Americans can't compete with the pride felt by many others. Given our history as a 'melting pot,' (or whatever metaphor you prefer), the people who claim to be "real Americans" as opposed to newer arrivals have always been awfully silly. As Will Rogers, part Cherokee, quipped, "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but they were there to meet the boat." I remember having to do ancestry projects many a time in elementary school and again in junior high (the best one had an oral history requirement). Even among the "European-American" crowd, most kids traced their roots back to several different countries. Meanwhile, it's even more common today to know people who are of mixed race or multicultural (or however they might wish to self-identify). In contrast, when you visit small towns in other countries (less so in big cities, of course) it's striking how almost everyone has ancestry that's French, Hungarian, Russian... It's just different from the "I'm a quarter Irish and quarter German on my dad's side and half Japanese on my mom's side" dynamic so common in America. Reading of the former British Empire and its notions of cultural and racial superiority, I always thought the attitude was pretty laughable, given how many times Britain had been conquered and how much intermingling there had been historically (and I suppose you could say the same of many peoples if you go back far enough).

This brings us back to color – because even if you define yourself one way, other people might try to define you another. Mustapha Matura, a playwright from Trinidad living in London, once wrote that in America, he was considered white, but if he got on a plane and went to England, he was considered black. However, this was back in the 90s, and I've met one multicultural Brit who felt that race was a bigger issue in America than in Britain, at least for her growing up. One person's experience may be very different from another's. And there is progress. For America, hell, just look at our Olympic teams for how commonplace multiculturalism is for us. And not long ago, Barack Obama described himself as a "mutt." (Some people found it endearing; others found it offensive. I fall in the first camp.) While race is still an important issue in America, for each subsequent generation, being multicultural is increasingly an accepted norm.

Almost ever year, the National Review, a magazine that denounced Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, will try to claim that MLK was actually conservative or that conservatives actually honor MLK's legacy more than liberals. As Sadly No's Leonard Pierce pointed out last year, this silliness generally rests on the notion that MLK believed in being color-blind and "was only interested in a unified world where everyone behaved exactly like white people," when of course that wasn't the case. Being "color-blind" for the NR crew means, in some combination, pretending that race and racism don't exist, that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to succeed, that if someone's poor it's due to a lack of character rather than a stacked deck, and so on. It means, also, that the NR crowd bears absolutely no obligation to make our society more fair in terms of class, race, power and wealth. An "end to racism" for Rush Limbaugh, Jonah Goldberg, Brit Hume and the gang means, "no one will accuse me of racism."

Martin Luther King, Jr meant something far different when he said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." That's a dream of a meritocracy, of basic decency, not for entrenched and callous existing power structures – and King certainly fought a tough battle for equal opportunity. The goal is not to ignore color, but instead to stop its use as a tool of discrimination. Being literally "blind" to color is only a positive if color itself is seen as a negative (and typically, that the norm is to be "white"). Why can't diversity in color, and culture, instead be positive things and accepted norms? Rather than pretending they don't exist, aren't there times we should recognize and celebrate them? Cruel standards of beauty may take time to change, and the same is true when it comes to superficiality in general. But to help that along, in our own time, why not appreciate all the different ancestries and cultures, from music to food to dance to literature and language to actual human beings? Why not use culture as a means of learning something new, and bringing people together?

On that note, here's Newark mayor Cory Booker on deliciousness:

And if MLK's words don't inspire you, there's always Redd Foxx's take:

(This Redd Foxx civil rights story is quite touching, too.)

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)

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