BY: Olivia Cole, Huffington Post
In 2013 I published an article here on The Huffington Post called “Why I’m Not Here for #WhiteGirlsRock.” In it, I posed a question to my fellow white Americans who were upset about Black Girls Rock!, insisting that a program centering the self-worth and self-love of black girls must be “reverse racism” at work and taking to Twitter with the hashtag #WhiteGirlsRock to “reaffirm” the value of white girls. The question I posed was:
What in your heart recoils when you see Black Girls Rock? What bone in your body sees empowerment for black girls and thinks “that’s not fair?” Where is your bitterness rooted? What do you think has been taken from you when women of color are uplifted?
Now I’m afraid I must ask again, because very little seems to have changed since 2013: Black Girls Rock! is again being criticized. You see, Michelle Obama spoke at this year’s Black Girls Rock! celebration. She said many beautiful things, among them:
No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are beautiful. I am so proud of you. My husband, your president, is so proud of you. We have so much hope and dreams for you… I know there are voices that you are not good enough. Each of those doubts was like a test that I either shrink away from or rise to meet. And I decided to rise.
Her comments (somehow) have prompted outrage and anger, like this bit of… something by Amanda Shea, who claims that Michelle Obama’s beautiful words of love and kindness send the message that “white girls don’t matter.” Let’s think about this.
Yesterday, Cosmopolitan came under fire for an article in their online magazine called “21 Beauty Trends That Need to Die in 2015.” In it, beauty trends are categorized as either “Hello, Gorgeous” or “RIP,” ie. rest in peace. Twitter arose in protest when it was noticed that the “Hello, Gorgeous” column failed to include a single woman of color with the exception of Nicole Richie. Any model with skin darker than hers was placed in the “RIP” column, opposite to a white model in the “Hello, Gorgeous” column. Even more baffling is the fact that the beauty trends the article claims to be contrasting are often too similar or subtle to discern any real difference on first glance, so rather than there being a striking make-up technique that is clearly hideous or tacky, we are left with one readily apparent difference: race. “Hello, Gorgeous” to the white girls. “RIP” to the black girls.
Defenders of Cosmo are eager to jump at the fact that there are white women in the “RIP” column as well. This is true, but missing the point. The point is that the reverse is not true for the “Gorgeous” column, thus the Eurocentric standard for beauty is visibly maintained. A woman of any color can be ugly, this tells us, but only one specific kind of woman can be beautiful.
Why does it matter? Why does it matter what races are depicted as beautiful vs. ugly in one of the most widely read women’s magazines in the country? Because:
Studies show that consumption of TV increases the self-esteem of white boys but decreases the self-esteem of girls and black boys.
Researchers estimate that at some point before they reach 17 years of age, four percent of black teens and more than seven percent of black teen girls will attempt suicide.
Eighty-seven percent of runway models are white.
Black girls and women regularly experience punishment and ostracization for wearing their hair natural.
Of the top 100 grossing films of 2014, only 11 percent of the women onscreen were black.
A repeat of the infamous “Doll Test” of the 1940s revealed that 47 percent of young black girls interviewed preferred to play with white dolls because they were “prettier.”
It’s a subtle kind of murder, the killing of black girls’ self-confidence. In a culture like ours that regularly dehumanizes and denigrates the bodies and identities of black women — even the First Lady of the United States isn’t exempt, after all — it’s easy to miss the often indistinct ways that black girls and women are cast as inferior to the identities and pursuits of white women. The role of the sassy black sidekick in movies, for one. Little microaggressions like this. Women’s magazines are misogynistic on their own in the way that they pit women against one another with vicious, idiotic (and viciously idiotic) contests like “Who Wore It Best?” but when black women almost always lose, there’s another layer (an intersection, if you will) there that speaks to the double-edged sword that women of color tightrope-walk their entire lives.
I see it, too, in the criticism of last week’s Dreamworks release, Home. I saw the film and loved it. The entire audience in my theater loved it and applauded when it was over. Twitter loved it. But a look at RottenTomatoes.com reveals harsh criticism that brings to mind the old “must be twice as great to be considered half as good.” One reviewer remarked “Girl power and diversity aren’t enough to make a great movie” or something similar, and I’m reminded of the power of privilege when it comes to representation in American media. As I said to fellow white people in my original article about Black Girls Rock:
“[White people] are in everything. Ninety-nine percent of Hollywood movies feature your faces. Ninety-nine percent of magazine covers are covered in you. The Emmy Awards and Oscars are almost entirely you. If you Google ‘beautiful people’ the screen is covered in white faces. Black girls (and boys) are taught from birth that there is one version of beauty, and it is you. Many black girls go their entire lives thinking they are ugly, thinking they need to be lighter, straighter, whiter in order to have value. Everything that you see every day that reaffirms your whiteness; every commercial that has a nice white lady embodying the perfect “mom;” every magazine that has blue eyes and bone-straight hair; every Hollywood blockbuster that has a leading lady with skin never darker than Halle Berry… all of these things are reinforcements of your identity that you take for granted.