by Kim Crosby
Tempest Bledsoe. Kimberly Roberts. Michael Jackson. Sammy Sosa. Lark Voorhies. These ones we are sure about. Their transformations were such obvious departures from the artists we grew up watching.
Nicki? Beyonce? These ones we may be less sure of, their transformations were subtler. A slight ‘refinement’ of certain features and heavy overexposure in every music video.
Hollywood is littered with the remnants of people of colour from all decades who have been pressed to conform to an invented standard of Euro-Western ‘beauty’.
Margarita Carmen Cansino, was subject to skin lightening, painful hairline electrolysis to become the iconic Rita Hayworth. Even Jackie Chan’s features were transformed using chin implants and nose jobs to look more ‘appealing’ to European (read racist European) audiences.
And with the recent casting of Zoe Saldana in the upcoming unapproved Nina Simone biopic, Hollywood continues to reaffirm that it’s okay to play a dark-skinned black girl, but not to be one in real life. That is why when I came across recent pictures of L’il Kim, the original rap bitch, I was heartbroken but not surprised. And I wanted us to have a different conversation, one that isn’t about victim blaming and rather about community accountability.
The truth of the matter is that we are sensitive creatures and we don’t live in a vaccum. All of us, we are affected deeply by everything around us, from the overrepresentation of some of us in the media to the underrepresentation of others. L’il Kim and all these other artists were responding to the architects of this system and audiences all too happy to continue to swoon over the newest blonde ingénue as opposed to demanding some damn good roles for Angela Basset. Many of these artists (particularly if the transition was seamless) enjoyed unprecedented success in the same Euro-Western media – the payoff was substantial. So if people are rewarded for getting ‘whiter’ and are punished for being ‘Blacker/Browner/Queerer’, then it seems to me that this ‘blame’ needs to be shared fairly.
If we push people to ‘make it’, to achieve visibility in an arena that time and time again has articulated that the standard of beauty is deeply rooted in being fair skinned with particular features, we continue to feed a system that chews us up and spits us out and we too are accountable for creating the conditions that feed this kind of celebrity.
To be entirely clear, I am not shaming L’il Kim nor I am judging her for plastic surgery; she can do what she wants with her appearance and her body. I hate the ways that feminine bodies are subject to an enormous amount of scrutiny based on their appearances and then are condemned for investing any time overtly manipulating it. Womyn are asked to be ‘natural’, ‘cisgender or cis passing’, ‘able-bodied’, sexual but blissfully unaware of it, accommodating but retaining a quintessential virginal quality.
What I do want to examine is the ways that this is a product of racism. And specifically the ways we seek to deracialize ourselves as we internalize racism. I grew up around a lot of white folks and I remember with perfect detail the day that I got my hair straightened and my entire social status changed. Suddenly I was beautiful, relevant, not like the ‘other’ Black girls. They would touch my hair and ask me why other Black girls’ hair was so greasy or short or rough. As folks who can be ambiguously racialized or who are light skinned, we have to acknowledge the hierarchy that gets created by ‘good hair’ and ‘light eyes’ and that has everyone reblogging all the pictures of the ‘pretty mixed babies’.
Black womyn, and in particular dark-skinned womyn with round African features, are shamed, erased in such deliberate violent ways that even when they have an enormous amount of success and talent like L’il Kim, they still feel the pressure to disappear.
In the short documentary, ‘A Girl Like Me’, filmmaker Kiri Davis recreates the experiment cited in Brown vs. Board Of Education and we get to see little Black and Brown girls choosing the white doll as the ‘good’ and ‘pretty’ doll while the Black dolls are the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ ones. This experiment has been reproduced time and time again and the results are always the same. We don’t have to wonder what the long and short-term effects of being exposed to systemic racism are. They are evident in people of all ages. If this is the impact that it has on the youngest of us, the ones who have been on this planet for the shortest amount of time, how can we act surprised when we see it play out in adulthood?
We have to remember that racism is terrifying because it works. We don’t blame people for dying from cancer, for not being strong enough to withstand the debilitating affects of the disease; we blame the disease and the terrifying way that it consumes the bodies of people that we love. Our focus needs to be on figuring out ways to counter the messages of shame and violence and target the message makers not to further shame the ones who are clearly suffering from it. We need to support community media makers and artists who create images in ways that affirm and recognize our multiplicity and illuminate the many ways that beauty manifests.
As a light-skinned womyn, despite the fact that there isn’t a lot of representation of Black womyn in Euro Western media, I can depend on the fact that if there is someone, they will look like me or lighter. They will not be 5’3, 200 lbs, dark-skinned. They will not be trans, queer or disabled. There is a very clear hierarchy. And if someone who meets these criteria is there, she is a monster, a mammy or a joke. We don’t have to accept these crumbs, we don’t have to seek reflection from people and industries that continue to affirm in their movies, magazines, and even on the money that we do not exist.
Beige is not the definition of ‘nude.’ My hair doesn’t grow long, it grows wide. I am not trying to be an hourglass, I am a pear dammit!
We need to vigilant in decolonizing and confronting the standards that make some bodies more valuable than others in the context of this system. This system is populated by people just like you, body policing others for their camel toes, nappy hair and saggy breasts. We contribute to each other’s safety and well-being and we can and do create the conditions to heal each other.
A daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, Kim Crosby is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, facilitator and educator.
*This writer received an honorarium for this piece. If you want to support QTPOC being paid for their work, please consider making a donation to BGD!
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