The Black and White of What It Means to Be “Beautiful”

By: Tierra Ragland

In a world where European standards of beauty are the status quo, other standards of beauty are commodified, fetishized, or considered less than.  There have been countless research, articles, books, and documentaries published on the negative impact that European standards of beauty have had on people of color around the world.

Darker skinned Black women are “less classically beautiful” according to a September 18, 2014 article in the New York Times.  The article referenced Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who portrays defense attorney Annalise Keating on the new Shondaland drama “How to Get Away With Murder.”  Davis was described by the New York Times as “older, darker-skinned, and less classically beautiful” than Scandal star Kerry Washington and for that matter, Halle Berry.  This characterization of Davis is problematic because it assumes that there is only one standard of beauty for Black women.  The quote also addresses the historical social problem of using biracial women as the epitome of Black Beauty.

Viola Davis, star of "How to Get Away with Murder."

Viola Davis, star of “How to Get Away with Murder.”

To properly discuss the consequences of the statement made by the New York Times, we must discuss the history of what it means to be considered a beautiful Black woman in America.  Throughout history, it has been written into law that Black people in America are to be socially and legally less than White people in America; from slaves being counted as 3/5th of a person to Blacks not having the right to vote, there has always been systematic superiority.  Even with the massive legal strides that have since been gained by the Black community, the societal consequences of hundreds of years of socially-stratified inequality still remain.

The Doll Test

In the 1940s, psychologists Dr. Kenneth and Dr. Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.  For this test, four dolls, all identical except for their skin color, were used to test the racial perceptions of children between the ages of three and seven.  The children were asked to identify the races of the doll and which color they preferred.  A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to them.  The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.  Dr. Clark testified as to the results of his study in Brown v. the Board of Education.  The doll test has been recreated in several documentaries and studies with no change in the responses of the children or the overall results of the test.  The statements made about Viola Davis in the New York Times article illustrate how even in 2014, those same racial preferences found in the doll test still remain.

Brown Paper Bag Test

A ritual once practiced by some historically Black colleges (HBCUs), social organizations, and historically Black sororities and fraternities involved not admitting anyone into the group whose skin tone was darker than a brown paper bag.  A brown paper bag was used because the color of the bag was considered the cut off for light skin and any skin tone darker than the bag was considered too dark or undesirable.  HBCUs, sororities, and fraternities no longer use the brown paper bag test.  However, comparing Black women on a spectrum that begins with Halle Berry, and ends Viola Davis as “less than classically beautiful” is exactly the same practice as the brown paper bag test.

Halle Berry

Halle Berry

The brown paper bag test is part of the larger social construction known as colorism.  Alice Walker defined colorism, in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”  Colorism prevails intra-racially and interracially for the same reasons: the dominance of Eurocentric beauty ideals, external racism, and internalized racism by Blacks.  The 2014 Documentary Dark Girls explores colorism among Black women in America and around the world.  The documentary depicts the social, psychological, and emotional experience of darker skinned Black women.

Society has yet to embrace the radical idea that we can all be beautiful.  Black women come in a variety of shades and a variety of social, cultural, and historical implications on what it means to be beautiful.  The media produces thousands of images of unattainable and unrealistic beauty ideals, which become even more problematic when you are the “wrong skin color.”  Yet it is up to us to begin realizing that there is no “classically beautiful,” and start embracing each and every person for the beautiful individual that they are, both inside and out.

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