It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are.
~Annie, Imitation of Life
Black children, self-esteem and beauty standards. This subject matter is so exhaustive and correlates to so many different areas of our lives that I just didn’t know where to start. I am not going to even begin to try to touch upon everything, but I think this is an issue which needs to be bought to everyone’s attention. Recently, a short film was made by a 16 year old African-American teen, Kiri Davis, on the subject matter of black girls and self image. For those of you who haven’t seen the video you can check it out here:
Note: Original site no longer has video. There is some information here: http://peacemedia.usip.org/resource/media-matters-film-festival-girl-me and I located the video on youtube below:
If you have children, daughters in particular, or have young children under the sphere of your influence please watch the video. In the film she gets reactions from other teens about their experiences and thoughts about being black. She also recreates the “doll test” initially conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark, used in the desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education back in the 1950’s. In the “doll test” a child is presented with two dolls, a black doll and a white doll and asked which doll is the “good” or “nice” doll and which is the “bad” doll. In one scene a little girl is presented with the test and selects the black doll as the “bad” doll, and when asked, said it is bad because it is black, the other doll is nice because it is white. She is then asked which doll looked like her. I tell you, my heart broke as she silently slid the black doll forward. Of the children Kiri worked with, 15 out of 21 preferred the white doll.
Being balanced, when children that age are presented with a choice, they may assume those are the only options. I would have preferred for her to have asked them if one of the dolls were good or bad, and then if they made that decision inquire as to why. The way the question was posed, the children may have thought one HAD to be good and one HAD to be bad. Even so, to see a black child say the black doll was bad, simply because it is black, is very disturbing. This is not simply about a black child wanting to play with a white doll, its about why. If its a preference, or they just like the doll, that’s fine. If its because they think to be black is ugly or “bad”, then we have a problem.
It all starts at home, though. We have access to and the responsibility to shape the minds of our children, so when they are faced with outside images that would paint black folks in a negative light, there is a frame of reference that has been internalized to offset that. We need to be able to help them understand the images, attitudes and stereotypes they will be faced with. We have to do this, society at large is not looking our for our children.
We also need to remember that children take in EVERYTHING. Just because they have not been explicitly told that black is “bad”, that doesn’t mean they have not come to certain conclusions. How are you referring to other blacks? Yourself? Are you something that needs to be fixed: Is your hair “too nappy”, skin too dark? I know some people who will not go out in the sun for fear of getting dark. I know a woman who was told by her mother not to bring a dark-skinned man home because “we are trying to progress and improve the race, not regress”. She was told she could date them but not reproduce with them. I’ve read experiences recounted of lighter siblings being favored over darker siblings, and times the darker ones were completely ignored.
I have come across similar issues in other arenas. Author Joanne Cornwell, in her book “That Hair Thing” discusses black beauty, and it’s affect on our lives and relationships. She noted that when she attends movies and a dark skinned actress comes on the screen how someone always says that she is ugly, and will talk negatively about their features: wide noses, nappy hair, thick lips, dark skin. She also noted that in the instances she was able to get a look at the person hurling the insults, they often had similar features. I’m sorry folks, but this is self hate no matter how you slice it.
Cornwell poses the questions: “What have we become when the physical traits of our women are acceptable objects of ridicule in our culture? What have we become, when our women feel that covering up or correcting nature is the only way to make themselves lovable, or even acceptable, both to men and to other women?” She calls this an “aesthetic crises“, where to a greater or lesser degree, we have lost our ability to see, believe in, and be empowered by the physical beauty that is unique to our own kind. She continues,“Although it is related to other external factors, I believe it has more to do with how we experience two things in our lives that are basic to all human beings. These are Beauty and Truth. Our experience of these two forces affects us through out our lives on a very deep level. As humans, we have a strong natural urge to connect the two, but as African Americans, too often in our daily lives, Beauty is not related to what is True for us at all…”
She goes on to state that growing up on media images given to us by Hollywood, we have internalized the images that are celebrated as beauty in mainstream culture, creating what is considered “normal” for the standard of beauty, stating “normalcy [is]a precondition to beauty, and our task is to ensure that our true images get included in what is considered normal.”
Going forward, tell your daughters they are beautiful. Also teach them that they don’t have to hate others to celebrate themselves. It’s not about being “better than”. As one woman put it, you “don’t want her subconsciously associating beauty, refinement, and ‘specialness’ solely with white skin.” Another puts it this way “its not about denying the differences, its about not making what is different bad, about not being inherently bad because you exist.”
You can expose your child to positive black images. If you conduct the doll experiment, and your child has a preference, find out why. I don’t recommend taking your child’s toys away if they do not choose how you want them to. That will only make matters worse. Just teach them. Teach them to love themselves, and each other. Teach them their value, that they are “enough” in and of themselves, and show them their beauty. In one forum a member stated: “When I was young, I told my mom I wanted a white doll. She politely turned me around and asked ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are your parents white?’ Of course I replied no. She told me she wanted me to have a doll that was as beautiful as I am. I never wanted or asked for a white doll since.”
The children are our future. Give them the tools they need to create a happy and prosperous one which validates their identity and helps them recognize their own power to be successful as their own person on their own terms.