written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey Harris
“Taylor Swift is really cute, and so is Katy Perry. She’s got pretty, blue eyes. Oh, and you know who else I think is cute? Britney Spears.” The discussion about who’s hot and who’s not that I had this weekend with my 13-year-old nephew seems banal, but it made me a little sad. I noted that, of all the girls he fancies, not one is black or “of color.” I worry that my African American nephew, raised in a predominantly white community with very little diversity, is learning to accept and embrace the Eurocentric beauty ideals that are a tyranny to ALL women, most especially women of color. What to do? When he begins dating in a few years, I want my nephew (And my stepson, who is growing up in the same community) to love who he loves, regardless of race. But love begins with attraction, which is less subjective than we like to admit. Would that all men/boys of romantic age were more inclusive about who they deem attractive. But there is something very ugly and particularly destructive to self, when a young man of color learns that girls who look like his mother, his aunt and his grandmother–like HIM are less desirable.
The very idea of trying to ensure that a teenager’s sense of attraction is egalitarian seems silly and nonsensical. Attraction is organic. Right? Well, only partly, in my estimation. Attraction is subjective, but also instructive of prevailing societal standards, which can be influenced by race, gender and other biases, or simply the vagaries of the time. For example, the fact that I found pale English boys in makeup the hawtness in high school was less organic than a result of being a child of the 80s when Duran Duran, Culture Club and Wham! ruled the airwaves. Of course, there was little chance of me neglecting boys that looked like me in favor of Nick Rhodes doppelgangers, as mascaraed, pale English boys were nonexistent in my 95 percent-black high school in an urban Midwestern steel town.
But there are many reasonable facsimiles of Britney and Taylor and Katy, et al., in my nephew’s community. And why wouldn’t a heterosexual, teenage boy want a girl who possesses qualities associated with the female beauty icons of his generation? Woe is the girl who cannot approximate the “in” look of the day, particularly the girls whose “ethnic” hair, eyes, body or facial features mean that they can’t even come close. (Isn’t Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen“ as powerful today as it was when she first sang it in 1975?). As I write this, it occurs to me that the definition of female beauty, as it is sold to pre-teens and teens, is even narrower than the one sold to their older counterparts. In the adult world, we occasionally get a Halle Berry or Beyonce or Salma Hayek or Jennifer Lopez or Lucy Liu. But who is the Latina or black or Asian or Native equivalent to today’s white, female teen stars?
It would be dishonest not to admit some of my angst over this is born of old scars, earned when I arrived at 17 as one of few African American students on a huge, Midwestern state university campus. Over the next four years, many black co-eds learned some hard lessons about where we stand in the romantic hierarchy. For even the prettiest, most accomplished young black woman, there were plenty of dateless weekends and evenings spent warming the table at the club, while white girlfriends danced and flirted and “hooked up.” But that was way, way back in the late 80s/early 90s…in Iowa for God’s sake. Surely things must be different for black girls in majority white communities today. My stepson tells me “no.”
“The black girls in my high school don’t really date,” he says. “Most of the black guys…and the white guys…date white girls.”
If my nephew and other teenage boys in the community are absorbing the same old beauty hierarchy messages, what does that mean for my nephew’s little sisters when they get older and begin to seek romantic attachments?
What to do?
Reading over this piece, I realize that I have more questions than solutions. I don’t want the young, black men in my life to think that being attracted to and dating young, white women–or any woman of another race–is wrong or always the result of self-hate and racial bias. That’s not true. But I do want them to have equal appreciation for the wonderful ways that beauty reveals itself across the races. And, perhaps most of all, I want my nieces to enjoy the full high school experience, with dating and eager beaus. I don’t want them to be the girls left out of the fun, merely because their race decreases their social and romantic value.
How does an anti-racist parent (or anti-racist aunt) accomplish that?
image courtesy of egyptiansushi on Flickr