beauty ideals beauty standards Black women black women's bodies cultural appropriation white women
Where Does the Black Woman's Body Belong?7/22/2015
by Jenn M. Jackson Few things personify white privilege more than the erasure of Black women’s b...
by Jenn M. Jackson
Few things personify white privilege more than the erasure of Black women’s bodies from the public sphere. Evidence of this fact can be found in the reactions to Serena Williams’ recent Wimbledon title and the faux outrage at Amandla Stenberg’s commentary on Kylie Jenner’s culturally appropriated cornrows. In the face of these obstacles, an important question we must ask ourselves is: Where does the Black woman’s body belong?
Serena Williams – arguably the best tennis player of all time – has been insulted, diminished, erased, and disrespected since she started playing the sport professionally nearly two decades ago. A recent New York Times article describing her body as “muscular” and questioning her womanhood is just a glimpse into the insults she has had to endure over the years. From racism and sexism to transmisogyny and flat out hatred, she has had to experience a myriad of criticisms just for existing in professional tennis while Black and female. The road to loving herself wasn’t easy. But, Williams learned to do it despite the hate she continually faced from white critics, coaches, commentators, and fans.
For Williams, her body belongs precisely where she has been all along: on the tennis court. While efforts to erase and exclude her from that predominantly white space prevail, she has been crystal clear that she both deserves and has earned the privilege to be there no matter how threatening it is to systems of white superiority.
Similarly, 16-year-old Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg was recently called a “jackhole” by TV host Andy Cohen after she criticized 17-year-old Kylie Jenner (younger half-sister of Kim Kardashian) for posting an image of herself on Instagram wearing cornrows. Cohen later apologized. Stenberg’s words, while offensive to many whites who believe this issue is only about “hairstyles,” were incredibly accurate and timely.
Stenberg later clarified her comments in an Instagram post. In particular, she noted that “While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.”
Stenberg, though young, is not wrong in her claims. For the mainstream media to pretend as though her concerns were being expressed this way for the first time is misleading and reductive. Stenberg has been consistent in her critique of appropriation of “Black culture” and the exclusion of Black women from Eurocentric beauty standards. If anything, Stenberg has summarized precisely the exclusionary actions of white supremacy that Serena Williams herself experiences daily – a phenomenon Dr. Moya Bailey calls “misogynoir.”
No, this isn’t a new issue. I recently covered this subject at length in reference to the Rachel Dolezal media debacle. The mainstream media’s obsession with Dolezal was fueled by both a hatred for Black women and an insatiable desire to present white women as inherently pure and idyllic.
Even more importantly, I have thoroughly explained how white women have long invested in the demonization of Black women and families. By making themselves the point of reference for womanhood, they have contributed to a framework which excludes Black women’s bodies, marking them as “other.” This double standard is so pervasive that it has been internalized and projected onto little Black girls. Therefore, these two recent events involving Williams and Stenberg should not surprise anyone who has been paying at least a little bit of attention.
As it stands, modern beauty standards rely on almost unattainable ideals but still rest upon the exploitation and appropriation of Black women’s bodies. But why?
The answer is simple: Just as whiteness is defined by the existence of blackness, white women’s beauty can’t exist without Black women’s (purported) lack thereof. This isn’t to say that Black women’s beauty is reliant on the White Gaze. Rather, I am noting that many white people, at least partially, define themselves by their deviation from Black people.
This cruel fact isn’t true just when considering beauty standards. In Williams’ case, it also articulates itself in professional athleticism. For Beyoncé and Rihanna, it manifests itself in the music industry. And, for Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes, and Ava DuVernay, it emerges in the television and movie fields. In all cases, from the vantage point of white supremacy, Black women’s bodies are to be emulated rather than empowered, appropriated rather than appreciated, and excluded rather than extolled.
Thus, in a system predicated on the “otherness” of blackness, Black women’s bodies are meant to exist on the margins. But, in this era of #BlackLivesMatter, many Black women have been challenging this status quo of oppression. Rather than accepting marginalization and exploitation, these women have carved out spaces for themselves that were once designated for whiteness alone.
Frankly, Black women’s bodies belong wherever we choose to exist. It is a function of White supremacy to try and convince us otherwise. However, as we continue to make space and dismantle those existing narratives and structures which seek to erase us, we must be prepared to contend with the blowback we are certain to experience.
In this way, the critiques of Williams and Stenberg can be best understood not as barriers to our full existence, but as stepping stones that allow us to come closer to realizing what being “free” truly feels like.
Photo: New York Daily News
Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.