On Tiny Harris and Getting to the Root of Internalized Racism

by Brittany Dawson

Tiny Harris, former member of 90s R&B group Xscape, reality television star, and wife of Atlanta-based rapper T.I., sparked debate when she underwent plastic surgery to permanently change her eye color. Common talking points include low self-esteem; pandering to White, Eurocentric standards of beauty; and most importantly, internalized self-hatred/racism, a deeply wounding and problematic experience I know all too well.

When I was 11 years old, MTV’s The Hills, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Hollister television ads propagated powerful messages on beauty standards. White skin + silky smooth hair + chiseled body = perfection. Every day, I was reminded that Black bodies were not included in this discussion. These ads transformed into truths, corrosive and psychologically wounding. Middle school boys and girls further punctuated my purportedly unattractive, Black body. I was called “Pizza Face.” I was called “Oreo” (Black on the outside, White on the inside) because I enjoyed reading. I was called “Brittany, the Black Fat A**”. Kinky, dry, unkempt hair made me frighteningly aware of my prepubescent body; puzzling, oblong, and ogre-like (so it seemed). I hated my Black skin.

I prayed God would remove my hair, skin, full lips, and replace them with that of Lauren Conrad or someone equally as beautiful. One morning before school, I rushed into the bathroom and cried as I saw (what I perceived to be) hideous Black skin greeting me in the mirror. Shame bled from my pores. I scooped a generous amount of Ampro Pro Styl and smeared globs of gel into my hair, violently flattening underdeveloped baby hairs and bushels of tautly wound puffs. I eagerly concealed all identifiers of Blackness. Slumped over the bathroom sink, a hearty sob reverberated like a beacon across the hall loud enough for my mother to hear. There my mother stood gravely, wounded, sullen, and concerned. There my mother stood, witnessing her Black daughter trying to erase her identity. We joined and sobbed at rhythmic intervals, our lungs heaving and releasing gusts of oxygen. I wiped away bubbles of snot between pauses. My mother pulled my head close to hers and with a quivering voice, she shrieked, “Brittany Jacqueline Dawson, YOU ARE BLACK. Always will be. My beautiful Black daughter.” She held me tight, kissed my forehead and allowed tears to slide down onto my face. Salty, joyless, yet hopeful tears. I returned her grasp and roared in sadness. It was then my journey towards self-acceptance began.

Weeks following this incident, my family began “operation Blackness” for a lack of better words to expose me to all facets of the Black experience. All around the house, gems of African-American culture—from paintings, to my father’s impressive collection of 80s LPs—were enjoyed rather than avoided. It was not as though they never exposed me to this imagery. But bullying and unattainable mainstream standards of beauty led me to accept stereotypical, racist portraits of Blackness. In turn, I rejected any and all things associated with Blackness, including items in my own home.

Several nights throughout the week, we watched Roots, sparking my budding interest in social justice and equality. My mother and father explained slavery, disenfranchisement, and sociohistorical factors that cause some Blacks to feel ashamed of their history. I also attended an afterschool program sponsored by a local Black sorority. These women had PhD’s and MBA’s, some owned business, and they were all well-respected pillars of the Black community. Being surrounded by these Black women, I realized that Black is beautiful. We talked college and career plans, particularly focusing on ways to uplift the community together. In essence, these dark times exposed me to women who looked like me, a catalyst that drove my self-acceptance. Now, at 21 years old, I’ve unlearned internalized racist ideas. I find pride—not sorrow—in my skin, hair, and curvy figure. It was only through awareness, education, and visibility that I realized my own worth and relationship to Blackness. I became empowered through pain, which bolstered my efforts to pursue a career in education.

We do not know if Tiny Harris’ change in eye color is explicitly tied to her own internalized racism or self-hatred. But it does raise a bigger question: With Eurocentric constructs of beauty imposed on us, how can Black women take authority of how we look and feel in our own bodies? And most importantly, how can we send messages to younger Black women who struggle to find value in their unique relationship to Blackness? Especially if the media continuously serves up highly constricting and suffocating standards of beauty. Especially if we are told how to look and who to look like. Thus young girls internalize these oppressive notions of Black beauty. We owe it to our girls to teach, uplift, and inform—or else, many will continue to think their Blackness is undesirable, rather than a facet of their undeniable beauty.

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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