Am I Queen? On Beauty Privilege and Its Discontents

by Yvette Tetteh

“You know, I can just tell you are a true African Queen.”

I draw my bottle of beer closer towards me, let out a quiet sigh, take a sip, and decide to take the bait along with it.

“Oh really?”

I can’t help it. I’m curious. It’s not that long that I’ve been a Queen, only since dropping down in Johannesburg six weeks ago, and I’m still intrigued by this new identity.

The waiter at the upscale café-bar leans in conspiratorially, smiles, and explains:

“Oh yes! You’re very beautiful and a true African.”

Beautiful and a true African, eh? A true African. And beautiful to boot! I look him directly in the eye and share a small smile with myself before turning back to my beer and away from him.

Having spent many of my twenty-two years an unremarkable black girl in white spaces in the UK, where I was born, and in the U.S.,where I went to college, I had trouble internalizing this comment. Despite having some version of it murmured, intimated, or shouted towards me everyday since I arrived in Johannesburg.

“African Queen” // “Black is beautiful!”

“Never change ! Dark and Lovely!” // “Hello baby!”

What I realized, what I’m still working through, is that I have become beautiful. Me, who too-recently-ago would clutch myself tightly because the [white] boys who were my friends never thought to. Me, who would clutch my thighs tightly because maybe if I held hard enough the flesh would come off and I would be skinny. Me, who would clutch my feelings tightly because I didn’t want them spilling out into bodies that were only half interested in holding them. That me had become beautiful.

In Johannesburg my dark black berry skin stands out against the earth and clay tones. My body is athletic and youthful and ripe. And when I walk my head is up, my back straight and my stride flowing. I am striking. Striking particularly to black men who tell me so everyday.

Barely more than twenty years since the official end of apartheid in South Africa, and South African’s relationship to race continues to be extremely complex and in many ways ungraspable for foreigners and locals alike. Being dark-skinned and striking in this context, “a true African Queen,” is exhilarating and unsettling.

This “African” beauty affords me certain privileges. People smile at me. Or act deferentially towards me. They sometimes want to please me. The waiter at the café-bar was accommodating; helping me move from table to table till my whims and I were satisfied, allowing me to charge my laptop behind the bar, graciously changing my drink order when I decided on beer instead of wine.

These perks can be great, the way in which I am called out of my private space and into the public eye, less so. If there is something I love it is being alone in public space. That feeling of being absolutely with myself surrounded by people has a magic energy to it that I enjoy thoroughly. There’s a comfortable harmony in having the peace of my inner thoughts balanced with the life of those around me.

Being pulled from this intimate space and thrust into an outer one, especially in a sexual manner (“Hey baby!”) is deeply uncomfortable for me. Before, I could barely even say the phrase “I’m beautiful” without adding a thousand caveats and looking around guiltily like I’d just praised my own cooking.

And that external gaze is unreliable for affirmation. The same smooth black skin that draws people to me also provokes antagonism in the form of xenophobia. While certifying a copy of my passport at the local police station, a male police officer told me to “go back to Ghana” where my family is from.

This beauty, then, is complicated, and heavy. So heavy that sometimes I didn’t want even to go outside and have to carry it again and again, in the streets and at work. So complicated that I couldn’t experience it without discontent.

But I am curious. Curious about the world, and about myself. Curious to have new feelings, and to develop new relationships. Curious to live.

So I have decided to do my best to explore this new beauty. To choose to be a Queen, and to choose to celebrate myself. And, because I am worrying less about how I look, I can see more of the beauty in others. I walk tall and stride forward because I enjoy the way it feels like dancing. I choose to smile at people because I enjoy the shared warmth of it.

And sitting alone at a café-bar, sipping on beer sweating in the heat, I can smile a small smile when a waiter tells me I must be an African Queen.

Photo: Shutterstock

Yvette Tetteh is freelance filmmaker, amateur farmer, and writer. She began writing non-fiction narratives while at Stanford University, where she received a BA in Anthropology and French. She is currently developing an urban farming and arts program for youth in her native Ghana.

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