OUR advice columnist Zahira Kelly specializes in the jolt of recognition that comes from rearranging or inverting mainstream hierarchies. In this month’s column, she helps readers understand their complex feelings about this past summer’s Olympic games and the ways power and beauty are intertwined.
I am a person of color from the Caribbean, and the Rio 2016 Olympics left me feeling emotionally unstable. I was happy and feeling guilty of being happy at the same time. Is it even possible to feel so many ways at once?
Fret not. It is called being a nuanced, multifaceted human. I know we are not necessarily allowed such luxuries as people of color all the time, but it is still our human right. And like all of the Olympics and the World Cups, these games were fraught with violence towards the more vulnerable sectors of the population. The displacement and murder of Afro-Indigenous lower-class people for the sake of being game-ready was widely reported during Brazil’s years of preparation for the World Cup and Olympics. As spectators, these reports hit those of us who have known that kind of violence particularly hard. To have your whole life uprooted in anguish and bloodshed, to lose your home and be left with no place to go so that the rest of the more monied world can have a good time in your land for a few days, without you in their way? It’s really a microcosm of colonization. And we in the Caribbean have known colonization intimately since Columbus’s arrival on our islands in 1492.
We watched people from our marginalized little countries compete and even win against powerful nations. We gazed in awe at all of us who are made invisible everywhere else, showing off as otherworldly athletic gods for this split moment in time. Black and Brown people showed utmost grace, talent, drive, and magic, representing ungrateful-ass countries where we are normally degraded and marginalized. Afro-Latinxs from Colombia, Ecuador, and other Latin American nations where we are regularly erased, were suddenly leaping across the screen, gleaming, and winning medals for a flag. The Dominican Republic’s first and only medal was ironically won by a dark-skinned man of Haitian descent, in the midst of the government passing laws to denationalize people like him. The United States won a record amount of medals thanks to the very same Black and Brown people who are institutionally persecuted, exploited, and marginalized by the state.
There is also the issue of who gets the access to compete and train in the first place. In the Dominican Republic you can only train for professional gymnastics if you live in the capital near the few places that offer it and if you can afford classes (a tiny minority of us). That’s on top of the immense physical talent and drive required to excel. Can you really equate scant, lower-class, struggling-to-eat Afro-Dominicana gymnasts, using old flimsy mattresses as landing pads during Olympic training, to well-fed U.S. girls trained in state of the art facilities with coaches experienced in the meticulous standards of the Olympic Games? Not really. Can we really equate the access middle- to upper-class White U.S.ian families have to elite athletic training versus what little access lower-class and inner city kids of color get? Hell no. Yes, we have smaller countries like Jamaica giving all the rich nations a run for their money with superb athletes and training, but given their aforementioned handicaps, it takes that much more drive and talent for us to get there.
The Olympics have elicited responses of pride, anger, impotence, shame, guilt, and honor globally. And all of these feelings are completely valid and in sync with the complexities of our reality as neocolonial subjects.
Dear Marooned Alien Princess,
These scientific studies that say White people are coincidentally the most attractive and beautiful have me feeling some kinda way. But it’s “science” so I feel ignorant trying to refute it.
You are in no way ignorant for noting the racist quackery involved in these studies. Beauty is subjective. Throughout history, who and what is beautiful has been determined by the prevailing ruling class. Beauty is power. What is considered beautiful among people of color has often changed drastically to favor their colonizers.
I have read historical accounts about Indigenous people across the world, and most expressed confusion upon first contact with White people. That’s right: They didn’t “ohh” and “ahh” at the perfect upturned angle of their noses, they furrowed their brows in confusion and even disgust. A popular Internet meme shows the reaction of a man from an isolated African tribe in Kenya upon seeing White people for the first time. On his face is a mixture of incredulousness and slight horror, not heart-eyes as he gazes upon their so-called perfect nose-to-mouth-to-eye measurements and symmetry.
Native Hawaiians initially thought White people didn’t breathe or have blood. They didn’t think to themselves “here is the gorgeous God who has come to save me,” but instead, “what is wrong with them?” In some regions of Africa like Uganda or Kenya, the pre-colonial beauty standard was or is of dark-skinned and very full-figured women with their hair cropped close to their scalps. This, in a world that tells us the love of thin, White, long-haired bodies is natural selection at its purest. You’ll notice this suddenly sounds like some Hitler-type science–that’s because it is. It is not science; it is the denial and normalization of a historically oppressive social conditioning and racial bias on the researcher’s part.
Do these scientists think that art and self-depictions by pre-colonial, non-White communities were of the same kind than White, blonde, blue-eyed thin models on modern billboards? Nobody back then thought about California and Swedish blondes when they thought of beauty. What would the results of these “scientific” studies on beauty be in the year 1452 in Indigenous communities in the Americas? What would the results yield in pre-enslavement, pre-colonial Africa? Who did the enslaved Africans I descend from consider beautiful before they were chained to the bottom of ships and forced to work under violent, inhumane conditions for White people who called us “the ugliest”? You really think it was Becky with the good hair? I guaran-fuckin-tee it wasn’t anybody who looked remotely like the indistinguishable White people all these “scientific” studies determined are coincidentally most beautiful after more than 500 years of White supremacy.
There is certainly a history of colorism unrelated to Western colonialism in Eastern nations like China, India, and Japan. But even there, it wasn’t no Aryan princesses being lauded as the most attractive.
This faux science posits all the history and current non-Westernized reality of many people of color as null and void. Like we didn’t exist outside of what White people brought to us when they came. It is apparently hard for those scientists to imagine times and places where the glory of the Caucasian visage isn’t centered or even a thought in the back of people’s minds. And there’s nothing scientific about that. In fact, as I have previously laid out, ignoring global history in your scientific hypotheses is the least scientific shit ever.
The way beauty is used to further marginalize people is pretty disgusting: Everything from housing to salary to social protection is allotted by that petty standard. Beauty standards are about what you look like and how close you can resemble those in power. Race is also about what you look like and how close you can resemble those in power. Beauty standards are then inevitably racialized. Point blank. And if you pretend your preferences are coincidence and in no way informed by mechanisms of power or historical degradation of certain people, I suppose this sounds scientific or something.
This is why Dominicans, Latin Americans, and people the world over stay swearing that their attraction to White physical features over Black and Indigenous features is purely science-based. Your beauty preferences trash colonized and enslaved people while elevating those who resemble their colonizers? It’s nature, you pretend. Consider that choosing a partner that fits these White supremacist beauty standards literally allots you more power and status, and that these same beauty preferences compel folks to offer more opportunities to already powerful people. Power, beauty and the interpersonal are inevitably intertwined.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it is truly in the mind of the beholder, and in whoever has the power to use it and leave millions of people to rot in the gutter.