Twitter sprung to life the other night when the Steve Biko Foundation (in collaboration with YFM) hosted a talk titled ‘Is Black Beautiful?’, which soon became a debate about weaves as an expression of self-hatred. To condemn weaves as “un-African” limits the debate. To truly engage with this question one has to ask what constitutes the aesthetics of beauty − what does beauty ‘look like’? The answer is simple. Beauty is Caucasian, slim-nosed, has no ass, legs that go on forever and, of course, long, straight hair.
If we are to agree that the general construction of beauty, as seen through media and social norms, is caucasian, then black is not beautiful. If we further explore this answer and ask what that means for the aesthetic of other races that do not fit into the caucasian mould, we begin to get to the heart of the matter. By defining beauty within this particular racial aesthetic, you also define what is not beautiful and render inferior that which does not fit into the racialised aesthetic. By defining what is beautiful, you also define what is not beautiful. If how you define beauty is based on characteristics found primarily within a particular race, by default the average racial characteristics of other races are regarded as not beautiful (or even ugly).
By perceiving something as beautiful we regard it as superior, and a superiority complex creates its inverse – an inferiority complex. But if something is seen as beautiful, is ‘the other’ necessarily seen as ugly? Absolutely. Beauty is limiting − it’s a crude and basic really. Beauty leaves no room for nuance, no room for complexity or variation. You’re either beautiful or not, period. And black people are not.
By labelling something as beautiful you ascribe certain virtues and graces to it. We perceive ‘beautiful’ people as trustworthy, honest, rich, articulate, educated, incapable of bad and only capable of good, loving things. But if beauty means honest, rich, articulate and trustworthy, then that means whiteness is considered to be those things too. It also means blackness, as opposed to whiteness, is ascribed characteristics such as dishonest, inarticulate and uneducated (the archetypal ‘native’).
If beauty is synonymous with caucasian, where does that leave us? By recognising how beauty is constructed and how it is a part of the racialised system we inherited from apartheid, we can begin to deconstruct it. We can begin to learn to love black beauty only by unlearning to love whiteness, thereby giving meaning to slogans like “black is beautiful”.
Because whiteness has been held up as evidence of the height of success and beauty, we’ve become caught up in trying to imitate it. This imitation is not limited to physical beauty but also manifests in decorum, language, lifestyle, customs and (on the flipside) a vilification of blackness. If we are going to continue to consider these things as beautiful, we will have failed to undo the problems that come with our unquestioning labelling.
Beauty is by definition exclusionary − it needs ‘not-beautifuls’ in order to exist. If we are merely going to fight for black to be beautiful, we are condoning the exclusionary system provided we are part of it. Assimilation is not the answer. Let’s revolutionise how we think about beauty and deconstruct that mode into extinction.
Main Pic by Peter Klashorst