Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

What does it mean to be beautiful? I’m reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for probably the fourth or fifth time.  Set in the 1940s, the story centers on the internalization of white beauty standards by African American females.  One girl in particular, Pecola, has bought into the idea that she is ugly, partly because of the darkness of her skin and partly because of her dysfunctional family. She tries to make herself invisible, but she just can’t get her eyes to disappear, so she prays every night that her eyes would turn blue.  Eventually, Pecola’s internalization of whiteness as the standard of beauty is so damaging that it drives her to insanity. Morrison’s text is a devastating indictment of how the idea of beauty combines with the beast of racism to psychologically damage people of color.

During approximately the same time setting as The Bluest Eye, African Americans were fighting for the right to an integrated public school system. Civil Rights leaders used evidence from the now famous “doll experiments” by the Clarks that asked African American children to choose between a white and black baby doll.  Many of the children preferred the white doll and cried or ran from the room when the experimenter asked them to “show me the doll that looks like you.”  Although people today critique these studies, arguing that the Clarks intentionally manipulated their results through the order of the questions, the Clarks’ findings that African American children internalized whiteness as good and blackness as bad helped to precipitate the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decisions that finally made racial segregation in public education illegal. Other people have conducted similar studies with varied results, as recently shown on Anderson Cooper’s 360 report on kids and race, which you can check out here -- AC360 Study.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Trayvon Martin killing.  Was George Zimmerman racist or wasn’t he? Does he deserve to be tried and convicted of murder, or was he acting in self-defense? And what does this have to do with the internalization of whiteness as the standard of beauty and goodness?  Of course I don’t know this for a fact, but I think it’s entirely possible that George Zimmerman is not a racist in the strict, Archie Bunker sense of the word.  I bet he believes in equal rights. I bet he even has African American friends. When others stick up for him and claim he’s not racist, I bet they are sincere.  George Zimmerman may be no more racist than I am.  Why, then, did he choose to follow Trayvon Martin that night? Why did he assume that the African American youth was up to no good? Because, like most of us, George Zimmerman has probably internalized the standard that white is good and black is bad without even realizing it. These racist ideas are so woven into our white-dominated culture that it would be hard not to internalize them.  Sadly, not much has changed since Morrison wrote her Nobel prize winning novel – ‘tis still beauty, whether inner or outer, that feeds the beast.