The always-inquisitive Jada Pinkett-Smith recently posed a question that has many people scratching their heads and some folks outright upset. In short, she’s wondering if black women ask to be represented in mainstream media, on the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, shouldn’t white women be represented on the covers of traditionally black magazines like Essence, Ebony and JET?
The answer? Yes and no.
It’s not enough to have this discussion without a little bit of context. We didn’t come to this dilemma out of nowhere. There is a long, difficult history that informs our current dynamics around race that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. This country has a long history of exclusion and the many movements for equal rights and access including the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement (both of which black women fought in) reminds us that every person is not considered deserving and some of us had to, and still have to, fight for representation.
Magazines like Ebony and Essence were created from a need for black people to see ourselves featured prominently and positively. Ebony, which was founded in 1945, aimed to focus on the achievements of blacks from “Harlem to Hollywood” and to “offer positive images of blacks in a world of negative images.” Back then it was rare for mainstream magazines like LIFE and LOOK to feature black people in a non-discriminatory way. During a time when blacks were fighting so diligently for equal rights, it must have been a devastating blow to morale to be disparaged in the folds of corporate media. We’ve seen other marginalized communities like the LGBT and fat communities create their own media for fair and just representation. This plight is not exclusive to black people.
However, Pinkett-Smith’s question forces us to think about something a little deeper than representation. There are two things at stake here: the common good and the self-determination of the individual. It feels almost impossible for these two things to co-exist” common good means that we have a shared vision that benefits everyone (which we don’t just want realized for the people who look like us, but for all people) and individual self-determination is a philosophy that exists because many people don’t believe in the common good but instead in prejudices that exclude. Blacks were self-determined to create positive media representation because there was none. Pinkett-Smith suggested wholly integrating media so all of society, regardless of color, can start seeing ourselves as cohesive (benefiting the common good) and that while there is still a need for black women (and other communities who have been traditionally excluded) to be represented, we would all benefit from a shared presence in corporate and specialized media.
I don’t disagree entirely. But I would be remiss if I didn’t name the obvious issue with this suggestion: racism still exists. Ebony and Essence were birthed because people were racist. That hasn’t changed. People are still racist and some of those people work for and make up the readership of corporate magazines. These people have no desire to see black people on the cover or inside of their magazines and until their non-racist co-workers hold them accountable for their bigotry, they’ll continue to exclude folks."
— Shanelle Matthews, “The Soapbox: Should White Women Be On The Cover Of ‘Black Magazines’?,” The Frisky 3/26/13 (via secretarysbreakroom)
As a Korean American, my life has been a constant bridging of different norms, but any conclusion I try to reach about a comparison seems to mask rather than capture the truth and complexity of it all.
Enter Julia Lurie on NPR’s This American Life. Lurie, a white American English-language teacher in South Korea, decides to both educate Korean girls on why their society’s beauty standards and plastic surgery choices are worse than in the US, and alert the Western world to the insanity she has discovered.
Following her segment, Jezebel picks up on her story and frames it in a way that objectifies South Korean women.
Ironically, as these two American voices try to address how Korean beauty standards privilege Western features, their reaction is to suggest that Koreans need to be more “American” in their way of thinking about beauty. And they are not the only ones chiming in. The internet overflows with expats-turned-anthropologists, and one white girl was so fascinated, since her best friend is Korean, that she went to live among the natives in order to make a documentary called Korean High School.
Making their simplistic comparisons between Korean and American beauty standards, the verdict of the Jezebel and NPR pieces is that American beauty standards are more open-minded and less important to our daily lives. This sort of comparison harps upon the false “east vs. west” dichotomies that have served as a pillar of white supremacy.
Representations of “the Orient” as the backwards antithesis of the Western world have been operational in defining Western identity as universal and supreme.
Where convenient, the authors project their own Western-centric understanding of beauty onto Korean society, and seem to have no other framework available to understand the issue. In the Jezebel article, the author goes so far as to suggest, “If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who is not big-eyed and small-faced and straight-nosed, do you also have a limited ability to understand, empathize, sympathize and relate to that person, as well? Do you become intolerant of those who don’t meet your lookist standards?”
Her only justification for this random statement is that western society once used physiognomy to make a correlation between physical traits and evil characteristics, which she notes plays out in Disney movies today. Thus, a concern with physical traits must have those same repercussions in Korean society, in a way that is somehow more problematic.
But physical appearance exists in a different context in different societies. One example I have lived with is that Koreans are more open about commenting on others’ appearances, whereas it would be considered offensive in American society. How does that complicate the idea that appearances are considered more sacred or intrinsic in South Korea?
During her lesson, Lurie teaches her students that, in the US, it is illegal to discriminate based on appearance in hiring. That is completely false. It is perfectly legal, and studies have been done to prove what we already know: that looks help you when it comes to succeeding in life.
It is true, however, that people cannot legally discriminate against you based on the constitutionally protected categories, including race. Despite this law in theory, the reality is that the race you look like still plays a large part in who gets what jobs, from higher-paying restaurant jobs to corporate leadership. It shapes American society from the microaggressions and differential treatments in social, academic, and professional situations, to overt, state-sanctioned racial profiling laws.
Like racism, the American way of dealing with beauty privilege seems to be to pretend it doesn’t exist (probably because the two are so related), and instead, stigmatize it, which just makes everyone more secretive and ashamed about how they survive a world where the superficial matters.
And while we ignore our own issues, we are quick to look to other countries or communities of color in the U.S. to see how they are uniquely intolerant. Part of our American creed is to proclaim that we are more tolerant than the rest of the world, and thus, have a mandate to spread our enlightenment. The U.S. has essentially “branded” the very concept of a free, tolerant society and manages that brand meticulously. I think we need to examine our reactions to everyone else’s issues and the excuses we make for our own."
— This is one of the few times I regret not posting something earlier in the day because I want everyone to get up, get some morning beverages, and get down with some amazing posts. ICYMI, guest contributor Esther Choi blazes on this analysis about South Korean beauty standards, the whitesplaining of it in US media, and why we in the West need to check ourselves on the R today!
Brittney Cooper: “Of course it is. I don’t care if they are ‘pals’ on the tour. Every Black Girl who has been a white person’s “African American friend” knows what that sh*t means. Let me count the ways she might have impersonated Serena. Wear a tennis outfit with flashy colors (bright green, bright pink, all black), put on some big flashy earrings with big hair, get your serve up past 125, hit record numbers of aces in match. Hell, win double digits in Grand Slams. But mocking her through T&A in whiteface = #racism.
Scot Nakagawa: This is just ridiculous. To parody the body of someone who has so often been the target of racist rants (comparing her with a gorilla, for instance, while remarking on how black women just are naturally ugly), and criticism and exoticization in general of her curves is more than ignorant. She’s done it twice to much criticism now. I’m guessing it’s just willful racism or at least prideful ignorance.
Time to shut that sh*t down, Stella McCartney. Is this who you want as a brand ambassador?"
— Crunk Feminist Collective’s Brittney Cooper and Racialicious Crush of the Week Scot Nakagawa succinctly answering Huffington Post’s question of whether tennis player Caroline Wozniacki’s imitiation of Serena Williams was racist or not.
JW: What, if anything, does Sherlyn’s turn in Playboy mean for Indian American/Canadian girls and their notions of beauty?
GB: This was totally a publicity stunt. It’s just one that, imo, not too many Indian celebs would’ve been able to go through with with such … conviction
DN: And if I’m a guy … I like hot chicks in my Playboy and I don’t really care that much about the politics. If I’m in India, there’s all this news about some woman I don’t really care about anyway …
JW: But I’m interested in how this filters down in our culture.
GB: what it means for Indo-Canadians/Americans is an interesting question
AM: Finally making Indian/Indian American women sexy and desirable
JW: When did y’all first see an issue of Playboy? (I’m going somewhere with this, trust.) I was 8, sitting in the backseat of my uncle’s car with my bro. In other words: EWWWWWW
GB: I haven’t :) Grew up in india
DN: I think college? I remember by the time I saw one I’d seen way worse.
JW: College?! No wonder you’re such a pervo now. Making up for lost time.
DN: Hahaha, I’d already seen Hustler and regular porno mags! Playboy seemed like it was for novices.
GB: All the porn we saw was video my high school friends downloaded from somewhere
JW: Me and my friend Stephanie used to sneak her Dad’s in 7th grade, too. But “sneak” is the wrong word. They were just on top of the toilet.
JW: Playboy is for novices! It’s the gateway drug of porn.
DN: Like wine coolers …
JW: I ask because I think most girls see Playboy early, and they view it with curiosity. None of this intellectualized, oh this is the male gaze stuff. Just, like, OH! These are women’s bodies.
DN: And so it is important to see yourself, on some level, in the imagery
GB: So for Indo-Americans, it’s like ok, Indian women bring pretty much the same goods
JW: For me, when I see Sherlyn being the 1st Indian woman in Playboy, I think this will filter down to brown girls being like, I exist. Maybe that’s giving this too much credit though. Seeing yourself in the culture, even if it’s not necessarily something you’d brag about in Women’s Studies class.
DN: If they see themselves in the imagery, they feel that they exist somehow. And also, as your notions of desire are built, you see yourself as potentially desirable
GB: In a weird way, it might be a filter-up thing. It’s in pop culture first
DN: And not something outside of it
GB: or sorry … porn culture, and filters into the mainstream
JW: But also, when I find myself thinking about these arguments, I wonder if we’re all just fighting over scraps. Like, Yay! Now we can be objectified in the same way! Huzzah!
GB: Yeah, but the way she talks about it, she is taking charge
JW: It’s such a mixed bag.
I don’t doubt it’s empowering for Sherlyn Chopra. And her bank account.
GB: Especially since she gets so much shit for it from the same idiots who shut down bombay theatres. She’s being really vocal
DN: But you know what, maybe it’s a dream I don’t share, but I would hate to think that an Indian woman COULDN’T pose for playboy due to some sort of bullshit ethnic glass ceiling.
GB: Which is not a common perception of Indian women here either
JW: Huh. It sounds like there’s an even bigger social change element to her being in Playboy in India.
GB: Different kinds of change for sure"
— Gayatri Bajpai, Diana Nguyen, Jen Wang and Asiance Magazine, “So, Sherlyn Chopra Will Be The First Indian Woman To Pose Nude In Playboy?’, Schema Magazine 9/18/12