The Conflict Between Black Beauty and Stereotypes in a White Supremacist Society

The Conflict Between Black Beauty and Stereotypes in a White Supremacist Society

Even in 2017, the thought of being a descendent of a slave can make a black person feel an inner sense of shame, embarrassment and even self-hate. It might be argued that the way some black people view beauty is an extension of this, still influenced by the internalisation of notions of white supremacy. Slavery, racism & white supremacy have had permanent harmful effects on black heritage and culture. A hierarchy enforced on blacks by slave masters, represented those with lighter skin, straighter features and straighter hair, as more beautiful than those that reflected more African features.  According to Fanon,a Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer, “The black man is viewed in the third person, and he is seen as a three-dimensional human being, the black man internalises the perspectives of white society.” African American men have been negatively portrayed as a myriad of stereotypes; majority of these stereotypes have stemmed from slavery.

As a result, many black people developed a hatred for their skin & natural hair; representing a preference for features that showed minimal African descent. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s, women would straighten their hair and black men would get shave their natural hair to fit into a white supremacist society as the afro was deemed as an ‘unkempt’ hairstyle. Furthermore, enslaved Africans were taught to hate their dark skin, as it was a representation of working in the field.

Many black women face a daily struggle to fit their bodies into white ideals. These emotions are reinforced when young black women and girls draw upon media images to source their definitions of beauty. These images frequently portray black women’s natural features as undesirable, and encourage them to engage with ‘whitening practices’ like straightening and texturising their hair. If images of black women with natural hair were seen more frequently, these same women would feel less pressure to change the way they look.

These standards are not isolated to the beauty industry. The adversity black women face is emulated by the fashion industry, one of the major industries in the world. Even though slavery ended years ago, black females still see the lack of diversity on the catwalk. Getting cast in runway shows isn’t the only challenge models of colour will deal with during fashion week. If they are one of the lucky diverse models to be booked, they may be confronted with hair stylists & makeup artists who aren’t trained to work with darker skin tones & kinkier hair. This absence of expertise seems to come hand in hand with the fashion industry’s lack of racial awareness.

Sudanese model Nykhor Paul expressed her frustrations on Instagram, calling out makeup artists for not having the right products to match her “blue black” complexion. She wrote, “A good makeup artist would come prepared and do their research before coming to work because often times you know what to expect especially at a show! Stop apologising it’s insulting and disrespectful to me and my race it doesn’t help, seriously! Make an effort at least!”. Industry racism is nothing new to fashion, even though it has improved in the recent years; we have only made a small dent in the bigger picture. Successful model Jourdan Dunn has even spoken out about the matter saying that she is often turned away because the client “doesn’t want any more black girls” and is rejected for being “coloured”.

Furthermore, Balenciaga stood out amongst others at fashion week as he showcased his collections on an all-white casting.  The Business of Fashion commented, saying “How does one of fashion’s most known designers feel comfortable casting all white models in this racially charged age?” But, on the other hand, during New York Fashion week, designer David Hart cast all-black models; stating that he wanted to recognise the diversity in modelling, “My show is so diverse we have guys from Senegal, South America, Haiti to New Jersey.” If we were to rely on the image Balenciaga reflects, this one-dimensional portrayal of models of colour would not reflect the multi-cultural society we live in.

Moreover, black women are becoming more aware, and embracing their natural assets and complexion. The political significance of the afro portrays a revolution against conforming to the white hierarchy. Going back to the civil rights movement, hair length became a way to rebel against conforms of society. Fast forwarding to 2017 and black women are still facing the issues of embracing natural beauty. There is still a stigma surrounding black hair; many workplaces and institutions still keep a strict rule about keeping hair looking ‘neat and tidy’. There have always been rules and regulations put on black hair, as a way to be suppressed by society. “If you want this job, then go straighten your hair or purchase weave. Choosing to go against the stereotypes and wear your hair natural is not as easy as it seems, this decision can come with consequences and can be restrictive towards finding opportunities. Black women are recognising this institutional racism, still happening in 2017 and are creating ways to fight the stigma surrounding natural hair.

One of these creative ways to fight this stigma was a recent campaign was launched in London called #AFROVISIBILITY by @PROJECTEMBRACE; focused on black women embracing their natural hair. This billboard is long overdue. For years, black women have been told not to embrace their natural beauty, but this billboard brings a modern perception on accepting your culture.

Women in the public eye are also recognising how natural hair can reflect power. For example, Solange Knowles recently released her album ‘A seat at the table’, which included the song ‘Don’t touch my hair’. Black women and girls can sing along to Solange’s song in 2017 with pride & liberation, after being oppressed for their ‘blackness’ for so many years. Black women attempted to get a seat at the table they weren’t welcomed to. Now they have their own seat to look at each other and admire one another’s hair.

A famous quote from Kathleen Cleaver signifies how black women should feel wearing their hair naturally: “We are born with our hair like this, we wear our hair like this. It’s a new awareness among black people that our physical appearance is beautiful for many years we were told only white people were beautiful only straight hair and light eyes and white skin was beautiful. Black people are becoming aware that their own appearance is beautiful.

Black women have come to a place where they feel comfortable enough with their natural assets and to finally accept their hair. Black girls have started noticing black is beautiful, and not to care what societies think, and to just be proud to be ‘unapologetically black’. This cycle must be broken for younger black girls to look further than society’s Eurocentric ideals of what is deemed as ‘good hair’. Solange’s song relates to every black woman or girl who did not embrace or love their natural hair at one point in time.


Written by Jasmine Martin-Lord


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David HartDont Touch My HairNykhor PaulNykhor PaulDavid Hart SS17