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On Friday, March 8th, the hashtag #BlackOutDay was trending on Twitter and Tumblr. Black people from all over the world, from the United States, to Africa, to Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, participated in the event by posting pictures of themselves on social media.
It sounds like a simple, fun, online selfie event -- and it was -- but it represented something much deeper. According to Tumblr user expect-the-greatest, the purpose of the event was to affirm that in a world where Eurocentric beauty reigns supreme, it’s “time for the beauty of black people to be showcased.”
This is important because black people have been historically excluded from beauty standards, so proclaiming black beauty is crucial. But this is not just about us feeling good about ourselves. #BlackOutDay matters because beauty standards are measurement of status and value. Since recent history, beauty standards have been Eurocentric, reflecting that white people have been the most valued in our society and in other formerly colonized countries.
Our perceptions of others' beauty and attractiveness also affects how we perceive status, ability, intelligence, and other traits. For example, studies show that one’s level of attractiveness can influence the outcome of a job interview, or even our choices at the polling booth. Since we associate beauty with positive character traits, such as health and trustworthiness, then it is no coincidence that black people, who are stereotyped with negative traits, have been historically excluded from the framework of beauty. (The same can be said about other groups of people who have been historically associated with negative traits, such as other POC, queer and trans people, fat people, people with disabilities, etc.)
Historically, beauty was out of the question for blacks, who weren't even considered human. Philosophers and scientists as far back as the ancient Romans believed that different races of humans were in fact different species. This belief continued into the eras of colonialism and enlightenment, and was used as a basis for racism against those who had darker skin.
The German philosopher Christoph Meiners believed that the defining characteristic of a race is beauty or ugliness, and that white people were beautiful, while black people were not. He also associated non-white people with lower intelligence, hypersexuality, immorality, and the inability to feel pain. Other philosophers, historians, and scientists, such as Georges Cuvier, Voltaire (who believed that black people lacked intelligence), Immanuel Kant, and many others, held beliefs that black people were biologically different and inferior to white people. Scientists and philosophers would continue to produce works that declared that black people were uglier, less intelligent, and more like monkeys or apes than humans.
Post chattel slavery, white scientists and thinkers continued to make the case for white cultural, genetic, and intellectual superiority through eugenics, which was popular in the United States as well as Europe. American eugenics provided for justifications for forced sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws, and restrictive immigration policies, and it also influenced the implementation of Nazi eugenics programs.
Popular media has always reflected the idea that black people are inferior. Older motion pictures and theater mocked black facial features through blackface and other racist imagery. The 20th and beginnings of the 21st centuries saw an increase in positive representations of black people in the media, academics, and politics. This correlates with the rise of black people in positions that are normally synonymous with beauty, such as acting and modeling.
Black people have been assimilating to white beauty by using relaxers, wigs, weaves, and other styles to make our appearance more acceptable. Skin bleaching is practiced in many parts of the world, by black people and other POC alike. There is much debate about whether these beauty practices are simply a preference, a marker of internalized racism, an example of assimilating to white beauty norms, or some combination of the above.
But it is clear that the closer a black person comes to approximating whiteness, the more beautiful, professional, and intelligent they are considered to be. Black Americans have been punished with being fired, or expelled from school for wearing natural hair styles, as they are viewed as dirty, unattractive, and unprofessional. (Ironically, white people are often rewarded for wearing typically black hairstyles.)
Colorism is an important example of how Eurocentric beauty has been used to elevate black people who approximate white beauty, and to put down those who do not. Lighter skinned black people, especially women, are considered to be more attractive, and they have immense privileges over darker skinned black people. For example, light skinned blacks and Latinos were attributed with higher intelligence by white participants in one study, and in another found that darker skinned black females received longer prison sentences than their lighter skinned peers.
Lighter skinned black people even tend to have higher incomes and education levels. The same process of exclusion from wealth creation and educational opportunities that affected black people as a whole excluded darker skinned black people from economic and social mobility by denying access to institutions such as churches and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Only very recently have darker skinned women, such as Lupita Nyong'o, been included in the mainstream framework of beauty.
Changing beauty standards are indicative of the progress that we have made towards racial equality. Though we have come very far since the origins of colonialism, we still have a long way to go. #BlackOutDay serves as a reminder not only that black is beautiful, but that black lives matter and will be valued, despite what white supremacy wants us to believe, and despite the negativity that we have internalized about ourselves and each other.