Imitating the Appearances of People of Color

I’ve been thinking about appropriation–not just cultural appropriation, but of a variation of appropriation that is equally if not just a little more sinister: the appropriation of appearance. This is something that is bodily, involves policing the autonomy itself of women of color, and results in valuing the woman wearing the imitation more than the woman whose body inspired it.

There is, in other words, a kind of appropriation that is merged with white supremacist ideals of beauty, and how, in order to remain the standard, these ideals have relied heavily on disparaging physical features of people of color that are otherwise “objectively” attractive. For example, the first thing that comes to mind are caricatures of black women’s/men’s lips as drawn by racist white artists. Because these lips are stereotyped to be fuller, they’ve been exaggerated in political and cultural cartoons/”art” to ridicule the entire black race.

But fuller lips are more appealing. And as a feature, they are not just appealing on women; they’re equally as appealing on men. I would even be so brazen as to argue that people who are attracted to men tend to prefer full lips on men–if not for the aesthetic, for the sensation. It’s bizarre then that this was one of the features chosen to be mocked. To be a little more impudent, I would go so far as to allege that it’s jealousy.

There’s historical evidence for this being a petulant act of jealousy. The hair of women of color, which tends to be thicker, more voluminous & abundant, and has the ability to hold a variety of styles with less effort, is constantly under attack as “frizzy”, “unkempt,” and altogether “unprofessional.” Consequently women of color are compelled to change our hair, sometimes at devastating (financial and personal) costs. And because most salons charge extra (typically an extra $10) to the list of provided services for women with “more hair,” not measured only in length but thickness (read: mostly just women of color) we’re not just driven to appeal to white standards of beauty but simultaneously discouraged from “raising our statuses” with these additional costs. But as Cassandre explains, black women were banned in the 1800s from showing their hair in public–not because it was unsightly but because it was too attractive:

Apparently, women of color were wearing their hair in such fabulous ways, adding jewels and feathers to their high hairdos and walking around with such beauty and pride that it was obscuring their status. This was very threatening to the social stability (read: white population) of the area at the time. The law was meant to distinguish women of color from their white counterparts and to minimize their beauty.

While women of color are discouraged from wearing their hair without flattening, thinning, chemically treating, or otherwise travelling great lengths to force it to comply with the settled string-yness of white hair, white women meanwhile seek out all means possible to thicken their hair–because, of course, white people quietly know what is actually attractive, and a function of institutionalized racism is convincing women of color that they aren’t, while white women transform themselves to have these very features. The shelves of any store selling shampoo are lined with products promising to provide volume. It doesn’t stop at hair either, of course–the descendants of white artists who parodied the lips of black men and women in outrageously racist cartoons are the first clients for lip injections that imitate the very feature they publicly disparage.

Black women have constellations in their hair.
(Click images for source.)
Black women have constellations in their hair.
Black women have constellations in their hair.

And a woman (most likely a white one) might angrily and defensively claim that I’m stretching it by including this, but, I kid you not, a white woman once tackled me in a drug store because I had picked up the last jet black mascara.

She was blonde.

So were her eyelashes. I was 17 at the time and aghast at the fact that I had just been tackled. Why do blonde women insist that their eyelashes have to be full and voluminous and jet black? Stunned as she flew out of nowhere into my vision and pried the mascara from my hands, I cried, “That doesn’t even match your hair!” It was a cruel thing to say, I realize. But by the mercy of all that is heavenly, she just, like, physically assaulted me. For mascara.

It’s characteristic of both women and men of color to have fuller and longer eyelashes, but that’s something desirable, that isn’t as prominent as hair or lips, and is thus never attributed to race. There’s a lot about “the problems with Asian hair” or “the problems with Black hair” but never about “the problems with white eyelashes.” White people, you’ve got to stop tackling me at Rite Aid with your eyelash issues, seriously.

She's a threat alright. Who wouldn't want to look like that?
She’s a threat alright. Who wouldn’t want to look like that?

One of the (obvious) reasons it’s so irritating that white people will often reply with, “But light skinned women tan their skin all the time!” in response to black women bleaching their skin and using harmful lightness creams is that a white woman who has tanned her skin to be the same color as a woman of color’s natural skin will be valued more highly for her beauty–even though it’s only an imitation. I don’t mean to sound all, “But are they REAL?” about this, but it’s a clear and disturbing indication of how harmful cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to appearance, is when a white woman attempts to thicken her hair, tan her skin, inject her lips, and assault a woman of color for her eyelashes and still walk out considered more beautiful. This phenomenon has all of the symptoms of a kind of appropriation: when these features/customs are worn/practiced by a white person, it’s “stylish, worldly, and beautiful”; otherwise, it’s something that needs to be altered and suppressed at all costs.

14 thoughts on “Imitating the Appearances of People of Color

  1. Selina

    ‘Apparently, women of color were wearing their hair in such fabulous ways, adding jewels and feathers to their high hairdos and walking around with such beauty and pride that it was obscuring their status. This was very threatening to the social stability (read: white population) of the area at the time. The law was meant to distinguish women of color from their white counterparts and to minimize their beauty.’

    I do love this bit. Something I never knew and you’ve pinpointed the strange way in which white women try to tan and non white women are encouraged to lighten up and change their hair. And that mascara bit actually made me laugh. I have wondered about the dark eyelashes thing, that absolutely everyone wants them. Maybe because we are conditioned to see thick dark eyelashes as beauteous? I actually don’t like the term ‘people of colour’ don’t know if I’ve said that before, even though I am technically one, it’s not a term we tend to use in the UK.White is a colour too

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    1. “People of color” is so many words. I’m open to alternatives, but I can’t think of any.

      I find it equally bizarre that a white blonde woman can wear black mascara and be mismatched, but if I coated my eyelashes in blonde mascara everyone would be like, “What is wrong with your eyelashes.”

      I should totally walk down the street like this one day as an experiment.

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  2. Wow…. Someone actually attacked you out of nowhere?! That is flipping crazy! I’m so glad I have never experienced that…. yet. But hair color and any other physical appearance has absolutely nothing to do with personality. The way you look is just that, and nothing more. Every human is different. So saying, “why do blonde women insist………?” Was a pretty unfair thing to say. Very generalizing. :-(

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    1. A white woman thinking it’s okay to attack me has, in fact, everything to do with how she looks, in that it is an impressive part of why she has been conditioned to believe that kind of behavior is acceptable.

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  3. Narjis

    I’m guilty of this in a way, since I wear dark makeup. Being a ginger, the “worst kind of white”, I’ve thought a lot about the irony of white people valuing tans so very much, and yet getting to live all of the advantages of white privilege while looking as non-white as possible, I had not thought much about the dark makeup thing. Except to admit that in a non-feminist, self-hating kind of way, I feel that I need it in order to look human and presentable. Mostly that was drilled into me as a child by other white people who think ginger is as ugly as it gets. Later on, when I got secondary sex characteristics, the fetish dudes with a “thing” for redheads started showing up. And people still sometimes tell me how attractive I would be in the Renaissance, when pale and doughy was the thing to be, as if that’s a compliment. I guess this conflicted issue with gingers is probably related to the ways white people hate themselves and wish to be more like people of color, but can’t come to terms with it, so they hate on both people of color, and people like me who remind them too much of their pale, genetically mutated roots. I always used to wish I was a person of color. Now I am trying to be more accepting of who I am, but the complicated feelings are there, as you can see. And the black mascara will continue for the time being. But I would never, ever take it out of someone else’s hand. I hope that counts for something.

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    1. Oh yeah, I don’t mean that white women should stop wearing black mascara. Like ever. White women, like all women, should wear whatever makeup they want. (It’s not like white women don’t have black hair, or like women of color don’t have light hair.) I meant that the fact that she was willing to do THAT to me for black mascara was just an indication of how she’d been conditioned to take things from me without giving a damn because she saw me as less of a person and herself as entitled.

      P.S. Red hair is awesome I don’t see why white people hate it white people have no idea about anything seriously.

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  4. Narjis

    Yeah, the taking things from other people without giving a damn is a deeply conditioned thing in entitled white people, and one of the many things they/we should be aware of and fight against in themselves/ourselves.

    Thanks for the compliment about red hair. Being ginger can be a challenge but it has its moments. I wonder if maybe the hate has something to do with a deep-seated and unacknowledged anti-Irish sentiment?

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  5. softestbullet

    I think this is probably true. One time it really struck me was watching Farscape, some of the whitest sci fi, where two of the hot alien white women had their hair styled like this:


    Like white alien women come with naturally sparkly dramatic makeup and sexy outfits and cool hairstyles common w Black women.

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