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.

bad boys

The ostensible inferiority complex of the stereotypical “bad boy” is downright embarrassing and wholly unattractive, manifesting itself in a quality of adolescence in that it panics to destroy whatever obstacle to dominance it perceives, marked by a pathetic sense of whiney distress at the face of threatened undeserved power. There’s nothing less appealing than a grown man perpetually throwing a violent tantrum; when he is chastened by the reality of the world, it is only humorous. Contrary to what patriarchy claims, citing the supposedly biological motivation that women are drawn to aggression to seek protection, I’ve experienced gut repulsion toward this “type” ever since I had first been aware of attraction to the opposite sex. I highly suspect that women, generally robbed of the thrill of the chase since we are positioned perpetually as the objects of it, pursue men who exude counterfeited strength because women are substituting this thrill for a hard win and the sense that they must be somehow special; of course, she is ultimately unfulfilled and has compromised her directive.

I’ve never had an issue relinquishing of the thrill of the chase, partly because I’ve never seen the point in taking pleasure in it from either direction (I don’t mind at all or lose interest when men admit they find me attractive, despite what obnoxious pick-up artists will claim about women) and partly because whenever men do disclose this, they seem to have an ludicrous tendency to believe they’re beneath my league (which is nothing short of bewildering and maddening) and so a type of chase is absurdly still manifest in convincing him otherwise. I’m not talking about the self-absorbed obnoxious Nice Guy who’s really a jackass who believes he’s entitled to your adoration just because he’s “nice” and doesn’t realize he’s passively a carbon copy of the sexually aggressive asshole—I mean the man who’s genuinely convinced he’s “unworthy” of you (not to play games), and you’re caught in a flurry attempting to bring him to the realization that he is equal and valuable, breaking your heart a thousand times in the process at his placidity, rawness, and gentle deliberation. There is a strange ensnarement of compassion that surges out, unbridled and irrepressible, beyond what you believed you could ever harbor as a human being, at encountering the occasional sentiment that surfaces from him and realizing it is literally the tip of an iceberg to an impassioned chasm of suppressed, conflicted feelings. It’s strange how feeling loved can often hurt very deeply.

It baffles me then, not that there is a perception that women are drawn to domineering immature aggression when it is possibly the least alluring, but that this perception is prevailing. I suppose whether there is any such thing as sincerity anymore is questionable. There are too many stratums of nonsense, manufactured facades, counterfeit labels, and people buying into an imaginary paradigm that supposedly dictates who someone is to the core, and all of these have become artificial “conditions” for affection. Superficiality is the ironic attempt to simulate closeness. (I am nowhere near above this.) Irritatingly, men who accuse women of oversensitivity are far more sensitive than they think they are—and contrary to the counterfeit force of the “bad boy” it is constantly women who have adjusted themselves to the acrimony of the world who exhibit genuine toughness and machoism.

This ridiculous trope even has its inadequate hipster version; sitting in class one day, the man beside me (who was about a few years my senior) remarked that he had cheered when Reagan died. Shocked, I asked why. He stated with a tone of half-laughter that he had problems with authority, as though celebrating the death of a human being is the most casual and normal thing to do. I turned away in disgust. Coming to terms with the fact that those whom we oppose are full human beings worthy of respect and compassion (if one even has to try such a thing! why should this require effort?) is the most basic sign of maturity—and humanity. Too young to have known Reagan through anything but the letters he wrote to others, my heart shook for him at this man’s pitiful exhibition of wayward spite. Reagan (not overlooking the areas one could validly criticize him) was certainly much more commendable than to be used for a tool for someone demonstrating how so very ruggedly reckless he is.

The thing men don’t understand about themselves is the same thing they don’t understand about women: whole, complex people cannot be compartmentalized. There aren’t clear cut boundaries between what men identify as the asshole and what they identify as the good guy, any more than there is between the virgin and the whore. These are not people, they are “slices” of people, and when a man catches a glimpse of another man behaving a specific way it does not mean the woman he is with is attracted to assholery. The artificial “categories” will seep into each other, and it is only those who judge and compartmentalize their own sex (PUAs with that alpha beta nonsense), poignantly believing they are liberating it (often times from imaginary oppression as do MRAs), who have ridiculous and limiting contraints.

Loving this World, Work, and the Privilege of Contemplation

Religious leaders during sermons often advise their congregations not to love this world, explicably sensing that love of this world will replace the love of God. While this is a justifiable claim—people enraptured in the material often experience emptiness which they attempt to fill with more material, believing they are achieving what the material superficially represents (love, social acceptance, etc.) rather than the useless thing itself—I would argue there is not enough emphasis, if any, in loving the world while accepting that it is fading fast. It was, after all, created by God.

Fully aware of my imminent death, I often feel resentful when I listen to religious leaders preach about the insignificance of this world while advocating engrossment in spirituality and religious reflection. This is a very privileged position. It’s easy to be so very spiritually aware! when one is a man, unburdened by the fucking barrier in his face. Women who preach the same are often very well-off, have reached a point of respect and acceptance in the structural sins of religious institutional hierarchy by consistently agreeing with the interpretations of men, and thus perpetuate discriminatory beliefs in their bubbles of safety while appealing to other women in their spiritual virtue. Women, after all, have the statistical inclination of being more spiritual than men.

If a male religious leader describes his own spirituality (and how he really *feels* God) and preaches about tolerance and acceptance while maintaining a barrier, I am particularly indignant. It is one of the vilest aspects of liberal religious hypocrisy. Fostering a mosque environment that is hostile to women, whether through a barrier or other devices of intense segregation and / or underlying sexual fear, while simultaneously appeasing to others (including Muslims themselves) to convince them that Islam is not a unjust faith is enraging. I’d much rather pray behind the man who delivers uninspiring speeches and quietly eliminates injustice than the one who is all talk on the glory of God and fails to work hard. I want to hear a laundry list on want needs to be done—we have to paint downstairs, there is a drought in the next county, a part of the church across the street broke down and we are leaving now to help rebuild, etc.—and to see him at these places with sweat on his forehead, than listen to him gasp at how we must love Eternity. The former is quietly endearing. The latter, meant to be, leaves me resentful. Meditate on Heaven? Easy for you to say. There’s a fucking barrier three inches in front of my nose.

Admittedly I’m a very spiritual woman, but I feel incredibly arrogant to concentrate on this while there is work to be done, especially when it involves preaching to persecuted women. I’m baffled when other women who consider themselves anti-feminist can do this. In Islam there is a perception of the “benevolent” patriarchy: that in exchange for a woman fulfilling her “role” the men in her life will protect her. Anti-feminist women have not been personally exposed to disadvantaged, impoverished, or abused circumstances to realize this is a lie. There is no benevolent patriarchy. What are men protecting you from? Themselves. And they will become condescending as soon as you stop parroting their interpretations that perpetuate sexism and privileges them. You’ve been placed in a position to teach other women by the same system that oppresses these women, as a mark of tokenism, shielded from the harshness of this reality. Will you exchange your soul—the freedoms given to you by God—for the artificial safety offered by men?

As “enlightening” as I find these heartfelt sermons on how only God can fulfill us so there is simply devastation in loving this world, I often suspect they are a device of superficially heavenly radiance to attempt to overcompensate for the utter lack of justice in Muslim communities, depending on whether the man who is spouting them is highly patriarchal, or else maintains a “liberal” persona while conveniently preserving a barrier or deriding Islamic feminism. Both engender my suspicion. I don’t mind them from communities who have evidently walked the walk.

Shuffling through Safiyah’s blog, I found a post that resonates with me: “There is a reason why there are no Islamic monks,” she writes.

“We are meant to keep our both feet firmly on the ground, even if our heart longs for our final Home. Islam teaches us to be involved in our communities, to care about others, to marry, and to not lock ourselves away somewhere.

“We made you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.” (Qur’an, 2:143)

True, we shouldn’t get caught up in this world and all its splendor, but we shouldn’t hide from it either. We have a responsibility to make this world a better place, to give charity, to want for others what we want for ourselves, while we worship God and strive towards His mercy and forgiveness.

Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and in the race for a garden wide as the heavens and the earth, prepared for the righteous- (the righteous are) those who spend whether in prosperity or adversity, who restrain anger and who pardon all people. For God loves those who do good.(Qu’ran 3:133 –134)

The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!“ ( Qur’an 25:63)

*Obviously she is not writing in the same context as I am, so I want to be clear I don’t intend in any way to misrepresent her view.

This post has been brewing unexpressed for a while, and her post made me think exactly of this; credits to her.