Poor Are the Pupils that Outdo their Masters

Poor Are the Pupils that Outdo their Masters

Photograph by Channon Simmons 

I grew up in a family of women: my mom is one of three daughters, my grandfather passed away when I was two, my mom left my dad when I was three, and my aunts all became single by the time I was five.  I always considered myself lucky to be surrounded by people that so intimately understood my experience as a woman and could guide me on that basis.  But these same women also came from a culture that conditioned their livelihoods on being “beautiful,” which meant that I was immersed in the same culture without any opposing influence by consequence.

In Colombia, the complex relationship between women and beauty originated from the European colonizers who arrived in the sixteenth century, and whose exaltation of whiteness led to the decimation of entire indigenous populations. In modernity, this relationship was further convoluted by the rise of drug traffickers in the 1970s, whose fascination with big breasts and huge derrieres strongly impressed on young girls seeking financial stability to emulate those attributes. The result was a generation of young women that viewed cosmetic modification as the only avenue into a stable marriage and therefore “a better life.” For as long as I can remember, beautification has been at the core of everything women in my family do.  From hair removal to personal trainers, hair coloring, keratin treatments, cellulite removal treatments, liposuctions, breast implants, and more, their efforts are a product of a pernicious history wrought with misogyny and oppression.

Eurocentrism is, arguably, the core of Western social and cultural spheres of life. Social norms are derived from Eurocentric values imported by European colonizers centuries ago, but time hasn’t lessened their stronghold over our post-colonial, Latin American culture. Each day we’re bombarded with images that represent the European ideal — supermodels, actresses and pop stars that are always the same:  tall, blonde, thin, white women. Eurocentrism is exactly that – the reinforcement of European physical features as the end-goal for all women everywhere.  In the context of physical beauty, we struggle to adhere to Eurocentric standards at any cost, even if that entails sacrificing our sense of identity or our self-esteem.

As a “fairer-skinned” Hispanic woman, adhering to Eurocentric beauty standards comes relatively easily. However, the older I get, the more it feels like beauty standards are yet another way to remind us (people of colour) that our bodies are not part of the norm —  that we are the minority (although numerically this isn’t true) and that our beings are incorrect and must be modified in order to be accepted. Looking at the women in my family and the relationships they have with their bodies, I see them floundering in the struggle to meet Eurocentric standards. To me, this is a manifestation of the deepest, most personal form of colonization. It is the colonization of thought and self-perception, to the extent that the way someone conceives of themselves hinges on an ideology produced and implanted by an external, dominant entity.

Consequently, the entity of whiteness and Eurocentrism exerts complete and absolute control over every aspect of one’s being, achieving the ultimate goal of normalizing its hegemony, with the implicit assumption that the recipient consents to this hegemony. Possessing characteristics that place you outside the norm frames your entire existence and place in the world. People of color play a crucial role in upholding the white supremacy: our struggle to assimilate is proportional to the ferocity with which we guard these same values of white supremacy. Our internalization of the ideal European standard is pernicious because it is precisely a standard we cannot meet (intended to be such) that lends to a self loathing with no attainable end, an obsession that can manifest even in body modification. To question the validity of these ideals is to recognize the decades of deceit meant to defer the hatred people of colour should feel towards their oppressors to themselves, so that they’re unable to recognize the power structures that truly subjugate them; it would be to recognize that the generations of self harm and hatred were for naught. As such, we grant legitimacy to Eurocentric beauty standards by trying to embody them (as well as we can), superficially relieving white culture of the burden of overtly imposing these standards on us. Instead, we take it upon ourselves to impose these ideals on ourselves and police those around us with fierce rigidity.[1]

Eurocentric beauty values are at the basis of an environment that “privileges white/light skin, straight hair, and what are seen to be European facial features”[2]. These views were inserted as early as the 18th century, when slavery was still an integral part of North American society; fair skin and straight hair indicated an elevated socioeconomic status, while black hair was deemed inferior.[3] It was possible to establish the power dynamic between privileging European features and disqualifying non-European features by inserting a language of binaries: by framing European and African-American origins (and therefore features) as oppositions, whiteness became associated with beautiful straight hair, while blackness was associated with hair that had an undesirable texture comparable even to “wool”. The negative perception transcended hair: white features were viewed in a positive light at the expense of black features that held negative connotations. This kind of language, rooted in binary oppositions, endures today and fosters a taxonomy of human identity in terms of normative opposites, significantly limiting the way individuals can view themselves.

The internalization of these values can be seen in different social situations. It’s very easy to be oblivious to how social constructs manifest when you are unaware of your own prejudices. In the case of my own family members, the kind of racism I witnessed the most was against indigenous Colombians. I didn’t identify the racism sooner — having grown up in North America, racism was reserved for African-Americans in the context of the United States and taught as though it had largely ended in the 1960s after segregation was prohibited by law.  I was not taught about the history of colonization in all of the Americas, and the resulting near-eradication and ongoing repression of Indigenous peoples and culture. Throughout my life I’ve listened to my grandmother say, “indio porquería” (which roughly translates to “Indigenous filth”) when referring to someone that had acted reprehensibly. I passed it off as a side effect of her humble origins — a colloquial form of speech — but never made the connection between her words and the blatant racism associated with them.

Historically, indigenous Colombians have been used for labor purposes, particularly by (White) socioeconomic elites. A false belief in the superiority of white skin was propagated both to maintain the subjugation of the indigenous population for cheap labor, as well as to control disenfranchised whites who placed lower in the socioeconomic ladder. This occurred because the manufactured belief that white skin equated to higher social status allowed poorer whites who faced exploitation by the elites themselves to feel they placed inherently higher up in the social hierarchy; this effectively allowed the elites to continue to deprive poorer whites of land rights, wealth, and a political say. The verbiage surrounding the justification of placing even whites from lower income backgrounds above indigenous people relied on the racial proximity towards a European ideal. As a result, being indigenous was classified as ugly and negative, while closeness to white, European features was viewed as the goal one should strive for.  This type of social formatting produced a system where people of color grew to perceive themselves as being better or superior to their previous selves and those around them based on their closeness to whiteness [4]. For my grandmother, being indigenous was filth, a clear manifestation of internalized Eurocentrism — calling someone an Indian, even if they weren’t of indigenous origins, was associated with wrongdoing.  Darker skin tones characteristic of indigenous people thus became associated with being worth less, even outside the “Indian” (indigenous) label.

No previous generation had the exposure to such a wide range of information like we do today. Technology has made it possible to access the diverse and often contradictory perspectives on many issues at the reach of our fingertips. For this reason, it’s vitally important that we take control of the kind of information spread through media outlets and our own online profiles. For the sake of future generations, it’s imperative that we all raise our level of social consciousness so we can adequately tackle and transform the oppressive institutions that dictate our lives, and ultimately dominate our psyches. Ironically, it falls on people of colour to first gain awareness of the power structures that shape the way we view ourselves — that teach us to hate our race, and by extension ourselves; only then can we start to undo the damage that has been done.

[1] Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas, “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference,” in Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, ed. Peter Pericles Trifonas, 15th ed. (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003):119.

[2] Shirley Tate, “Black Beauty: Shade, Hair and Anti-racist Aesthetics,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 2 (2007):301

[3] Thompson, Cheryl. “Black Women, Beauty, and Hair as a Matter of Being.” Women’s Studies 38, no. 8 (2009): 833.

[4] Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas, 119.