“Race” and “Beauty”

Few research studies have filtered into the mainstream discourse of race rhetorics more than the social psychology experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Their famous series of doll experiments beginning in the late 1930s have offered a particularly acute angle through which the dynamics of aesthetic ideology play out in the field of critical race studies. It was partly through their groundbreaking research (not to mention the brilliant legal minds of the day, under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall) that persuaded the US Supreme Court to abolish school segregation. Thus,  changing the law of the land that separate commercial facilities and public spaces constitute a fundamental social wrong, no longer to be tolerated.

The Clark doll experiments, as they are now referred to, demonstrate the twin phenomena of “in-group derogation” and “out-group elevation” among African American children and show that children of all races have internalized the racism and stigma caused by the legacy of colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow apartheid. Aside from the politics of color, the doll experiments become foundationally important in light of the empirical contributions made by more recent social psychology experiments demonstrating the ways people interpret facial appearance and intelligence.

You might think this issue would be put to rest, but then along comes Sutoshi Kanazawa who recently published a blog entry on a popular science website purporting to uncover a scientifically objective answer as to why black women are supposedly so damned ugly. Though, if you’re a regular reader of my blog, chances are you already know that is a false precept and notions of beauty are social constructions based on cultural biases.

According to the The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, these racial tropes and commonplaces are based on a history of discourses that have thoroughly entangled what it means to be associated with the human categories of “white” and “nonwhite” and is predicated on an Enlightenment doxa that racializes the word “black” by changing it from an adjective to a noun that is synonymous with “slave.”

As Painter demonstrates, we can thank Emanuel Kant for this unfortunate patrimony. Kant believed that there was a singular standard for human beauty and spent a good bit of his intellectual energy attacking the idea that such standards could differ by culture. Indeed, compounded by a popular and longstanding misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution rooted in nineteenth-century pseudoscience, a dialectic of race has emerged which holds the view that “blackness” equals ugliness and stupidity. Because of this combination of white Western thinking that equates racist stereotypes of blackness with that which is primitive and uncouth, a hegemonic standpoint continues to uphold whiteness as signifying purity and neutrality while blackness has come to represent stigma and provocation.

Don’t just blame the Western heritage of philosophy and science for this latest racial debacle. What many consider “beauty” has also been passed down to us through the disciplinary lens of art history.

The founder of the discipline, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, championed the idealization of ancient Greek beauty because of his inability to interpret ancient Egyptian and Greek art through anything other than his German-Italian aesthetic that was centered around the white marble statues replicating the aesthetic glories of antiquity, which he studied in Rome. As Painter explains, Winckelmann’s appreciation for whiteness qua whiteness initially developed as a result of his geographic distance from Greece.  From Rome, Winckelmann only had physical access to Roman copies of ancient Greek statues as they were translated into Italian marble. Unaware that the Greek originals were often dark in color, Winckelmann failed to understand – or simply ignored – the fact that the Greeks routinely painted their sculptures. Winckelmann, only having seen Roman versions of beautiful young men carved from gleaming white Italian marble, either knowingly or unknowingly, elevated sculptural copies of Greek statues into racial emblems of beauty – literally creating a new white aesthetic. For Winckelmann and his art history disciples, colorful sculpture was thought of as barbaric and unsophisticated, for they believed the ancient Greeks to be too refined to color their art. Painter (her name sounds funny in this context) goes on to conclude that the Western classical tradition has since adapted this preference for non-color, thus employing white plaster as the most common medium for the purposes of sculptural art education.

All of this explains just a little bit about how our cultural perceptions of beauty have come to be and why we cannot allow Sutoshi Kanazawa’s brand of pseudoscience to go unchallenged. Here is a link to the ColorOfChange.org website featuring the latest action campaign protesting the popular science journal’s editorial decision to publish Kanazawa’s racist canard. Tell the editors of Psychology Today to get a late pass; black been beautiful and the editors ought to apologize for circulating such flawed science.

May 24, 2011. Tags: . African Americans, art, beauty, cute, gender, history, race, rhetorics, science.

2 Comments

  1. Rod replied:

    Love your final line.

    Like

  2. Nicole Ashanti McFarlane replied:

    Thanks, Rod. And thanks to everyone who signed the petition and raised their voices. Psychology Today gave Kanazawa the ol’ heave-ho.
    http://www.colorofchange.org/press/releases/2011/6/39/?akid=2008.1433175.vPTKoz&rd=1&t=2

    Like

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