The Bluest Eye Revisited—Again


By Sikivu Hutchinson

During this past weekend’s Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando I was on a panel called Outreach and Advocacy with 16 year-old activist Jessica Ahlquist and constitutional lawyer Eddie Tabash.  Ahlquist discussed her courageous activism against religious bigotry in Rhode Island and Tabash issued a call for secular vigilance on church/state separation.  The panel was expertly moderated by CFI’s African Americans for Humanism director Debbie Goddard.  Debbie kept the discussion lively by amplifying the themes of race/gender politics, church/state separation and that we raised during our respective presentations.  At the end of the session I was approached by a young biracial African American woman who spoke passionately about her struggle with self-image, identity and mainstream white beauty standards.  As the only woman of color in the audience (she, Debbie, and myself were the only women of color at the conference as a whole) she connected with my presentation on beauty standards, the cultural construction of femininity, and black and Latina young women’s organized resistance to sexism and misogyny during the modern civil rights movement era and in contemporary battles around educational equity.  Coming from an interracial family in which she and her 9 year-old sister were largely socialized to believe white beauty ideals were the norm, she identified with discussion of my Women’s Leadership Project students’ activism on racist misogynist representations of women of color.  For women of color, humanism can’t be understood outside of the historic context of black and brown women’s enslavement, sexual exploitation, and colonization.  This legacy continues to shape the way black and Latina women are portrayed in a global image industry in which we are either hyper-sexualized as Jezebel super sluts or domesticated yet again as the noble self-sacrificing god-fearing “Help” to white women.  Moreover, anti- abortion and family planning public policy (such as race-selection abortion legislation and GOP crusades to repeal birthright citizenship steeped in propaganda that demonizes undocumented Latinas as “anchor baby” breeders) targeting black and Latina fertility/reproduction institutionalizes this regime of dehumanization and invisibility.  The psychological damage inflicted on young girls of color is played out in the multi-million dollar consumption of white Barbies, white princesses, and scores of TV shows featuring white girls as lead character heroines while girls of color (if present at all) add “spice” as the wisecracking/level-headed/sassy sidekick.

Four decades after the publication of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye these cultural biases are also manifest in Americana’s obsession with missing white women and girls.  In a climate where girls of color lap up the Bad Girls reality show and covet cheap dangerously unhygienic colored contact lenses sold on the street, Morrison’s meditation on the violent disfiguring of black girls’ psyches is nakedly relevant.  Western paradigms of rationality, individual liberty, citizenship and objectivity were and continue to be articulated through the debased othered racialized bodies of women of color.  And as I said at the Orlando talk, in all of my years of K-12 education no one ever handed me a book written by a black woman like Morrison and said that what she wrote is universal truth.  Or that civilizations rose and fell on the power of her words. Or that entire belief systems sprung from her ideas and teachings.  And no one ever taught me to believe that some of the world’s greatest intellectuals came from plantations, reservations, barrios and “ghettoes.”  Instead, white male secularists were the heroes, leaders, intellectuals, and “creators” of all that mattered in American history.  This is the life and death humanist struggle that women of color are spearheading—one that says that laying claim to our own bodies, destinies and right to self-determination is still a radical revolutionary concept.  One that my students and the young biracial sister at the conference continue to fight everyday of their lives.

Comments

  1. says

    The mainstream beauty standards are seriously unhealthy for the vast majority of white women, because most white women will meet few or none of them. But you might get close-ish at one or two of them – say, you’re dark blonde, or you’ve got nice green eyes. It must be much, much worse for women of colour, who are, after all, most of the women on the planet.

  2. julian says

    My wife spends a lot of her time worrying about her looks. She doesn’t want to. She understands where those standards of beauty come from and most of their racist underpinnings.

    But it’s one thing to know something and another to feel it.

    Oh, well. Maybe our great grand kids will luck out and be able to live out confident about their bodies.

  3. yarbrough says

    Hello Sikivu. I am a white LGBTQ male student who attended the CFI conference in Orlando that you spoke at. I thought your presentation and insights were extremely valuable. I could not help but agree with your analysis of women of color being portrayed as either the Jezebel super slut or the “Help”.Since you mentioned Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, I will definitely be putting it on my reading list. I’m new to this whole atheist activism thing and the CFI event was my first conference. I agree with you that the movement needs to take more concrete steps in reaching out to minority groups.

  4. says

    It’s an issue in a lot of cultures.

    Even indians have the same problem with a constant drive to “get whiter”.

    In India the major drive is to whiten up, both using whitening creams, bleaches and contact lenses to gain other colours.

    I have seriously had opthalmologists and opticians comment on my eye colour (Hazel – Green) as a desireable trait simply because it is a colour normally seen in Goans (Portugese) and “white people”.

    It’s incredible how many amazingly attractive indian girls who look (look! I think women are pretty) like they have fallen out of a magazine are told they are ugly simply because the colour of their skin is black or brown.

  5. says

    Amazing writing.

    That the voices of women generally and the voices of women of color specifically are marginalized relative to those of white men is not even debatable. What never fails to astonish me is how that can possibly be so when such thinkers and writers as you (and Toni Morrison) are so obviously f*$#ing brilliant.

    This is the life and death humanist struggle that women of color are spearheading—one that says that laying claim to our own bodies, destinies and right to self-determination is still a radical revolutionary concept.

    It is all women’s struggle — all of humanity’s struggle whether individuals realize it or not. Our species is extremely fortunate to count you as one of its own.

  6. nathanielhall says

    I am so grateful for your talk at CFI. It really opened my blue eyes as a white male. I was there with the girl you are speaking about. It was so awesome to see how much she was glowing after hearing your lecture and then speaking with you. Her heightened sense of pride and self-esteem made me the second happiest person in the room. Thank you for that. Thank you for showing her she doesn’t need the bluest eyes. Thank you for showing her how unique she is and how much of an awesome asset she is for moving secularism and women’s rights forward!

    Sincerely,
    Iel Hall

    • blackskeptics says

      Excellent. Please let her know how much I appreciated talking to her and that her reflections really resonated. I hope some of the resources I passed on to her were helpful.

      • nathanielhall says

        Yes mam. She bought your book as well as the gentleman who spoke about how we can learn from the rap /hip hop movement. Which I am researching with a friend who is steeped in the history of rap /hip hop. I will make attempts to disseminate my findings. I couldn’t think of any of the main examples that were given during his speech of what the rap industry did to accomplish their long lasting success. I would like to set up a timelinne and such and then put it beside a timeline of the secular movement in the USA in the last 40 years or so. We could then cross examine, compare & contrast them. Are do you know if such already exist? If so I’d love to start passing that around so we can help build off of that ASAP.

        Thanks for your time again!

  7. mas528 says

    On the obsession with missing white women, I see that here, even at FTB.

    Jessica Alquist is deservedly getting attention for the bullying htat she has had to endure for asking her school to obey they law. She is well spoken too.

    Why am I not hearing about Jada Williams all over the place?
    Perhaps it is her parents attempting to shield her because she is so young.

    But I suspect that part of it is that Alquist is that she is white, and what Madison avenue has told us is pretty.

    And I am ashamed to say that I forgot Williams’ name, and couldn’t remember where I had read about her, so I did a google search.

    “education slavery essay comparison bullying award”

    Nothing pertinent came up. Only when I added Douglass did her name show up at all, and still not at the very top.

    Anyway, I hope we hear more from both of these women in the future. With support, we’ll have two more like Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

  8. says

    As the only woman of color in the audience (she, Debbie, and myself were the only women of color at the conference as a whole)

    How many people were at the conference overall?

  9. mikecline says

    Great article. Everyone needs to work harder to make a better culture/society where other versions of American experience are just as well-known and relevant as the often irrelevant white-washed non-sense we learn in school and on tv. As a teacher I make sure my students know that Toni Morrison’s experience and vision is just as valid and depnding on the situation maybe “truer”.

    • blackskeptics says

      Absolutely. As a teacher I am always saddened and angry when students don’t know who Morrison (and scores of other writers of color they should know) is. Despite all these claims that the “canon” has widened secondary school English literature (with the possible exception of those rare AP classes taught by a conscious instructor) is still limited to Langston Hughes, Wright and maybe Baldwin or Cisneros.

  10. paul says

    Probably off-topic, but what exactly is depicted in the illustration above? The oversize irises are creeping me out.

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