Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Beauty is Not Unspeakable - Part One: The Problem

“Lil’ Kim, like millions of dark-skinned women, has been socialized to believe she is ugly and unworthy because she is not white or light. And like many, she has taken on the racism that surrounds her, and subscribed to what we’re all told is the ‘ideal’ image of beauty: the fairest skin, the blondest hair. (...) Perhaps the saddest thing about Kim’s transformation is that it reflects a look that is very much celebrated and applauded — just not on her.”
Zeba Blay

So Lil Kim recently posted pictures to her Instagram that many found “unsettling not just because of how unlike her former self she looks, but because of how light she seems to have bleached her formerly cocoa-brown skin.” And I know that I’ve talked and talked and talked and talked and talked about it. A lot. But, boy, does the beauty industry—and the general concept of beauty as a whole—have a complicated relationship with race.

And, I agree with Blay’s article, I think the story here is less about Lil Kim and more about a society and system that made her feel like she had to transform herself in order to be considered beautiful. I mean, how could she not feel that way, when companies like Dove do things like the normal to dark skin” self-tanner screw-up where, intentionally or—more often—reflexively not, our culture portrays white skin as the norm and skin of color as a less desirable other.

And I agree that is a problem. A big one. I just also think we’re looking at this problem wrong. We’re too often too quick to claim overt and malicious racism and demand boycotts and public shaming. And, mind you, these just my personal thoughts. Lord knows, I am not qualified or claiming to speak for all people of color in any way, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here and I really don’t think that that’s the solution. 

I think we ought to examine why people like Lil Kim and, if I’m being honest, me when I was younger—and certain days at my current age—think that being white is the path to beauty. And take a good look at the system and powers in place, like Dove’s marketing, that shape that belief. I think we need to take a moment and address the issues of how we look at and how we talk about beauty of color.

The Problem

Personally, particularly as a woman of color who writes erotic romances featuring characters of color—especially as a WOC who is currently in an interracial relationship and often writes erotic romances featuring interracial relationships—I find the way we talk, or rather too often don’t talk, about race and beauty in this country disheartening and disappointing.

We’re at a strange point in time, in literature, where more and more readers, writers, and publishers are demanding more diversity in their media but, in many ways, we still lack the language and means to deliver. We’re trying to deal with diversity in a still very white-centric medium through a hypersensitive, easily triggered, politically tumultuous lens. Which too often ends with us drawing arbitrary and contradictory lines in the sand while we chase an elusive and quite possibly impossible standard of perfection that seeks to please everyone and offend no one.

A lofty goal, to be sure. 

It’s just one that I’m not sure is possible or even something we ought to aspire to.

And, to be fair, a lot of these well-intentioned, if deeply problematic theories point out the perfectly legitimate problem that, as it stands, we’re not good at describing characters of color, but offer no practical solutions beyond “Let’s commit to using the fast-changing breadth and width and depth of the English language to describe a diversity of characters with integrity and imagination.” Again, truly admirable sentiments, but not exactly helpful.

Since pleasure and offense are such personal things. What pleases one person, often offends another. What seems innocuous to me may insult someone else. What they see as a perfectly politically correct solution may feel like an awful disservice to me. 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in political correctness but, while I do think it gets the direction our culture needs to shift in right a lot of the time, it often gets it wrong too. There are times when, by attempting to not offend by being so politically correct, their efforts and arguments feel incredibly offensive in and of themselves, when thought all the way through to their inevitable conclusion.

So let’s break some of the arguments down:

What The Colorblind Argument Doesn’t See

The Colorblind Argument thinks that we should avoid being too specific about description of skin and features to sidestep the controversy altogether. After all, skin is skin and color shouldn’t matter, right? That’s the equality movement in a nutshell. So, just to be safe, why not simply take out ethnically specific mentions of color and distinguishing features entirely and stick to more generic terms, like “soft” and “smooth” skin or “bright” or “wide” eyes, which could apply to anyone? Then any reader of any race could insert themselves into any story with ease, right?

Except, while in theory that’s nice, that’s not how the real world works. Because colorblindness in print doesn’t actually promote equality; it just erases any race that isn’t white. 

Especially since we would never think to do that with white people. We would never think “blond hair” or “gray eyes” were even remotely problematic or in need of censoring or toning down. Yet “almond-shaped eyes” or “cinnamon skin” makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They’re terms we’re often told to shy away from or consider rephrasing. Which inevitably means that, if we are not allowed to know characters of color visually in print, a character of color can only be physically known in a tangible sense, such as “soft” or “smooth,” while a white character can have “soft hair the color of sunshine” or “pale skin smooth as cream.” We, as people of color, would then exist only within the lack of color we are described. How does that make sense?

By just straight-up deleting all descriptions, race now exists in stories as almost an intellectual exercise rather than the visual and physical reality many of us live. You’ve not only thoroughly bypassed the very real and very impactful politics of it, but also any claim to language that could appreciate it. “It’s simply counterintuitive to argue that problems related to race can be fixed by ignoring race altogether. In practice, colorblind casting isn’t a form of acceptance or progress: It can just as easily be erasure wrapped up as benevolence.” The path to equality isn’t ignoring or blindly painting over our differences, but by understanding and embracing that which makes us the same and that which makes us unique.

If I can’t describe a character’s ethnicity through skin color or features, if I can only say they have skin and features, the effort to make race not matter just erased my character’s race entirely. And, without those same ethnic differences that feel cliché and offensive to some, my character simply becomes the default race in western culture: white.

That’s how dominant culture works. Unless otherwise specified, the dominant culture is automatically the default assumption.

Even when authors try for racial ambiguity, “I know intentions are (often) good when writers purposely create racially-ambiguous characters, but it’s hard to undue a lifetime of defaulting ambiguous to White, for those who have been submerged in mainstream, White-dominated media all around the world. That’s just fact.” Even toning race down to say things like “dark beige skin” or “tanned olive skin” is problematic because, people can and often do interpret that as being white with a tan. Making our race ambiguous literally makes us invisible.

It is not enough to just not talk about or play down race. To just let the audience assume what it will. Let their imaginations fill in the blanks. Because, realistically, typically Western audiences just aren’t very good at mentally inserting diversity when given the option. That’s why people get so upset when actors of color are cast as characters in movies based on books, even when those characters were specifically stated to be, if not often specifically described as, characters of color in those books. Not to mention, also, like in the Last Airbender film, or, of course, the current Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange controversies, times when movie casts get white-washed to make the movie more sellable at the expense of the ethnic experience inherent in the story. Even when we find ways to diversify our traditionally, and out-datedly white-dominated stories, there are still too many people who, for too many reasons, have way too many problems with it. Who would prefer tradition over diversity. You know, those good ole days, where, for no real good reason beyond good old fashioned racism, everyone important was white.

Except, those days are long gone—welcome to today’s world—and, as I said, an all-white world doesn’t exist; we can no longer realistically pretend that it does. To present such a world is to depict, despite the intended genre, a fantasy-based dystopia in which the shocking lack of us needs to be addressed. Were we wiped out by disease? By war? If we are never characters of significance, if we never speak or act in ways that move the plot and by extension the world, why is that? Have we been silenced? Have we been pushed to the furthest margins of society? What happened in the story’s history to make our exclusion make sense?

And, if there isn’t one, if there was no mass genocide, no biological catastrophe, no sociological upheaval—if that’s just the story you have to tell—I have to wonder why that is. I have to wonder why, of all the worlds you could create, that was the one you chose. I would hope, at some point in the writing process, you would take a moment to wonder that too.

Because this colorblind practice unfairly and illogically erases us from the landscape. Instead of embracing the beauty of diversity, it makes it something to hush up. People of color have enough trouble being seen in this country—much less being seen in a positive light. And that type of archaic storytelling reiterates and reinforces “that white is normal. But white isn’t normal. And the more role models and representation otherwise, the better humans do.” No one race is “normal;” normal is the existence and recognition of all races. And we need to acknowledge that. The more diverse our media is, the more representative of the diverse reality we already live in, the better we all are for it.

For being such a melting pot and for having made such strides toward accepting and celebrating diversity in our real lives, we are not good at it when it comes to our fiction. We need to be explicit about it. After all, “if you the author have a specific race in mind for a character, what is honestly the harm in noting what they are?” We should treat race as if it’s, at the very least, conversational. Normal. Something we all, one way or another, live with. Because, white or not, that is our reality. That is the world as we know it. And it’s been that way long enough for us all to realize and accept it and, I promise you, it will not change anytime soon.

Ideally, we’d get to a place where we can celebrate it, in ourselves and in each other. After all, “Audiences empathize with people who aren’t like them all the time. (…) Because we empathize with fully realized characters in good stories even if they’re living lives that are different from our own, even if they don’t act like we act. In fact, that’s one reason why we seek out works of fiction, to experience life from other points of view that we could never live ourselves.” 

As a writer who uses them, I’ve been told that terms like “coffee-colored skin” or “lotus-shaped eyes” are discomforting or even racist; I think it’s racist to willfully refuse to see—to act blind to—parts of who we are. For making completely benign things, like the mere presence of skin or features, racist just because you deem them so. Just because they make you uncomfortable.

Please, understand, I’m not saying that we should use or be okay with racist language or imagery, but intent ought to matter. Context should factor in. Because to go in the complete opposite direction and say all mention of color is always and already racist is just another form of racism. It makes zero sense to avoid talking about color when it comes to characters of color. Because in order to talk about the color of someone’s skin, one must inevitably and unavoidably talk about color. To find it automatically offensive makes any description of a very important part of who we are off-limits. Not just to those who would use it against us, but to us as well.

To say that there’s something wrong with acknowledging a person has color in their skin tone, whether that’s porcelain, coffee, or chocolate, feels a lot like saying that there’s something wrong with having color in your skin. To not allow us to describe the color of our own skin, you make not only the words unspeakable, you in turn make our existence unspeakable.

Because good things, things a person can and should be proud of, are never unspeakable. Never censorable or limited. Unspeakable things are always and already shameful.

I don’t think the way I look—I don’t think I as a person, the mere existence of me—should ever be treated as shameful. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that of themselves.

We, as a culture are so PC-ly afraid to talk about people of color in a physical sense. Even outside of fiction or the written word. For example, I had asked people to describe what I look like once, while discussing among friends the current social taboo of using these kinds of terms, and got answers like “diminutive but sparky” and “slyly intelligent.”

Both of which I like to think are accurate—thank you. But that only gives insight into who I am as a person and very little about what I look like. After all, a white person—or a black person or a Hispanic person or any person of any race—could be those things as well.

I am more than what I look like—no one will argue this louder than me—but I am still what I look like. Like it or not—accept it or not—I take up a physical presence. I exist in concrete, tangible terms. To say that it’s not appropriate to comment on my looks is to tacitly say that there’s something wrong with how I look.

White characters are allowed full dimension and depth, unfettered existence in worlds built by words all the time. While authors are continually asked to pull back and strategically tiptoe around the descriptions of characters of color for fear it might offend someone. This practice places limits that, by trying not to be offensive, are offensive, by saying that descriptions for white characters are limitless but descriptions for characters of color—no matter how benign—need censorship because they are always and already problematic for someone.

No matter what we want or wish, race and appearance matters. They affect how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how others see us. “Race informs everything we do. Not because it exists—race is a construct; there is only one human race, homo sapiens—but because we are social and visual beings.” Race and appearance inform our experiences and worlds. It’s dishonest to erase or be blind to that information. We all see it. We are all affected by it, in some way or another. As an Asian person, I know that, “Whether you like it or not, being Asian has a big impact on who you are as a person and it will continue to have an impact on you in the future. (…) And I think it’s because it’s one of the first things that people notice when they see you.”

And that’s okay.

I am Asian. I am not white. What’s so wrong with people noticing that? So long as that acknowledgment doesn’t come attached to value judgments or cultural assumptions, I promise, I don’t mind. It’s part of who I am. A part I can’t hide and, at this point in my life, one I wouldn’t if I could.

In fact, I’m far more offended when white people tell me that they often “forget” that I’m Asian. That I’m not white. What does that even mean? Look at me. Are they blind? No one looks me in my coffee-colored, amber-toned face and just forgets that I’m not white.

What they mean is that I don’t act like a cultural stereotype. That, to them, despite my looks, I “act white.” What they want is to be applauded for their colorblindness.

But I’m not going to applaud that. Their effort to not offend me—to compliment me on my lack of Asian-ness, to erase the otherness we’ve been taught is polite to blind ourselves to—offends me.

Because, I promise, I wasn’t trying to trick anyone by somehow defying racial tropes. It doesn’t and should never make me less Asian because of it. I’m okay with—I would far prefer—you acknowledging my Asian-ness. “Yes, this isn’t a disguise; it’s pretty obvious, right? But my point is that people will always identify you as Asian.” And, if you’re Asian—and if you believe there’s nothing wrong with being Asian—why shouldn’t they? Why would we see that recognition as rudeness?

So What Do We Do Now?

If we can and should recognize race in stories, the question becomes how, right? Which is a harder question than I wish it were.


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