What If Black Women Were White Women?

From the blog Alienated Conclusions, and via Shadow and Act, which in turn was via Womanist Musings:

What if suddenly, instantly, the power of white femininity were transferred to black women?

The answer is clear: Black women would represent value, purity; and based on their natural traits would be worthy of protection and instantly become the objects of universal desire. White women would represent the opposite.

“Beauty tar potion” would become globally popular to get the “black look.” “Dove” would be replaced with a black soap called “Raven” to help exfoliate the skin and bring out subtle hints of melanin.

White female features would be declared violent. Their “jagged” thin lips, “knife sharp” noses, and “harsh” jaw lines would be nature’s way of expressing why men have a natural preference for the soft features of black women. Soft lips, soft cheekbones, and soft, round noses would be proof of natural femininity. Full, pink lips and large, dark eyes would become associated with virginal black girls whose purity must not be compromised. Black female features would thus be said to represent youth.

Straight, blond hair would be considered “wild and unruly” because when the wind blew, it did not stay in place. Women with naturally straight hair would hide their “unruly” and “wild” stick-straight hair in public. The desire for “lightweight hair” that defied gravity would permanently end the use of blow dryers. Keeping one’s natural blond hair wild and straight would become indicative of a political statement.

The anti-aging properties of black female skin combined with soft, curvy bodies would be proof of the overall reproductive health of black women. Scientists would argue that black women were naturally preferred as long term mates and mothers because they were “healthier.”

There’s more at the original post.

Clicktrigger in the comments at Shadow And Act added some more (click over to read all her suggestions):

…there’d be a whole new kind of nose job.

…the default colors for underwear would be black, brown and tan. Dead-white bras would barely even exist. You’d have to order those off the internet or something. And black cotton panties would be a symbol of feminine innocence.

…the irreversible skin-darkening (and iris-browning) caused by the prescription drug Latisse would go from being a heavily downplayed, barely-mentioned negative side effect to being the primary selling point. It would be sold OTC, with little to no regulation or FDA input. Everyone would just shrug and say “why would anyone put that dangerous stuff on their skin/in their eyes?!” even as dark skin and brown eyes are aggressively promoted as the ideal. [...]

…the meanings of certain words would change. “Fair” would simply mean “light-colored.” The “beautiful” meaning would fall out of use, and the archaic word “ebon” would come back to replace it. Poets would pine for their muses with “ah, she was so ebon, so ebon!” (We’d also go back to using the word “just” instead of “fair.” Kids would whine, “He got more than me! That’s unjust!”)

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23 Responses to What If Black Women Were White Women?

  1. 1
    Mary says:

    Am I alone in sort of loving it when someone points out an aspect of my (here, white) privilege that I hadn’t even begun to realize? Not in the sense that I love having aspects of my privilege pass unexamined by me, or that I expect people of color to have to educate me, but that…I don’t know…it’s nice to be given new things to think about by smart people, if that makes sense. Here, the “youthful features,” “black panties,” and Latisse comments all really struck me and made me, I think, look at the world in a different way. What great work.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    There’s a lot of validity to much of this. However:

    White female features would be declared violent. Their “jagged” thin lips, “knife sharp” noses, and “harsh” jaw lines would be nature’s way of expressing why men have a natural preference for the soft features of black women

    soft, curvy bodies would be proof of the overall reproductive health of black women.

    This seems to propose that there is a stereotype that white women are naturally skinny and that black women are naturally curvy. I’m not sure of that. God knows I’ve known plenty of curvy white women and skinny angular black women. Sure, I’ve also known plenty of women who try to starve themselves skinny, but I don’t know that this is limited to white women. Do you think this stereotype exists?

    And “soft curvy body” = “reproductive health” seems race-independent to me. Or is that secondary to the proposed stereotype?

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    …the default colors for underwear would be black, brown and tan. Dead-white bras would barely even exist. You’d have to order those off the internet or something. And black cotton panties would be a symbol of feminine innocence.

    Do you think that the current default colors for female underwear is an issue of an image of racially-linked femininity or is it more due to the fact that white people are the majority in the U.S., women will tend to buy underwear that matches their skin color and it’s cheaper for a producer to make all the underwear they manufacture one color?

  4. 4
    Sam L says:

    Ah, I love a good speculative exercise. I wonder though, how this would work outside of the vacuum of femininity? By which I mean, if the power of white femininity was transferred to black women, but still within the confines of a patriarchal system that values white males as pinnacles of human achievement? The mind-twisting needed to make that work are spellbinding, particularly the conflicting desires to breed strong, white boys and beautiful, innocent black girls. This would make a good topic for a short story or speculative essay, what?

  5. 5
    leah says:

    This seems to propose that there is a stereotype that white women are naturally skinny and that black women are naturally curvy. I’m not sure of that.

    I have come up against that stereotype quite often, actually. It’s an awful phrase that betrays this stereotype, but the first thing that comes to mind is the term “ghetto booty.” If you’ve never heard it count yourself lucky.

    And “soft curvy body” = “reproductive health” seems race-independent to me.

    I think you missed this one, and maybe it’s because you’re not a female of reproductive age who goes to the doctor regularly. I’ve had more than one doctor exclaim (unsolicited) that my curviness (or weight, even though I am not overweight, hmm) would cause problems for reproduction, nevermind the fact that I’m actively avoiding getting pregnant anyway, tyvm. There is a perception that is pushed on women by the medical community that skinny & uncurvy = good for carrying healthy babies which is particularly ironic given that all the medical studies indicate otherwise. But anyway, since the stereotypes are “black women are curvy and white women are skinny” and “skinny is best for birthing babies”, then the logical combination of these two stereotypes is race-dependent.

  6. 6
    Marta says:

    Beautiful post (no pun intended).

    Btw:

    Straight, blond hair would be considered “wild and unruly” because when the wind blew, it did not stay in place.

    I am white, with straight (brown) hair, and I totally agree on this point – even in this Eurocentric world.

  7. 7
    tariqata says:

    I also find it really interesting to have these aspects of privilege pointed out, although there are points that don’t reflect my experience. But even so, I know it helps me to have these things pointed out, because I know that they wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I can definitely see how other women do have these kinds of experiences.

    (Apologies for going off-topic) leah, I’m surprised to read that you’ve been getting the message that skinniness is good for pregnancy and birth and curviness is bad! I’ve heard weight gain goals suggested for pregnant women that indicate that skinnier women should aim to gain more, and (thankfully!) none of my doctors have suggested that my curviness could be a problem, so I was inclined to agree with RonF’s take that the general assumption is that a soft/curvy body indicates reproductive health. If you don’t mind, has anyone tried to come up with an explanation for the message they’re giving you? It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to me!

  8. 8
    Raksha says:

    When I was an undergrad, I took a class on the Harlem Renaissance and we read a book called ‘Black No More’ by George Schuyler. It was pretty funny as well as having some pointed insights about the absurdities of stereotypes, politics and social conventions in America. In the book scientists invent a proceedure to make African Americans look white. All kinds of hysteria and craziness ensue. It’s been years since I read the book, so I don’t remember a lot of the details, but one thing that’s always stuck with me is the end, where people discover that those who’ve undergone the proceedure are “whiter than white.” Meaning, they appear even more stereotypically white-looking than supposedly natural-born white people. Their skin is even lighter, their hair even paler blond, and so on. So because people assume that all (or at least most) African Americans have undergone this proceedure, the stereotypes switch associations (extremely pale people are stupid, etc.) and beauty ideals change also.

    My point in bringing this up, I guess, is that people were wondering what would happen if black people became white people all the way back in 1931. I think I should go back and reread that book and see how much has (or hasn’t) changed.

  9. 9
    grendelkhan says:

    Counterfactuals! I love counterfactuals! It’s completely irrelevant to the discussion of race, gender and their intersections here, but I’m reminded of how weird E. O. Wilson’s bit from Consilience was, where to illustrate how our biology informs our morals and culture, he had “composed the following state-of-the-colony speech for a termite leader to deliver to the multitude” (it’s from page 161):

    Ever since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved ten-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the late Tertiary Period, and learned to write with pheromonal script, termitic scholarship has elevated and refined ethical philosophy. It is now possible to express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst the richness of war and trade with other colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal rights (the colony is ALL!); our deep love for the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eating feces from nestmates’ anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat).

    Leaving aside the possibility of a heavily r-selected lineage evolving individual intelligence as well as the very, very As-You-Know style, it does paint a rather surreal picture.

    RonF: This seems to propose that there is a stereotype that white women are naturally skinny and that black women are naturally curvy. I’m not sure of that.

    I think that part of the confusion may stem from the way stereotypes work; white women can simply be the unmarked category, and a “fat, sassy black woman” stereotype will do the rest of the work. Similarly, there doesn’t need to be a “white people are smart” stereotype for the “black people are dimwitted” stereotype to do its work.

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    leah:

    I’ve had more than one doctor exclaim (unsolicited) that my curviness (or weight, even though I am not overweight, hmm) would cause problems for reproduction,

    I find that very odd. If it’s not too personal a question, were they specific about what kind of problem they thought you could anticipate? Everything that I’ve read about this indicates that low body weight can lead to amenorrhea, but that you have to be morbidly obese to have excess body weight cause reproductive problems – otherwise a curvy body type leads to increased fertility.

    Raksha:

    Meaning, they appear even more stereotypically white-looking than supposedly natural-born white people. Their skin is even lighter, their hair even paler blond, and so on

    Take a look around. See how few “white” people are actually white. In discussing my ancestry (before I learned that I do, in fact, have some black African antecedents) I used to joke that “I’m so white I’m pink.”

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    I’ve certainly run into the “fat, sassy black woman” stereotype, but that always seemed to me to be limited to a certain subset of black women and did not extend to all black women as a class. It has appeared to me that the concept was that a) they existed and b) that the two characteristics went together – a sassy black woman will be fat and a fat black woman will be sassy. But not that all/most/many black women are fat and sassy.

  12. 12
    Emily says:

    I think I have heard that being heavy is a risk factor for developing gestational diabetes. I do not have any idea about the factual merits or demerits of that belief, but as a thin woman who was recently pregnant I think I heard that explanation given for concern about pre-preganacy weight as a “risk factor.”

    I will also second the experience that thinness (though not anorexia of course) is considered a “good” by the medical establishment w/r/t childbearing. When I got pregnant my BIL, who was a med student recently out of his OB rotation, said something along the lines of “they’ll be happy with you (or they won’t worry about you, something like that), you’re young and thin.”

  13. 13
    Nathan says:

    I knew I’d heard that expression before:

    — Say, do you want to see a movie?
    — I’m feeling fat, and sassy!
    — Eeeeaaaaagggh!
    [Eye pops out in a stream of blood.]

    Apologies to Don Hertzfeldt.

  14. 14
    Ginsu Shark says:

    *whistling* Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

    Also, isn’t underwear usually regular-color-white, not skin-color-white? I haven’t seen much pinkish-beige underwear…

    “(We’d also go back to using the word “just” instead of “fair.” Kids would What does this have to do with the topic, anyway?

  15. 15
    Mandolin says:

    Ginsu Shark, think about the word fair. If necessary, go look it up and read the multiple definitions.

  16. 16
    Mel says:

    Very thought-provoking, thanks for linking.

    The only thing I’d quibble with is underwear colors–while it’s true that default “flesh-toned” or “nude” underwear would be quite different, I’m pretty sure the main function of dead-white underwear is to not show when worn under dead-white clothing (e.g. white button-down shirts, standard professional wear). So unless flipping beauty ideals means no white clothing (I can’t think of a reason it would) or sudden acceptability of dark underwear under light clothing, white underwear would stick around, although it might not have the same “purity” connotations.

    Ginsu Shark, there is a LOT of “flesh” or “nude” underwear out there. It’s pinkish-beige and not really the color of most white people, but much closer to white-people-skin than anyone else’s, just like the “flesh” colored crayon isn’t white-people-colored, but closer to that than anyone else. Ditto “nude” pantyhose. There’s also a lot of black and white underwear out there, but not so much in shades of brown darker than beige. But I would draw a distinction between the purposes of “nude” and actual white underwear, as I said in my previous paragraph.

    Etymology: I think fair = beautiful predates fair = pale, or fair = just. So it might not have come to mean “pale” at all–it might have stuck at “beautiful” or even have come to mean “dark”? But I’d have to go poking around in the OED to be sure. The meanings would definitely be different somehow.

  17. 17
    Ginsu Shark says:

    Right, I completely forgot about “nude” underwear…

  18. 18
    LC says:

    I’m with Mel about “fair”. I think it meant “beautiful”, then “without blemish” (spotless, white, pale), and then “just”. (It’s got more meanings, too.)

  19. 19
    chingona says:

    I’m pretty sure the main function of dead-white underwear is to not show when worn under dead-white clothing (e.g. white button-down shirts, standard professional wear).

    Dead-white underwear shows up pretty clearly under dead-white clothing because of the contrast with your skin color. With dead-white clothing, you need underwear that’s close to the color of your skin.

  20. 20
    Megan says:

    Everyone is to caught up trying to analyze it that they just don’t sit and actually appreciate the beauty in the work.
    &&
    I am brown skin, and I was at Target and saw a bra with the color described as “nude”. I laughed to myself thinking, “that’s not the color that I am when I’m nude!”
    Also, its hard to find foundation and other make-ups that do justice for the many shades of black women. We’re are all usually stuck between “tan” and “brown” when neither of the two are even dark enough! We have to use make-up from a line made specifically for black women, like Queen Latifa’s. And I also found that the line of products for black women were usually more expensive than the “nude” or “flesh” toned makeups.

  21. 21
    Stiles says:

    @ Megan
    Don’t forget “Tawny”!!! It’s that shade thats not quite “tan” and not quite “brown” but right in between, lol. I’ve always wondered what the hell was Tawny anyway. That seems to be my color though, IF I can find it! And IF I feel like forking up the almost $15 bones to get it.
    I’ve also thought the same thing many of times when looking at “newd” colored lingerie. I’ve been wondering when the makers of lingerie would get it that “newd” isn’t newd for everybody. At least they try with make-up but I wonder what’s taking lingerie makers so long to come up with newd shades for women of color. I need a Tawny colored bra dammit!

    **Clearly folks have been able to comment using the properly spelled word for newd but for some odd I couldn’t submit my comment because of it. How wack is that?***

  22. 22
    knova says:

    I know this thread is old, but I don’t care, this needs to be stated.
    About the underwear.
    Just about everyone is missing the point. RonF is particularly spectacular; he misses the point even as he explicitly acknowledges it. The point there is in fact about racially-linked femininity. It is not about the default colors of underwear.

    It’s about how white girls are associated with femininity and innocence, and no one else. Being female and young is not enough. Not all young girls are seen this way. Whiteness is a required— if not defining— element of “feminine” and “innocent.”

    So “if black women were white women,” it would be black girls who that association. Black girls would be the ultimate symbol of femininity. To the point that “black cotton panties” would be a well-understood metaphor for “feminine innocence.” Y’know, the way “white cotton panties” is now.

    DUH.

    If black women were white women, it’d be white girls being catcalled on the street at the age of 9 (bc they have no innocence worth protecting). It’d be white women being called mannish as a matter of course (because they’re so inherently unfeminine).
    It’d be white ladies going, “But… ain’t I a woman?”

  23. 23
    knova says:

    Actually, correction. (Got so fired up, now I’m necro’ing this twice!)
    On review, only RonF deserves the call-out above. Not “just about everyone”— that was a total biff on my part.

    ___
    Although Mel @16 is kind of making me crazy and striking a particular nerve with “I’m pretty sure the main function of dead-white underwear is to not show when worn under dead-white clothing (e.g. white button-down shirts, standard professional wear).” SIGH.
    But chingona @ 19 took care of that (thank you!), so yeah.
    Still, though: argh/cry.

    White people are made to know so little (but to be so sure they’ve got it right/are objective/should speak up and be listened to). I mean, I figured the white-bra-white-shirt thing out when I was TWELVE and had been wearing bras for not even a year.

    Will it always be like this? Will we always know more about the world we share? Will we always inhabit two entirely different realities? Will we always know more about them than they know about us? Because, a person who thinks they know everything… will never learn.
    :’(