In 2013 I published an article here on The Huffington Post called "Why I'm Not Here for #WhiteGirlsRock." In it, I posed a question to my fellow white Americans who were upset about Black Girls Rock!, insisting that a program centering the self-worth and self-love of black girls must be "reverse racism" at work and taking to Twitter with the hashtag #WhiteGirlsRock to "reaffirm" the value of white girls. The question I posed was:
What in your heart recoils when you see Black Girls Rock? What bone in your body sees empowerment for black girls and thinks "that's not fair?" Where is your bitterness rooted? What do you think has been taken from you when women of color are uplifted?
Now I'm afraid I must ask again, because very little seems to have changed since 2013: Black Girls Rock! is again being criticized. You see, Michelle Obama spoke at this year's Black Girls Rock! celebration. She said many beautiful things, among them:
No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are beautiful. I am so proud of you. My husband, your president, is so proud of you. We have so much hope and dreams for you... I know there are voices that you are not good enough. Each of those doubts was like a test that I either shrink away from or rise to meet. And I decided to rise.
Her comments (somehow) have prompted outrage and anger, like this bit of... something by Amanda Shea, who claims that Michelle Obama's beautiful words of love and kindness send the message that "white girls don't matter." Let's think about this.
Yesterday, Cosmopolitan came under fire for an article in their online magazine called "21 Beauty Trends That Need to Die in 2015." In it, beauty trends are categorized as either "Hello, Gorgeous" or "RIP," ie. rest in peace. Twitter arose in protest when it was noticed that the "Hello, Gorgeous" column failed to include a single woman of color with the exception of Nicole Richie. Any model with skin darker than hers was placed in the "RIP" column, opposite to a white model in the "Hello, Gorgeous" column. Even more baffling is the fact that the beauty trends the article claims to be contrasting are often too similar or subtle to discern any real difference on first glance, so rather than there being a striking make-up technique that is clearly hideous or tacky, we are left with one readily apparent difference: race. "Hello, Gorgeous" to the white girls. "RIP" to the black girls.
Defenders of Cosmo are eager to jump at the fact that there are white women in the "RIP" column as well. This is true, but missing the point. The point is that the reverse is not true for the "Gorgeous" column, thus the Eurocentric standard for beauty is visibly maintained. A woman of any color can be ugly, this tells us, but only one specific kind of woman can be beautiful.
Why does it matter? Why does it matter what races are depicted as beautiful vs. ugly in one of the most widely read women's magazines in the country? Because:
- Studies show that consumption of TV increases the self-esteem of white boys but decreases the self-esteem of girls and black boys.
- Researchers estimate that at some point before they reach 17 years of age, four percent of black teens and more than seven percent of black teen girls will attempt suicide.
- Eighty-seven percent of runway models are white.
- Black girls and women regularly experience punishment and ostracization for wearing their hair natural.
- Of the top 100 grossing films of 2014, only 11 percent of the women onscreen were black.
- A repeat of the infamous "Doll Test" of the 1940s revealed that 47 percent of young black girls interviewed preferred to play with white dolls because they were "prettier."
I see it, too, in the criticism of last week's Dreamworks release, Home. I saw the film and loved it. The entire audience in my theater loved it and applauded when it was over. Twitter loved it. But a look at RottenTomatoes.com reveals harsh criticism that brings to mind the old "must be twice as great to be considered half as good." One reviewer remarked "Girl power and diversity aren't enough to make a great movie" or something similar, and I'm reminded of the power of privilege when it comes to representation in American media. As I said to fellow white people in my original article about Black Girls Rock:
"[White people] are in everything. Ninety-nine percent of Hollywood movies feature your faces. Ninety-nine percent of magazine covers are covered in you. The Emmy Awards and Oscars are almost entirely you. If you Google 'beautiful people' the screen is covered in white faces. Black girls (and boys) are taught from birth that there is one version of beauty, and it is you. Many black girls go their entire lives thinking they are ugly, thinking they need to be lighter, straighter, whiter in order to have value. Everything that you see every day that reaffirms your whiteness; every commercial that has a nice white lady embodying the perfect "mom;" every magazine that has blue eyes and bone-straight hair; every Hollywood blockbuster that has a leading lady with skin never darker than Halle Berry... all of these things are reinforcements of your identity that you take for granted.
Home is priceless for these three little girls. Because in what other animated world has a girl with skin and hair like theirs been represented? Princess Tiana was a frog for 95 percent of The Princess and the Frog. In Home, a little black girl is literally the key to interplanetary unity, yet critics like the white faces I see on RottenTomatoes can't even begin to see how much this might mean to black girls everywhere.
One need look no further than last year's backlash against Quvenzhané Wallis for starring in the remake of Annie to see why Black Girls Rock! and all manner of specific uplifting of black girls is necessary. I'm sure we all remember the racist attacks that accompanied Amandla Stenberg being cast as Rue in The Hunger Games as well.
Even in my own work, I've received emails from well-meaning (white) fans questioning why I chose to make the protagonist of my first novel a woman of color. I had an agent at a writing conference ask me if I'd be willing to change her race to make her "a little more mainstream, a little more relatable." The agent never said "white," just "mainstream," the assumption being that whiteness is the unspoken default, the thing to which everyone else must assimilate, or "RIP." Remember when Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp a Butterfly and Slate asked how white fans should approach it? No one ever asks the same about black fans subjected to the likes of Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. Assimilate. Assimilate, or RIP.
It's maddening, really: the refusal of this ambiguously named "mainstream" to realize the power of black media and black money. As Shonda Rhimes and other black-led programs continue to see record-breaking viewership, as Home brings in millions more than anticipated, Rihanna's character Tip isn't even included in the Happy Meal toy set: just the alien. Even more disturbing, the advertisements for the film have been found to only feature images of the little girl in neighborhoods that have a mostly black demographic. In other (whiter) areas, only the alien and the cat are depicted. The same thing was done with advertisements for Annie.
The first black heroine in a Dreamworks film: You'd think it would be a brag-worthy highlight plastered on every wall. But somehow we still live in a world where an alien whose skin changes colors when he's lying is still more relatable and "mainstream" than a human being whose skin is only ever one color: brown.
A question for Amanda Shea and anyone else who believes that the beauty and value of white girls is under attack: Did advertisements for Frozen hide Elsa? Do white girls get sent home for wearing their hair the way it naturally grows out of their heads? Do white girls turn on the TV and struggle to find a face with their skin color, hair texture, or eye color?
I wasn't here for #WhiteGirlsRock in 2013, and I'm not here for it now. As Michelle Obama said, there are enough voices telling black girls they're not good enough. I will not be one of those voices. And meanwhile, critics continue to yell, "But it's hard to be a girl of any color! White girls attempt suicide too! White girls are subject to unfair standards of beauty too!"
Yes, I know. I'm a white woman. I know how hard it is to be (or identify) as female in a world bent on our subjugation. But part of sisterhood means acknowledging that all of our sisters walk different paths and face unique challenges. One of the challenges we (white women) do not face -- no matter how you cut it: size, shape, ability or education level -- is representation.
So I'll repeat myself, for everyone bent on standing up to shout down those of us who recognize the value and necessity of uplifting black girls in a world that would rather they "rest in peace:" sit down. Please sit down. Michelle Obama is on and you're blocking the screen.
Olivia Cole is an author, blogger, and bigmouth. She published her first novel, Panther in the Hive, in 2014.