“I’m a 22 year old African American woman and I’m curious as to why black women are considered so unattractive. Why do we of all women get the worst of the worst labels placed on us? I’ve seen YouTube videos, articles, commentary, blogs, studies and statistics that just bash us as if we’re the only imperfect women on planet earth! What’s the deal? Seriously! Are our looks so unique to the point that if a man likes a black woman he is considered having “strong,heavy taste” in women?”
The Harvard MBA says:
Most people would be afraid to touch this question with a 100-foot pole. Fortunately, I’m not most people.
First of all, you’re right about discrimination against black women. OkCupid uses data from its online dating service to reveal how Americans actually behave, and it’s not always pretty. For example, here’s one finding from a 2009 blog post:
“Men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder. “
But wait, there’s more:
White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively. These three types of women only respond well to white men.
There are many historical reasons for this bias in the United States. Throughout its history, the US has been a white-dominant society. Don’t forget, when the founding fathers protested “no taxation without representation,” the only people they thought should have a vote were property-owning white men. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920. (Amazingly enough, Mississippi didn’t officially ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984.) And it took the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to grant African Americans the effective right to vote in the South (while they technically had the right to vote, the various states had erected numerous barriers that deprived them of their voting rights).
Of course, it’s one thing to cite racism for the bias against black women; it’s quite another to identify the mechanism by which this occurs.
My own take is that attractiveness is generally communicated via popular culture, specifically the world of entertainment. If I ask people to name a handsome man, they’re likely to cite a movie star, like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, rather than someone from their own life. (Though I generally cite the absurdly handsome Sundeep Ahuja when asked that same question. Damn, he’s good looking.)
Whether in movies, television, or music, whites have generally been dominant as well (despite the irony of rock and roll’s origin in the black-created blues). The American Film Institute created a list of the top 50 movie stars who made their debut before 1950. Every single one is white (though I supposed Sophia Loren at least has a decent tan).
I feel your pain…for a long time, a common joke among Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry was that in any given year, there were more extraterrestrials in regular TV roles than Asians.
The good news is that things are changing for the better. In 2011, three black men made Vanity Fair’s list of Hollywood’s Top 40 moneymakers: Will Smith, Tyler Perry, and Eddie Murphy. Samuel L. Jackson’s movies have grossed more money than any other actor in history (admittedly, he didn’t play the starring role in most of them). And for 2012, the person who topped People’s list of the 50 most beautiful was Beyonce.
Yet there is still a lot of progress to be made. Most of the black women who are considered mainstream beauties have a look that one blogger described as “a White girl dipped in chocolate,” with skinny noses and thinner lips. And the fact that Beyonce was named the most beautiful woman in the world has little comfort if no one returns your messages on Match.com.
Changes takes a long time. Usually longer than we’d like. But it does happen.
Ironically enough, one of the biggest signs of change is the lack of fanfare. It was a big deal in 1997 when Tyra Banks became the first black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. (Incidentally, Tyra Banks is also now officially a HBS graduate, though not an MBA. I can un-ironically say, “You go, girl!”) Same for when Halle Berry was the first black woman on the cover of People’s 50 Most Beautiful. I can’t recall any attention being paid to Beyonce becoming the second black woman to head People’s list. It’s just not considered a big deal any more.
I was reminded of this power of banality recently. In 1997, it was a huge deal when ABC produced a Cinderella musical with Brandy in the starring role. (Whitney Houston played the fairy godmother, while Whoopi Goldberg played the Queen.) Much was made of the multi-racial cast, with Victor Garber as the King, and Paolo Montalban (no relation) as the handsome Filipino Prince Charming. Fast-forward 15 years. The other night, my kids were watching Rags, a Nickelodeon original movie for kids that’s a gender-flipped retelling of the Cinderella story. Keke Palmer (you may remember her as the star of “Akeelah and the Bee“) plays the Prince Charming character (Old Spice man Isaiah Mustafa plays her father!) who falls for the Cinderella character, played by Max Schneider (mazel tov!). No one gave a damn that the movie had a Jewish Cinder-fella who falls for a black princess. Now that’s progress.
As we’ve both noted, black women still face many obstacles in America. Racism still casts a heavy shadow, even if its most overt examples are fading into memory. Even men in their 20s, far too young to be scarred by the explicit racism of the last century, show its effects as we saw in the OkCupid data. But things are improving.
My hope for you is that you find the right man (or woman) to settle down with and marry, and that someday, your daughter won’t even think of asking the same questions you did.