So last week I attended this talk by Sasha Sarago (Editor/Founder of Ascension Mag) and Nayuka Gorrie (activist and writer) – ‘Beauty & the Beast: Indigenous beauty decolonised’. This was the blurb for it:
“You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal. This is the abhorrent statement Aboriginal women are confronted with by everyday Australians. Where did this demoralising statement originate? How do Aboriginal women feel about this statement? This talk explores the objectification of Indigenous beauty via Australia’s colonial history. How beauty is viewed by Indigenous women and the rise of decolonisation – a global movement to reclaim the beauty inherent in Indigenous values and traditions, revived through contemporary mediums.”
I went along to the talk for two reasons in particular:
1) I have a mental crush on Nayuka and truly admire Sasha; and
2) I wanted to see if either speakers would identify anti-Blackness – anti-non-mixed black bodies, specifically – as the actual origin of the backhanded and offensive phrase “too pretty to be Aboriginal’.
Because I have been reading about and hearing the views of people of mixed heritage on this topic – COLOURISM – for a long time. And, sometimes, the conversation stays focused on the person of mixed heritage’s feelings regarding having their identity questioned, whilst the bodies being denigrated by such comments – the bodies of non-mixed Black/Indigenous people, women in particular – are not represented in the conversation at all.
As first speaker, Sasha Sarago gave an amazing breakdown of the complex, often traumatic historical reasons why many Aboriginal people are of mixed heritage today. The former model then spoke about being called, many times, “too pretty to be Aboriginal”. She explained how it feels to be on the receiving end of such ignorant comments; her explanation understandably focused on how such comments deny or question her proud Indigenous heritage.
However, it was odd to me that no connection was made between that offensive back-handed “compliment” and the other group of people being denigrated by such comments: non-mixed Aboriginal people’s bodies. Bodies that look as far from whiteness and the standards of western ‘beauty’ as possible. The “too pretty to be…” comment exists because Black bodies/features are stigmatised and devalued. It reflects the privileging of bodies that approximate PHYSICAL whiteness (or non-Aboriginality) more than the bodies that don’t; to not mention anti-Blackness in these conversations is therefore to miss the point.
Thankfully though, Nayuka did mention this, and made the connection. As second speaker, she discussed her experiences and interactions on dating App Tinder; she shared anecdotes about having her Aboriginality fetishised by (white) non-Aboriginal men. She talked about being complimented for her brown skin, green eyes, and other mixed features; crucially, though, Nayuka talked about how it is actually her “proximity to whiteness” as an Aboriginal woman of mixed heritage that these kinds of men are attracted to.
In essence, it is COLOURISM; a toxic physical offshoot of WHITE SUPREMACY.
Being the superstar that she is, Nayuka went on to explain how WHITE SUPREMACIST COLOURISM is deeply embedded not just in white people, but in Aboriginal people (and many colonised Black and Brown people in general, I would argue) too. The first time Nayuka heard the “too pretty to be Aboriginal” line, for example, was depressingly from a young Aboriginal man.
This toxin runs deep. It is the internalised white supremacy that PEOPLE OF COLOUR *ourselves* need to uproot and reckon with. In order to do this, physical anti-Blackness (anti-Black bodies, features, hair textures, skin tones and body shapes) needs to be IDENTIFIED and COUNTERED, always.
Correctly identifying physical anti-Blackness in the statement “too pretty to be a…” is part of that.
Nayuka discussed some ways she is doing the work of unlearning colourism and decolonising the way she sees Black bodies; they involve privileging BLACKNESS in her online and offline life. Surrounding yourself with images of Black & Indigenous people, consuming Black & Indigenous media, participating in Black & Indigenous culture, socialising with and loving Black & Indigenous people… is all a part of ridding oneself of the anti-Black conditioning of immersion in a white culture. Within which Black bodies are marginalised, tokenised, fetishised, stigmatised or simply erased.
And it is all so important. Truly. This may sound like a conversation about superficial beauty, but it is actually a conversation about UNLEARNING UNCONSCIOUS (and conscious) WHITE SUPREMACIST BIAS against Black and indigenous bodies – a bias many Black and Brown people also have.
So CENTERING BLACK AND BROWN BODIES – those bodies that do not approximate whiteness – is a way of countering the dehumanisation and denigration of non-white, non-mixed bodies. For decolonising Black and Brown people, it is affirming, empowering, anti-colourism, anti-racism work. We are not merely our bodies, and our identities need not even be related to our bodies… but the fact remains that bodies further away from whiteness are treated and regarded differently than others. The “unlearning” bias and colourism work is about shifting that paradigm and ensuring we are not replicating that toxic bias with what we create, and the choices we make.
That said, there were two counter-arguments that weren’t covered in the talk (or the ensuing Q&A session) that I will get into in my next post: the idea that collective empowerment of women of colour cannot come through beauty pageants and modelling, as Celeste Liddle has argued in the past (I basically agree); and that sometimes representations of Black and Brown beauty created by Black and Brown people can also be fairly conformist and “colonised”, aesthetically speaking (two really basic examples: the use of contour to make noses look thinner, and hair straightening and lightening for those of us with naturally afro-kinky hair.) To be continued soon 🙂
READ NEXT POST: Embracing the Black body (beyond the western aesthetic)
READ ADDITIONAL FOLLOW UP POST: Filed under ‘this is why we have to acknowledge anti-*Blackness* in Australia’
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