LET'S TALK: RACISM IN BEAUTY
Hey cool kids,
This is a blog post about racism in the beauty industry. It's a very important post to me for a few reasons. One, the decision to mostly move away from writing about social justice issues in tech and gaming, and writing about beauty instead, has come with a fair share of guilt.
Nearly every day, I think or write about things that, when seen with any real perspective, show my position in the world as an incredibly privileged, and largely selfish one. Do you know how lucky I have to be to get to write about skincare for a living? Like, it's enough to rid the world of belief in karma (What exactly was I in a previous life to deserve this one?).
I know writing about video games isn't exactly Mother Theresa's work, but I genuinely feel like that medium has the most potential to enact social change out of any other type of media. Writing about it felt like I was helping. Who? Maybe it was a little wishful, but I felt like everything I wrote got the industry a little more ready for the many young women and people of colour that video games have kept out for so long. How far I got with that I don't know. My guess isn't very far. But I digress.
At the heart of the guilt from making the switch was the idea that I was no longer contributing, in any real sense, to principles that I have long since held as essential to what makes up everything worthwhile in me. Ironic, considering I've been doing so much 'self-care'. This post aims to correct this.
Two, South Africa is currently undergoing a transition, fueled by students who find themselves the victims of what has been recognised as the lack of change in our country since Apartheid officially ended in 1994. Despite my ignorance on the intricacies of the movement, I do know for certain that I can't continue to write as if these changes aren't happening, as if they don't permeate even our standards of beauty, and as if I am not complicit in a system that sees some benefit at the expense of others. Again, this post aims to correct this.
Three, it is alarming how much racism affects the beauty industry at almost every level of consumer, media, and business involvement. If you're not white, you probably know this very well already - reinforcing the idea that ignorance is both privilege and bliss. Once more from the top, 'this post aims...'
It's for these reasons that I consider this post super-duper important. Especially if you're white. Speaking of which, I know this won't be easy for some of you to read. That's okay. We need to be okay with being uncomfortable. In our world. When you are completely comfortable, nine out of ten times it's because of something you don't know. I'm not saying you have to live your life on the precipice of a panic attack. I'm saying that if you really believe yourself to be interested in issues around social justice - if you really, truly want to be a 'good' person - you need to try understand where in your life you're falling short.
No one likes being a shitty person. No one likes to know what that they've been doing wrong, saying the wrong things, hurting other people. I say foolish things all the time, and I still cringe about these and past ways of thinking. It's bound to happen as you grow. But in the words of Maya Angelou, 'Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.' So...shall we?
HOW DOES RACISM IN BEAUTY MANIFEST?
Ah, let me count the ways. I guess my 'favourite' kind of casual racism in beauty is the erasure of people of colour. 'Wait, what?', you ask. Well, you know when a magazine, website, blog post, poster etc. says that a given look is for 'all hair types' , and they actually mean 'dry, greasy, and normal'? When that happens, that platform is excluding the people of colour who have the springy, helix-shaped hair characterised by many South African locals - a hair type that isn't going get quite the same from a 'messy beach locks' look as the average Tara, Kirsten, or Roxanne might.
And while all hair is essentially the same in structure, black women can't always 'make it work' because these hair tutorials don't consider unique hair struggles like shrinkage.
The thing is, because a magazine or blog post doesn't stipulate who can't use a given brand or look, they take a white audience as a given, and the absence of a black audience as fact. It might not even be conscious, and that's even more terrifying.
I can't find it now (help in the comments plz), but I remember reading a quote from a famous white South African sports player who said something along the lines of, 'South Africa is a great sporting community considering we're a population of only three million.' What this person meant was that South Africa churns out a relatively high number of athletes when one considers our size. The thing is, when he said 'three million', he was only counting white people. He literally didn't even consider people of colour as people, ffs.
This happens to a lesser level with claims to 'all hair types'. It's 'all' hair types because on some level, the people making these claims don't consider that there are any other relevant types.
And this happens, like, a lot. So much so that many sources of beauty news and inspiration aren't readily consumable to a black audience. Black women have to cherry pick, and wiggle themselves into a decidedly white mould. It's much the same in makeup, too. Don't believe me? Go to some of your favourite beauty bloggers and Youtubers, and see how many times in they consider whether a product or look is suitable to everyone, and not just white women. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Not so groovy, right? And you might think, 'Okay, but maybe they are just a blog for white women. After all, writing or producing content around a hair type or skin shade different to your own, when so many creatives are white (another luxury, by the way), isn't easy.'
You're right. It's not. But I think if those creators were to be honest about who exactly it is that they were making things for, they'd be a little unsettled. Why? Because they'd be forced to admit that for so long what they thought was a universal - 'all hair types' etc - was in fact a niche market demarcated across racial lines.
When we understand what platforms are doing when they make these assumptions about their audience, we do what is called in literary theory, 'making whiteness visible'. This is an act of seeing and calling out instances where the white position is masked as neutrality - when a makeup tutorial is for white women, but is sold as a universally-applicable one. Once you see it you won't stop.
The same goes for other communities marginalised within mainstream media - LGBTIQ groups, and the disabled coming up as ready examples. How often can you take the protagonist of your favourite book as a given race, sexuality, and physical build, while people of colour must be pointed out? They are pointed out because they are 'different' from an assumed norm; a norm that is almost always situated in whiteness and sexuality.
When you say, 'Hey, that's a bit off..', you're calling that false neutrality out. We need to do more of this in the beauty industry.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO COMBAT RACISM IN BEAUTY?
Speaking of which, what can we do about the debacle? Well, just noticing goes a long way. The more you educate yourself about how racism subtlety operates in our industry, the more you can do to fight it.
Use your influence to start talking about ways to reach a more inclusive beauty scene - get feedback from your readers, and start exploring ways to incorporate this inclusivity in your own work. Read up on makeup looks that suit all kinds of skin shades, and do a little digging on great natural hair products - in that regard I can't recommend My Fro & I enough.
You could also ask pointed questions to brands going a little astray, or boycott platforms that refuse to deliver on truly 'for all' beauty. On the other end, support businesses and brands that do women of colour in mind; magazines like DESTINY, and salons like Candi&Co.
In short, keep your ear to the ground and your eyes peeled. You never know where your next lesson is going to come from, and each lesson brings us closer to a beauty industry without prejudice. Which is great for obvious reasons, but also because beauty is a really exciting place right now. More and more people are using beauty as a medium to express views on animal cruelty, and as an incredible tool for self-expression. More of that, please!
TO END OFF (FINALLY, I KNOW)...
It's a lot to take in if this hasn't been your daily reality. Calm down, things aren't so dire. Never let a realisation leave you without the impetus to act. Do things in bite-sizes and read ALL of the things.
No one is perfect - least of all me, I assure you - but if you're even aiming as high as 'sorta cool, kinda okay', you need to be more aware of this stuff.
Let me know what you think in the comments below, but please be respectful and mindful of other people, and know that racism is not tolerated on TOOFUFU. I'm serious. I have a troll jar for charity that gets a fiver every time someone says something douchey. Don't bankrupt me.