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The Fairest of Them All
Racism in the U.S. and South Africa distorted my vision of beauty
Jessica Flayser
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As a kid, I watched TV shows like One Tree Hill, Summer Land and Will and Grace. All the characters in the shows were white, and the “hot girl” generally had light eyes, a sharp nose, small lips, a thin figure and long flowing hair (typically blonde). Even the black actresses like Halle Barry looked more like them than like me.

When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see anything beautiful. My eyes were a dull dark brown and my nose was round. My hair grew up, not down my back: I wanted flowing hair, not stiff afro puffs. I wanted green eyes that sparkled in the sun.

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Being raised three blocks from Lincoln Center in Manhattan didn’t help. My housing project was two blocks from new luxury condos. The women who lived there were white and slim with athletic builds. They wore designer clothes and big sunglasses that sat right on the bridges of their perfectly straight noses. Their hair blew in the wind and their ponytails swayed left to right as they jogged past. Meanwhile the black women in my projects wore outfits either too tight or too baggy. A lot of them were overweight and had at least one gold tooth.

My 3rd grade class was predominantly black and Latino. There were two Asian kids and one white girl, but she left after four months. Two of the black kids there were African: the janitor’s daughter and myself. The other black kids would tease the janitor’s daughter and call her “African Booty Scratcher.” I wasn’t called African Booty Scratcher—and I didn’t know what it meant—but I felt offended anyway.

My mom kept my hair kinky, in six tidy braids, decorated in Booboos. Every other black girl had relaxed hair, even though we were only 6 or 7 years old. So the other black kids made fun of my puffy hair. I felt excluded.

Then, after 22 years in New York, my parents decided they wanted to go back to their home country. They had hardly ever spoken about South Africa, so I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. I ended up starting high school at Marais Viljoen High School in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The differences in attitudes about race quickly became obvious. One day we had a substitute for our “life orientation” class. She was white, a pencil-thin brunette with long nails and a French manicure. She wore pounds of makeup and tight fitting clothes that were too young for her age. The class was like any class when the regular teacher is out: rowdy and unproductive.

“Quiet down, you all,” she tried to yell over the ruckus. “You’re too loud!” she added.

“It’s the black kids!” Josh yelled. He was the class clown, and he was black. The entire class laughed, not taking Josh seriously.

“It is! It always is!” yelled the sub. Her face was red, like she’d been bottling this up her whole teaching career.

“Oh my gosh! You’re not supposed to say that,” a white girl said in shock. I was stunned and embarrassed; although I didn’t believe what the teacher said was true, I felt ashamed to be categorized as loud and unbearable.

Racism Infects

This would never happen in a New York City school. And if it did, there would be repercussions. But at Marais Viljoen High School, there was no respect for students of color. White kids would say to each other right in front of me, “Their noses are so big and flat, like a monkey’s. And their lips are so huge.” They would call black people “dirty” or “animals.” I wouldn’t know how to react, so I usually kept quiet.

Sometimes, though, I would ask them why they felt so comfortable making racist remarks in front of me. Some would apologize when they learned I was American. Some would say, “You’re not like them, you’re like us. You’re an Oreo, just black on the outside.” Only a handful of white people were open-minded and actually stood up for black kids when other white students insulted us. Apartheid, a system in South Africa whereby black and “colored” people had to live in certain areas and had few civil rights, only ended in South Africa in the 1990s (see sidebar on the next page).

The comments that white students made about black students, on top of all the media I’d seen my whole life, seeped into me. I’ve had a preference for white guys ever since Jesse McCartney first appeared on TV. And I wasn’t completely insulted by “Oreo”: I didn’t sound like any of the other black kids. The rhythm of my speech was different and I wasn’t loud and unfriendly like most of the other black girls. I was obsessed with Pretty Little Liars at that time, a TV show about a group of white teenage girls in a Pennsylvania town. I tried to emulate their style and the way they talked.

Beautiful Chocolate Girl

In my second week of school in Johannesburg we took photos for the yearbook. We stood in alphabetical order and watched other students posing as we waited for our turn. Two boys stood behind me; they were laughing and carrying on a conversation. I overheard one ask, “Who is that girl?” He was asking about me.

“The new girl,” his friend answered. I looked back to see who they were, and there was Craig. He was tall, tan, blonde, with turquoise eyes that I later learned changed color with the weather. He looked like he just crawled out of GQ.

“Hi,” his friend said with a smile.

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“Hi,” I replied awkwardly.

“What’s your last name?” Craig asked bluntly. I answered and he nodded.

“I like your accent,” he said, finally smiling. I couldn’t think of a reply—he was that gorgeous—so I just laughed. We stood there awkwardly for a good 30 seconds just making eye contact.

“What a beautiful chocolate girl,” Craig said, in a chipmunk voice, but his face was serious. Before I could even process what he said, I was called to take my photo.

I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about that bizarre but fantastic moment. Other white kids never referred to black people as chocolate, and it felt more complimentary than insulting. My friends weren’t surprised by how weird he acted, that’s just how Craig was, and for a moment I thought there was hope. Maybe he will be my first boyfriend, I thought. We would look so good together. But my friend told me he’d had a girlfriend for nine months. I made it my mission to see what this girl looked like.

White and Thin

She had long black hair, blue doe eyes, and was much skinnier than me. But she wasn’t even cute, which in a weird way made me feel worse. It made me think that it was impossible to get a guy I wanted if I wasn’t thin and white. There was only one interracial couple in the whole school—a black boy with a white girl, not the other way around.

Before Marais Viljoen High School, I never wanted to change myself to attract white guys. But now, having white girls say, “You’re pretty for a black girl” was not enough; I wanted guys to think I was pretty too. I spent a lot of money on workout DVDs and hair extensions trying to look whiter. The only thing I didn’t try was bleaching creams: oddly enough, I didn’t feel like my skin color was an issue, just my features and body.

At one point I even put a clothespin on my nose for five minutes a day to make it sharper. It was painful, but beauty hurts, I told myself. One time my mother caught me, but she didn’t ask why I was doing it. I guess she already knew.

I always wondered why I didn’t look more like my mother. She has a sharp nose, thinner lips, and light brown eyes. It frustrated me, and each time I spoke to her about it she’d say, “Those things don’t matter. You can be beautiful without having sharp features.” But when my brother dated a girl with a flat nose, my mother said, over and over, “What do you see in that girl? All I see is that big flat nose.” She would tell him, “If you two had kids… oh I don’t even want to know what they would look like.”

In junior year, I returned to high school in New York City. It wasn’t as bad as South Africa; for one thing it’s more diverse. But the city had its own brand of racism. Caribbean-Americans in my school would say to me, “You’re too pretty to be African,” an insult wrapped in a compliment.

Black Is Beautiful

I made a Tumblr and, looking for blogs to follow, I came across a natural hair blog. There were photos of beautiful women of color with kinky and curly hair. I was so inspired that I took my weave out and cut the rest of the relaxer out of my hair. When I got to school everyone was shocked, but they liked it. I had a newfound confidence in my African looks.

Hearing people say that the very things that I thought were ugly about myself were pretty was a confidence booster. I also realized that I’ve been shaped by mass culture. White kids made comments about black people’s features because they were comparing us to white people. If black people were the ones who publish and appear on the covers of the magazines, it would be the other way around. They would say white people’s lips are too small and black people’s lips are perfect. But since white people have traditionally held all the power in this country (and in South Africa), they defined what’s beautiful.

Fortunately, times are changing and so are people’s perceptions. Now there are so many examples of beautiful black women who are dark-skinned, like Lupita Nyong’o, or who have natural hair, like Solange Knowles.

Now and then I reflect on how many young women of color have gone through the same struggles I did and sometimes still do: trying to look more like another race and less like their own. I’m hoping that as the media begins to include more ethnic women and as interracial couples become more common and have mixed kids it will lead to change. I hope that when this generation’s children are grown, nobody will put down a whole race in order to declare another race the most beautiful.


Apartheid in South Africa

Apartheid was a system of racial segregation and oppression in South Africa that was the law of the land between 1948 and the early 1990s. Basically, it made intense racism legal and used police and the military to enforce it.

People were divided into four categories—White, Coloured, Indian, and Black—determined by bizarre tests like seeing if a pencil would stay in or slide out of someone’s hair. These racial groups had to live separately, and whites got the most land. Blacks, who had the fewest rights, were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated into “townships.” Education was segregated and was grossly inferior for blacks. Voting rights were taken away. Marriage and sexual relations between white people and non-white people were crimes. Blacks had to show their papers to the authorities when they left their townships.

Much of the world was horrified by the treatment of black people under apartheid. There was a mass movement within the country to defeat apartheid, led by blacks and some whites. Protests around the world convinced many countries and corporations to refuse to do business with South Africa. The the pressure of this activiism finally forced the white National Party finally agreed to free elections. In 1994, Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in jail for fighting against apartheid, was elected as the first black president of South Africa.


To better understand this history, watch the movies Skin (2008), Sarafina! (1992), Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002), and Cry Freedom (1987); and read the books Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995); Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography—The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane (1998); or the graphic novel Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by the Nelson Mandela foundation, illustrated by Umlando Wezithombe.

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