What is the plight of Black women? It is the pain and futility of trying to live up to beauty standards that are totally against everything you naturally are. It is the madness of being proud of oneself only to find that your very being is considered problematic, less than, or other even amongst people who look like you. It is marveling at how the same features you were teased and abused for are the same ones being claimed by the teasers as their own. Malcolm X accurately observed the peculiar circumstances Black women find themselves in when he made the following statements in one of his speeches: “The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman. The most neglected woman in America is the Black woman.” The Bluest Eye gives validity to this claim like no other novel I’ve read, movie I’ve seen, or song I’ve heard has before. Reading this narrative has forced me to reflect on my self-image and the way the Black aesthetic has been appropriated by other cultures and nearly abandoned by my own. In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison, through the anecdotal perspectives of children, succeeds in showcasing how the violence of racial favoritism in America has made Black Americans susceptible to a self-loathing so deep rooted that it can lead to self-destruction. It is especially relevant in the present time where we see the appropriation of Black culture and aestheticism being praised on the national stage while Black self-love remains as controversial as it was in the setting of this novel.
Promoting singularly Eurocentric beauty standards onto the people of a country as ethnically diverse as America is a form of violence. It affects more than a person who is personally confronted with the suggestion that they are abnormal because they do not fit the “ideal” look. This is because it purports that an all-encompassing racial hierarchy exists where one should not. The measures taken to overcome this circumstance usually are painful, financially burdensome, and involve some degree of self-mutilation. Perms, skin bleaching, plastic surgery, and avoiding the sun are just a few examples of ways Black people, particularly Black women, have attempted to assimilate to the Eurocentric version of beauty. From our glimpse into Geraldine’s character, we see that beauty is only the start of what gets infected by racial biases. Geraldine is an example of what happens when even the values of another culture are placed above one’s own. She valued education, cleanliness, and the appearance of success so much that she has become a cold, unempathetic person not only to other Black people in her community, but also to members of her own immediate family in her pursuit of this slightly elusive standard of living. Pecola is another poignant example of how devastating the effects of racial impositions can be on one’s psyche. Having felt ugly her whole life, essentially because of her Blackness and how it led others to treat her, her search for blue eyes, the staple of white beauty, eventually drove her mad.
Other moments in The Bluest Eye show us that the violence that occurs from this othering can cause those that are categorized as other to feel a sense of self-loathing that becomes even more toxic when transposed onto a group of people. Colorism that comes from within the Black community comes to mind and is a topic that is explored in the text through Maureen’s interaction with Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola. Someone convinced Maureen that being light-skinned and financially affluent, closer to whiteness, gave her more worth that her dark-skinned peers. With this knowledge, she betrayed Pecola’s trust by teasing her about her family’s dysfunctionality and socioeconomic level after buying her ice cream. She also turned on Claudia and her sister by belittling them based on their skin tone after they spoke up against her on Pecola’s behalf. This demonstrates how racial indoctrination is learned at an early age and can increase tensions within a group as a result of the tensions present between groups. Geraldine’s harsh treatment of Pecola when she discovered her after Junior mistreated her illustrates how the values one learns as a child, even negative ones like interracial discrimination, are lasting and hard to erase.
That same sense of self-loathing that causes interracial colorism can span generations. This is evidenced by the incident between Claudia and her mother over the white baby doll she received for Christmas. At the time, Claudia had not yet learned to value whiteness above her own Blackness. As she dismantled the baby doll in search of what made it so special, her mother reacted so passionately at the privilege her daughter was devaluing that it was obvious she had been raised in an era where whiteness in any shape or form was something to be highly regarded. Soaphead Church and his family’s pride in their white bloodline is another example of how whiteness is seen as superior to Blackness. In an effort to extend this presumed superiority over their darker peers, they did all they could to lighten their family tree and looked down on any family member who chose to marry a dark skinned spouse or pursue a less than white collar career.
In today’s America, where Black features that were once ridiculed and demonized are now deemed not just acceptable but coveted on the bodies of white women, the sentiments showcased in The Bluest Eye have a relevant albeit curious place in the minds of Black people today. Afrocentrism is on the rise once again in America, but Black people are not the only ones participating in this movement. Members of other races, particularly white people, are now altering themselves to look more like Black people and are also claiming credit for “trends” that are common to the Black culture and aesthetic. However, as Toni Morrison stated in the novel, America still treats Black women as if they are “all the waste and beauty of the world…[the] waste which [they] dumped on [us] and which [we] absorbed… [the] beauty which was [ours] first and which we gave to [them]” (205).
While fashion or beauty don’t necessarily belong to one set of people, how much more damaging to the psyche is it to ridicule an integral part of someone’s culture, steal it, and then claim it as your own than to simply ridicule someone for their differences? While it is good to be an ally to the marginalized women of the Black community, especially when it comes to supporting the choices we make to embrace our natural aesthetic, where does one draw the line between support and appropriation? As we see from various examples in the novel, violence against a race can start in the thoughts you implant in their minds. Especially if these thoughts are deprecating and can cause a sense of self-loathing or otherness. This negative idea will permeate that group and destroy it from the inside out, one person at a time.
Erin is currently a Junior at the University of Texas at Austin studying African and African Diaspora Studies, Athletic Training, and Pre-Med. She's been Black all her life and she loves to read. This is her first published paper.