Many black girls have personally heard the classic backhanded compliment- “You’re pretty for a black girl, are you mixed?” Though often heard from people outside of the black community, it’s increasingly heard just as often within it.
Right off the bat, that initial statement is racist because it essentially suggests that all other black women are unattractive and that you are pretty despite your blackness. That’s a post for another time. But, the second statement is questionable as well, a statement that I used to interpret as basic colorism, but I’ve now started to understand how colorism can be combined with something else, referred to as featurism.
Featurism was a word I learned from what is now my essential opinions and news source- Black Twitter. It’s not as commonly spoken about as colorism, and finding an exact definition was harder.
I’ve chosen to define it here as “a prejudice towards individuals with certain features and a preference towards those with features that correlate with a set beauty standard.”
There is a variance in what features are praised in different places around the world. One thing that came to my mind was the double-eyelid surgery that is popular in East Asia, which is done to transform monolids and make eyes appear larger to adhere to beauty standards. Though there are many examples across ethnic groups, I’m going to focus more on featurism among Black people, the experience I can talk the most about.
Colorism and featurism are closely interlinked, but there distinctions between the two. When you look at the faces of prominent black celebrities, what features of theirs are the ones traditionally praised? Yes, it might be their light skin, but is it also their small nose, or their colored eyes?
Facial features, so often an indicator of ethnicity alongside skin color, can affirm or deviate from a set standard of beauty.
In many places around the world, America included, this beauty standard is set to a European ideal. Black women who have aspects of European features can be praised, but even in the movement towards greater diversity, women with traditional African features can feel left behind.
Now, back to that initial question- “are you mixed?”
This question is particularly problematic because of the assumption that beauty and blackness can only coexist when black features or traits are combined with typical European features or the other features of other ethnic groups.
Yes, colorism is a part of it, but it also says something about the features that people within the black community value. Similar to the way people say you can have “good hair,” meaning that you have loose curls, I’ve also heard people talk about having a “good nose” meaning thinner and smaller.
There’s another side to it as well. How does it make sense that big lips were deemed unattractive on black women for a long time, but now we have women like the Kardashians paying to get the lips many black women were born with? This is where featurism intertwines so closely with colorism. The Afro-centric features criticized when on black women are praised when on white women.
I feel fortunate to live in an era where more models and celebrities with Afro-centric features are given a platform, such as model Adut Akech Bior pictured below, but a lot of the time it feels like this praise is represented online but not in real life.
Sometimes even, it feels like there is only one type of darker-skinned woman that is uplifted: the one with a thin nose, straight hair, or other Euro-centric features.
In the black community, I believe that we need to address the prejudice against traditionally African features in the same way that we still need to address colorism. How will young girls ever grow up knowing they are beautiful if the features that they have are never portrayed as so?
When people picture what a “beautiful black woman” is, they should know to also include the black women without loose curls, light skin, or small noses. In changing the narrative around what features society decides is attractive, we allow more room for women from any ethnic group to feel represented, appreciated, and beautiful.
credits/about the choice of image: One of my favorite singers, Ari Lennox, was the subject of online harassment when her black features were compared by a twitter user to that of a “rottweiler.” Photo from thenewparish.com.