Understanding “Black” features is not Erasure.
It seems as if every other day Black Twitter and Facebook argue over what exactly Black features are. What are traditionally Black features? This is a loaded question. After all, “Black” is not only defined by the 55 sovereign nations of the very phenotypically diverse African continent, but also the Black diaspora of the New World, the Arab World, and even Oceania. Many folks argue that regarding just big noses, big lips, and dark skin as Afrocentric features is erasure of the millions of people of African descent who happen to have slimmer features or lighter skin. To them, calling a wide-set nose a traditionally African feature is reductive and impractical when discussing how Black people navigate beauty standards in the Western World. How do we properly discuss the stigma against stereotypical African features without erasing the incidence of varying features in people of African descent?
It is not productive to become beleaguered by how the millions of different types of black-identifying people may look like. Instead, it is pertinent to contextualize our view of stigmatized Black features with what is valued within European or, white society. Though African features are innately diverse, what is considered Afrocentric or Eurocentric within American society is not. Traditionally, in American society, Black men and women who possess lighter skin, thinner noses, and diminutive features in general are seen as closer to whiteness. It is accurate to describe Black people with these kinds of features as Eurocentric in appearance, not because they are “less Black” but because, white society favors their look over others.
How light or dark one’s skin is may not indicate how much African ancestry one has. How broad or small one’s features are may not indicate how Black one is. However, these phenotypes can determine how favorable a person is to American society. The privileges White America may bestow onto a Black person have nothing to do with whether or not the person has partial or full African heritage. If one’s features are considered agreeable to traditional European standards, then they will be perceived as relatively Eurocentric. Obviously, if a person is not white-passing or white-presenting they will not gain access to white privilege, but they will still be seen as “more agreeable.” For instance, take a look at one of the White world’s most static institutions: the fashion industry. For decades the world of mainstream fashion has marginalized beauties who stray away from their Eurocentric standard of attractiveness: White and thin with ‘delicate’ features. The few times that the industry did stray away from this concept, they chose models of color who very much looked like their ideal women but “dipped in chocolate.”
Iman, one of the world’s first black supermodels, rebuked this notion of being a white woman with a darker hue. A true Somali woman, she never ceased to assert her Blackness and her Africanness when approached with the idea that fashion labels favored her because they believed she looked less African. Iman was a safer choice for fashion elites, because her aesthetic was closer to their exclusionary standards of beauty. This idea is problematic but it holds weight in the fashion world. In fact, though this trend started in the 20th century, it continues to this very day. Think about your favorite black models. Do they have broad features or diminutive features?
In the West, there is a spectrum that exists between Eurocentric features and Afrocentric ones. The larger the features the more “African” they appear. This can never erase the very real diversity of Blackness on this globe but, it exists and should always be dissected. Why are certain people’s looks more digestible than others? Why are some of us considered ugly or even less human than others? How do we dismantle that way of thinking?