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Last week the Washington Post published the results of a phone survey of 1900 adults, on a range of issues, with individuals identified by gender and race. This weekend’s Observer published a follow-up article by Victoria Coren giving her interpretation of these findings. The general thrust was:

  1. According to this poll’s results, American black women tend to have higher self-esteem are more career-focussed, romantically independent, less stressed and more religious than white women.
  2. It must be because there are so few black models featured in magazines that black women “have managed to not get screwed up”.
  3. Black women should continue to be disconnected from and under-represented in the evil media, for their own good.

While I have a lot of respect and time for Victoria Coren, and I’m sure this was written with the best intentions and possibly with a tongue firmly in cheek, I feel she has deeply misunderstood, reduced and misrepresented a multitude of black women’s voices. Aside from the problem of a white woman telling black women how lucky they are to be excluded from mainstream society, the leap of logic exhibited in the piece is frankly a bit dodgy.

“Some black and white truths”, the article by Victoria Coren

The survey methodology

“Black women…hold all the secrets to a happy and ambitious life”

Coren has single-handedly decided that the lack of BME (black and minority ethnic) models in the mainstream media is the sole cause for black women tending to have greater self-esteem.

For a start, the respondents weren’t even asked why they felt good or bad about themselves. As the research is clearly not qualitative, that’s understandable. However to use the absence of further information to ascribe speculation to the results is a little reductive.

I’m no sociologist, but presumably any given individual’s self-esteem arises from a combination of various factors such as ethnicity and culture, family, romantic relationships, school experience, education, role models and others. There’s no one simple answer.

Race and exclusion

“They like themselves! They don’t feel fat!…Absence has made a lovely free space for them to form their own healthy self-image…”

Apparently American black women have some sort of invisible Race Filter Shield that screens out all images of white people, rendering us immune to the psychological effects of airbrushing and unrealistic body shapes that plague white women’s lives. She’s actually arguing that because BME women don’t see other BME women in glossy magazines, that these images have zero effect on us.

This is simply wrong. I don’t know a single woman, regardless of colour, who hasn’t at some point worried about her hair, height, facial features, complexion, body hair, fat, cellulite, wrinkles or body shape.

Near-exclusion doesn’t mean we’re being ignored, it means that we’re being actively marginalised. It’s not a boon, it’s an additional barrier. Far too often BME models are only ever trotted out for a ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal warrior’ themed catwalk show. The message is not ‘we’re ignoring you’, but instead ‘you’ve only got a bit-part’.

At least you, Ms Coren, fulfil one of society’s beauty standard tickboxes – you are white. For us BME women meanwhile, it means we’re already one step behind, and that’s before we get started on the ‘usual’ list of physical and behavioural requirements demanded of women (and of course others for men).

One example of how this manifests itself is the oft-cited growth in skin lightening creams, marketed solely at women of Asian and black descent. The health risks are well-documented, yet some BME women continue to believe that achieving a lighter, whiter skin tone is the path towards ‘beauty’. Another is hair relaxation/straightening among Black Caribbean women, as covered in Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Now here’s a crazy idea – beauty myths exist in BME cultures as well as white cultures. What’s more, they are inevitably influenced by the hegemonic white beauty myths. While there are other historical factors around and within postcolonial cultures which affect beauty myths, it would be ridiculous to pretend that people of BME descent living in America and Europe operate in some sort of cultural vacuum immune from ‘Western’ pressures.

BME women have to endure the same flawless skinny alabaster models held aloft as the paragon of beauty as everyone else. And the truth is that second/third generation BME women struggle with not just the same beauty/behaviour myths as white women, but far more. One example: while my white friends with their thin fair hair can go out in a short skirt without shaving their legs, ask any woman of Asian descent if she’d do the same.

In short: we’re not protected by the bigotry against BME women, we’re further marginalized by it.

A more complex picture

“…black women seem to be about 300 miles further down the road of liberation than their paler sisters”

If you look at the fuller results from the survey, you’ll see that it’s a more complex picture than portrayed in Coren’s article. For example, black women are more than twice as likely as white women to say that being physically attractive is very important to them, which runs counter to the idea that they’re completely carefree unburdened souls.

What’s more, look at the responses to the other questions on other topics: black women are four times more worried about contracting HIV, more worried about being a victim of a violent crime, are more worried about not having enough money to pay the bills, more worried about job security, and more worried about providing a good education for their children, than white women. It’s hardly surprising considering that 26.5% of African American women are poor, compared to just 11.6% of white American women.

There are complex socio-economic issues that do not present themselves through a simple analysis of these statistics. They undoubtedly affect them though, and to understand this would require a more nuanced reading and, god forbid, some research. For example, referring to Coren’s assertion that black women are ‘more career-driven’, perhaps these women see economic independence as crucial, since 46% of American black single parent households have no wealth whatsoever, according to a 2010 report.

Though it scuppers any chances of a short simple and sexy 1000 opinion piece on CiF, if you look more closely at the intersection of class, race and gender, you’ll find that there are far more complex reasons behind the results.

Privilege

“…this magic world where work and hobbies matter more than dieting and dating…”

I recently listened to a great podcast of a lecture by Professor Michael Kimmel at the LSE, on Gender and Men’s Studies. He describes his experience when he first learned about the concept of privilege.

He was part of a discussion group at university in the 80s, when there was a significant wave of feminist theory. He witnessed a conversation between a white woman and a black woman, where the white woman argued that all women’s experiences were the same. It’s worth quoting Prof Kimmel from his lecture:

The black woman said to the white woman, “When you wake up in the morning and you look in the mirror, what do you see?”

And the white woman said, “I see a woman,”

The black woman said, “You see that’s the problem, because when I wake up in the morning and when I look in the mirror, I see a black woman. To me race is visible. To you it’s invisible; you don’t see it.”

And then she said something really startling. She said, “That’s how privilege works. Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

This the best explanation of privilege I’ve read, and it seems pertinent here. Though Coren obviously recognises the fact that different people are of different races, she has extrapolated her own views and experience as a white woman to purport to speak authoritatively about black women’s psychology, experiences and lives.

Conclusion

“But it’s a Schroedinger’s Cat problem: the figures suggest that, once everyone starts looking , the priorities chance and the peace of mind is killed off entirely.”

Coren’s article was deeply frustrating for a number of reasons. A debate can be had about whether it’s better to be misrepresented or not represented at all (as long as all points of views are recognised) but this article is not about that debate.

Instead it comes across as patronising advice based on an unscientific and uninformed idea of what it’s like to be a BME woman. Perhaps this is a failure of the article’s emphasis and an over-reliance on subtle humour, but that should’ve been considered when speculating on something so obviously sensitive. If Coren had actually asked black women her article might’ve been a whole lot less offensive.

To paraphrase, ‘no conversation about me without me’.


Other responses to Victoria Coren’s article can be read on http://blackfeminists.blogspot.com.

This post was amended on 10th September 2012 to clarify the term ”Afro-Caribbean”

2 thoughts on “A response to Victoria Coren

  1. Whilst I commend your much needed response to Coren’s myopic Oxbridge babbling, in the process you yourself have also made some patronising missteps that highlight issues regarding your own level of awareness.

    “Afro-Caribbean” is an archaic term that is seldom used these days to describe back people of Caribbean origin. It is now virtually absent from any format of ethnic monitoring and has long been replaced by “Black Caribbean”.

    Furthermore, the film, Good Hair is not about Black Caribbean women. It actually explores the politics of hair and beauty standards amongst African-American women. Did you even watch the film or just utilise it as a perfunctory reference?

    Good article but errors like this do a disservice to your argument.

    • @The Sentinel. Thanks for your comments and I’m happy to correct accordingly. My usage is probably due in part to the continuing usage of ‘Afro-Caribbean’ by many of my academic/BME relations friends colleagues and activists.

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