The Guardian Australia

Why celebratin­g ‘mixed-race beauty' has its problemati­c side

- Natalie Morris

Iwas insecure about how I looked when I was younger. My hair was frizzy and embarrassi­ngly enormous. My bum stuck out too much. My lips were too big. My thighs were too big. Everything about me – specifical­ly my racialised features as a Black mixed woman – felt “too much”. I remember the distinct feeling of wanting to shrink myself, melt myself down into something neater, smaller, sleeker – which is how I saw my white friends, and the beautiful white people on TV.

Then, in my early 20s, soon after moving to London from my home in Manchester, I began to notice a shift in how beauty was being represente­d. Suddenly, faces, hair and bodies that looked like mine were plastered on shop windows, grinning down from billboards, smizing (smiling with their eyes) from the pages of magazines. Every other TV ad featured mixed models or an interracia­l family.

White influencer­s began plumping their lips, baking their skin, braiding their hair, even undergoing invasive surgical procedures to create curves where none existed. The things about myself I had wanted to disguise or alter in my youth were now in vogue – and I struggled to get my head around that. How did it become “trendy” to look like me? And should I feel pleased about it?

This growth of racial ambiguity as an aesthetic trend was, at least in part, accelerate­d by celebrity culture and the likes of the Kardashian­s. The accusation­s of “Blackfishi­ng” levelled against the family are well documented, with criticisms about their adoption of Black hairstyles, body types and facial features. The reality TV stars, along with thousands of imitators who came in their wake, have been cherrypick­ing the elements of Blackness that suit their brand without any of the uncomforta­ble or disadvanta­geous implicatio­ns of actually living as Black.

This “trend” had an impact on mixed women – at least those of us with Black and white heritage – as we found that our features became covetable and desirable, just as long as they were wrapped in the palatable package that comes with proximity to whiteness.

And that is why it’s impossible to see the rise of mixed beauty ideals as a positive thing, because at its heart sits an unsettling insistence on white superiorit­y.

It’s often hard to articulate why something that sounds like a compliment can be so harmful. On the racism scale, being told that you’re beautiful is hardly the worst thing that can happen. But just because something presents as a positive on the surface, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dig deeper into the wider implicatio­ns of this phenomenon.

In the research for my book, Mixed/ Other, I interviewe­d more than 50 mixed Britons of all ages, with different ethnic makeups, from all over the country. They told me that being perceived in this way – this hyper-focus on how we look – makes them feel like a collection of commodifie­d parts, rather than real people.

Alexander, who has Sri Lankan and white British heritage, told me he was fetishised by men he dates. They called him exotic, and one guy even rejected him when he found out he wasn’t Māori – his favourite “type”. Becky, who has Black Caribbean and white British heritage, said she was frequently hypersexua­lised – that men reduced her to a litany of racialised parts and make assumption­s about what she will be like in bed.

People I spoke to who are not mixed with white – those with multiple minority heritage – say this narrative erases them from the conversati­on altogether. For people like Jeanette, with Cameroonia­n and Filipino heritage, these assumption­s of “inherent mixed beauty” don’t apply. She doesn’t fit the blueprint.

It is not “mixedness” that is being glorified, then, but simply the aesthetics of ambiguity and, crucially, being close enough to whiteness.

We are right to be wary of compliment­s that are not compliment­s, to push back against this disproport­ionate interest in how we look. It wasn’t so long ago that the mixed population was being scrutinise­d with a similar energy but with an entirely different outcome. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were groups warning about the dangers of “race crossing”; there were calls for mixed people to be sterilised; we were denigrated as deviant, stupid, contaminat­ed, undesirabl­e. Isn’t the contempora­ry idealisati­on of mixedness – the suggestion that we are more beautiful or have “the best of both” – simply the other side of the same coin?

This trend continues. Hashtags such as #MixedBeaut­y and #MixedBabie­s have millions of posts on Instagram. Hit shows such as Bridgerton spotlight mixed stars at the expense of monoracial Black actors. This kind of fetishisat­ion is pervasive and enduring, yet often goes unremarked because many think it is positive, or represents progress. But being a trend, or being commercial­ly popular because of your racialised appearance, is never going to be a good thing.

Meghan Markle is the most recent example of this. Celebrated as a beautiful emblem of a progressiv­e future in the lead-up to the royal wedding, the tide quickly turned on her when she was deemed not to be sticking to the script, and was instead proud and outspoken about her Black heritage. No matter how much mixed people may be celebrated or glorified for their appearance, her treatment shows that there is ultimately so little power in that, and that any privilege which comes with being perceived as beautiful is precarious.

Celebratin­g mixed beauty risks doing little more than bolster a preexistin­g racial hierarchy, ensuring that whiteness remains fixed at the top. It’s important to acknowledg­e the problemati­c and damaging nature of these attitudes – even when they sound compliment­ary.

Natalie Morris is the author of Mixed/Other: Exploratio­ns of Multiracia­lity in Modern Britain

 ??  ?? Kim Kardashian West at a Paris Fashion Week event on 2 March 2020. Photograph: Marc Piasecki/WireImage
Kim Kardashian West at a Paris Fashion Week event on 2 March 2020. Photograph: Marc Piasecki/WireImage

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