WHOSE REFLECTION IS THAT IN THE MIRROR?
By Lawna Elayn Tapper
Saturday, August 22, 2009.
Many may question the appropriateness of introducing an article on black self-hatred with a discussion about the late, and very great, Michael Jackson. I cower, as I shield myself from hurled eggs and sluice; as I’m pilloried, my defensive utterances urge us to put our emotions aside and explore this irresistible example of the serious impact that this condition can have on the most seemingly insignificant to even the greatest of legends.
That black self-hatred permeates black culture is undeniable, as is the fact that it is misunderstood, unaddressed and underestimated!
Why is it that everyone could see Michael’s beauty except him? He came to despise his rich dark skin, his beautiful round nose and full lips, and those fabulously natural coils that created the wonderful afro that was so him, and so the envy and goal of an entire generation.
Being the perfectionist that he was, much of his 50 years were spent trying to fulfil his vision of what he considered physical perfection. When he decided he wanted children, he even chose three that bear no resemblance to his true black self: their European hair, straight noses, thin lips and slightly olived complexions was Michael Jackson’s perception of physical beauty – Mediterranean, not African!
It’s quite natural to want ‘better’ for our children, and this was his way of giving them the best start in life – he chose the children he did so that they wouldn’t have to have plastic surgeons hack away at their noses and lips all their lives, the way he did. He knew, better than us, the obvious injustices of what being a black man at the very top meant, and subsequently, chose three children that reflected a self-image that he tried to recreate using his money and his wisdom.
Black self-hatred, like any type of self-hatred is deadly serious! It’s not something for which one can fairly despise a character, particularly one so generous-hearted and full of love as Michael Jackson. It comes in many different extremes and the way with which it is dealt depends on the tools and skills we have at our disposal. Doubtlessly, it needs to be tackled: not with barefaced, self-righteous and hurtful criticism, but by exploring and later dismantling the factors that cause it.
Despite Africans having made magnificent contributions as the founders of civilization, in the mind of nations around the world, and more importantly, in the minds of many black people, African history begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 17th century. This is essentially by design: the masters of imperialism, past and present, know well the destructive power of denying the historical greatness of a people – if you think you have never had anything, it is much harder to aspire for something. In this circumstance, the feeling is that you are starting from scratch, struggling to focus on your goals, without any definitive points of reference to define them.
With time, as historical relics are uncovered, you do begin to discover how great you once were, but the journey remains long and hard! In the meantime, some will choose to rise above their challenges in various ways; others, out of sheer frustration, will react with abject anger; and many will simply despair. Of all these responses, the first is the most complex.
The legacy of being kidnapped, chained, bought, sold, whipped, spat on, spoken down to, ordered around and deprived of human rights is real. And discussion of it is not tantamount to ‘having a chip on your shoulder,’ but about acknowledging that the pain that come with the experience takes its toll on each passing generation, in different ways and to varying degrees.
Everyone is taught and so knows that this is their history. When you are prevented from speaking your own language, practising your own cultural rites and uniting with your own kind, this affects the way in which they perceive you, as much as it does the way you perceive yourself.
Back then you were openly called nasty names; you couldn’t learn to read or vote; you couldn’t find lodgings, let alone buy a house. In modern times things are better: you’re just stopped by the police most frequently, it’s less likely that you’ll be able to stop a black cab and more likely you’ll be short-listed for a high-powered job, or be on the cover of the most renowned fashion magazines – that’s because your skin’s not light enough, your nose isn’t straight enough, your lips aren’t thin enough – in the context of global white supremacy, your visage is not considered beautiful!
An article entitled “Self-Hatred Leads To Skin-Bleaching,” opens with the words of a Ghanaian woman: “When you are lighter, people pay more attention to you. It makes you more important and the rich men find you attractive.”
Using a study by Yaba A. Blay, a doctoral candidate at Temple University’s African-American Studies Department, who surveyed the opinions of 600 residents from Accra, the piece highlights the depth of this problem within black communities worldwide:
“Despite attempts by the Ghanaian government to ban bleaching products and the extreme health risks including skin cancer, brain and kidney damage and sometimes death, the practise of skin bleaching is seemingly on the rise…it represents an attempt to gain access to the social status and mobility often preserved not only for whites, but for lighter-skinned persons of African descent.”
And we just need to turn on our televisions and watch Black music videos and Black sitcoms for a peep into what’s considered beautiful – all the people are Black and doing well, but even the children have lighter skins and have had their hair straightened! It’s clearly the image that sells. For example, where are the TV advertisements promoting beauty products for non-white license-payers of the British population?
Michael Jackson knew the absolute reality of this! Over time, the effects of feeling less than good enough are so subliminal and insidious. And the messages that your inadequacies are true are all-encompassing and pervasive.
Despite the fact that in contemporary times Britain’s black community has been well established for well over half a century, we still have to seek and find special outlets to purchase products for our skin, our hair, our pots and our children’s birthdays. Sainsbury’s still won’t sell a piece of yam, a finger of green banana, or a packet of salt fish; Birthdays and WH Smiths still see no point in stocking cards that display pictures of beautiful black people; and Boots only value the sale of shampoos that nourish European hair.
That this is the case in London – cosmopolitan city of the world – is shameful and insulting! Black people support these chains as readily as their white counterparts, so why should their interests not be observed and served?
When we see black youth engaging in excessive displays of criminality and violence towards each other, it reeks of self-hatred. So deprived of respectability by the wider world, they are caught up in a confused and destructive web whose fabric is composed of a lack of self-knowledge and an obsession with respect, money and becoming rich. When they maim or kill their fellow blacks, police enquiries into the crime are not as stringent. A quote from one of the Godfather films said it best: “They’re only niggers, let them kill their souls!”
We bang on about the absence of positive role models. Already taught that wealth is what’s most important, they’ll find their own role models – they’re not stupid. More importantly, they’ll decide what’s positive! They’ll find their own wealthy role models and stick two fingers up to the doctors and lawyers that you present to them. Their rap idols have showed them through the media how easy their route to fame and fortune was – they used to be drug dealers and shotters and muggers; they either got away with it or did their time and came out.
And besides, doctors don’t have yachts and chandeliers in their cars or spinning rims or a crib with a wardrobe full of sneakers or a plasma TV in the bathroom. Their role models are many and promoted by the mainstream media because it lacks any real interest or understanding of the black self.
I recently heard Wycliffe’s BET Award acceptance speech: “I went from a hut, to a project, now I live in a mansion – you can do it too.” I’m sure he meant well, but what message was he sending across?
The privilege of being in the public eye comes with the responsibility of being a role model – it’s inherent. The stars need to have this at the forefront of their minds. So they must think about if they might be buying into racist stereotypes; like when they say they’re reclaiming words like ‘nigga’ – do they think it’s okay to call yourself a ‘nigga’ because you’ve taken off the ‘er’ and replaced it with an ‘a’? Is the ‘a’ supposed to stand for ‘acceptable’? When girls think it’s okay to call themselves bitches, self-hatred digs its heels in deeper! It was derogatory then and it is now.
Black successful people need to ask themselves what messages they are sending out about what success means – is it solely an external concept? What does it look like internally? It is in this area that there is a lack of references – you cannot be truly successful without self-knowledge and this means you must love who you are, accepting and embracing factors about yourself which you cannot change – factors like your skin colour, which have no faults attached to them, those which just are.
This is not to say you allow the fact that you belong to a particular race to bound you with limitations – no! With self-knowledge in tact, you feel you can dress how you like, have your hair how you want, go where you want and marry who you want. But why is it that Britain’s black rich and famous almost invariably have non-black spouses – it’s a definite pattern, and any imbalance will ultimately breed contempt!
A part of me is so sad to have to use the gentle soul of Michael Jackson so centrally to what may seem such a disparaging topic. But what an opportunity his genius and aspects of self-hatred has presented. What a lesson for humanity. We look at his life and we can see the very real damage that is done when lost in self-hatred no matter how much fame and wealth you have. You can be loved by the world but true happiness begins from the inside, with self-love.
Michael Jackson died in debt, his friends and family will speak of a sadness that coloured his life. Humanity must not miss this lesson. Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson came to teach the world. His time here is over, and his true legacy is even greater than his genius.
Lawna Elayn Tapper is with Rice’n’Peas Magazine where this piece first appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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