I’m thinking about the idea of being a “good” “representative” or “ideal” of one’s race, or ethnicity, or culture. Why is it necessary? What do representatives do? I’m going to tackle the idea of a racial representative – implicitly representing to an external, most likely white, observer – in a forthcoming post, but, for now, I want to look to the “ideal” as an internal model.
I for one am often held up as an ideal. I am very uncomfortable with this, particularly as I’m not being held up as good or proper for qualities I personally value in myself (like my loyalty to my friends, like the pleasure I take in teasing out an idea) or those supposedly valued in our culture. For years now – and keep in mind that I’m only twenty – I’ve been sick of having parents assess me as the sort of person they want their sons to marry, not for the person I am, but for what I represent. I’m valued because I’m studious, (look, she will be a clever and witty conversationalist, and maybe she can get a part-time job once the kids are at school!) but mostly for my looks. What I represent, then, is how much we value “white” qualities; I am desirable for representing those ideal looks, for being an opportunity for people’s sons to access those qualities – and, more importantly, for the grandchildren to access them through my special, special genes – without actually marrying outside of the group. (Assumptions about their sons’ and my sexual orientations ahoy!)
The thing is, I’m considered appealing and pretty precisely because my looks tie in with white beauty standards in a way the looks of most other young women of my background do not. I am not cool with being valued because of internalised racism and misogyny. I am especially not cool with other young women around me feeling less than because they are supposedly only valuable for their looks, and their looks aren’t quite so valuable because they don’t have light colouring, or the right facial structure, or the right amount of fat. It ends up like this: I don’t get to believe I’m beautiful, because, when I look in the mirror, what I see is a quirk of genetics which, combined with the internalised racism of my ethnic group, places me in a position of being valued more than the people I love. More importantly, hardly anyone’s telling my sisters that they are beautiful or valuable at all.
As much as having people walk up to me and look at me admiringly, stroking my pale arms, makes me want to vomit and get a spray tan and coloured contact lenses – as much as that hurts, as much as it hurts to be admired for something I can’t control and don’t like and would give up in a moment to look like the people around me, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that other people think they are less beautiful than I am, feel that they are worth less than I am, have internalised idea that looking as white as possible is the best thing a woman can hope for.
If a group ideal being representative was what it was really about, I wouldn’t be valued as an ideal. I don’t mean that because my looks aren’t representative; ideally women wouldn’t be judged on our looks, and people would wake up and see that genetic variation is a thing, so representative looks aren’t exactly possible. I mean that while I try and be a traditional woman and stick to our customs and values, I don’t participate in the community life very much at all. I’m on the periphery; I’m only approved of because, I guess, I embody an external ideal of white beauty standards.
That’s not an ideal for us – and I take issue with the idea of having some kind of representative ideal at all – but a matter of internalising oppressive values. I would rather we were all valued for the people we are, not how we look, and all the diversity and kindness and beauty that make up our communal selves and lives.