Van Jones, Michelle Obama And The Necessary Death Of “Classic” Beauty

July 28, 2016  |  

Michelle Obama DNC

Image: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Granted, he was all verklempt and filled with pride, as many of us were while watching First Lady Michelle Obama deliver her powerful Democratic National Convention speech this week, but CNN commentator and former White House environmental adviser Van Jones made an on-air statement regarding FLOTUS that didn’t sit well with some of the network’s viewers. When CNN anchor Anderson Cooper noted that Jones was crying during Obama’s speech, Jones responded with this: “Well I mean, first of all, if you weren’t moved by that, go see the doctor. I mean, every American has to appreciate what it means for a woman like her to have grown up in Chicago, dark skinned, not particular — you know, not the classically, you know, beautiful woman according to the theme of that time.”

You guessed it – it was Jones’s classically beautiful comment that garnered backlash. Jones took to Twitter to clarify his remarks writing, “Maybe [my words] didn’t come out right,” and “Of course, First Lady is classically beautiful! I meant how our dark skinned sisters were dissed generations ago.”

Now unless I missed something, dark-skinned women are still treated as though they’re at the bottom of the beauty standard totem pole. Just ask comedian Leslie Jones, who was recently accosted by racist trolls, so much so that she temporarily deleted her Twitter account. Or ask Viola Davis, who in 2014 was described as “less classically beautiful” in comparison to her fairer-skinned Black contemporaries by New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley. In that same article, Stanley also described Shonda Rhimes as an angry Black woman, the stereotypical label that seems to follow Black women everywhere we go, no matter what we do. Better yet, hold a mic up to Lil Kim, Azealia Banks and other Black women who have lightened their skin because they believed the lies they were told about their respective hues and inherent beauty. I could go on, but let me stop there.

Have we made significant gains when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating Black beauty, and in turn, widening the narrow spectrum in which beauty still seems to be defined? Absolutely, but we still have a long way to go. And let’s not forget that racists didn’t refrain from spewing their hateful vitriol just because Michelle Obama stepped foot in the White House. Quite the contrary. Jones’s “generations ago” comment is about as inaccurate as the debunked myth that we live in a post-racial America, but that’s not what I’m ultimately concerned about.

While Jones meant no harm by saying what he did, the attention he’s received should be redirected towards an effort to altogether abandon the term “classically beautiful.” Let’s face it: “Classically beautiful” was never inclusive and never used to describe Black women. In the eyes of the Eurocentric beauty beholder, our hair is too nappy, our noses too wide, our lips too full – but nothing short of spectacular on women of lighter hues – and our skin too dark. To think, these hurtful fallacies that regard our bodies as less than, unfeminine, undesirable and somehow inhuman only describe Black women from the neck up. Even more has been said about our various shapes and curves, our supposedly freakishly large derrieres (Saartjie Baartman, anyone?). But throw that a– on a White woman and suddenly it’s appealing and sexy as all get out.

Our features have been used to label us as promiscuous deviants unworthy of love but deserving – in fact, welcoming of sexual harm and battery. Our features were and continue to be offensive to the palette that utilizes scientific racism (the same racism used to declare Black people unintelligent, incapable, genetically prone to violence, etc.), mathematics and methods from an era long past of painters, sculptors and other artists intent on creating the perfect piece of art to define beauty. Perfection, of course, being an impossible ideal. And yet, here we are, using imperfect reasoning to define something as expansive as a woman’s physical beauty.

The term “classically beautiful” has nothing to do with a woman being timeless or effortless, for that matter. It is a narrow, sealed box; limiting, damaging and not at all reflective of where we say we want to be. Beauty exists in a spectrum that’s much wider than White, so let’s refrain from using an outdated term that never included Black women to begin with, and holds us back instead of moving us forward.

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