About Whiteness/Blackness and Beauty

The other day in my freshman English class, while teaching The Odyssey, my students perused through pictures in the text book. They often giggle at the urn depictions – mainly because of their flat appearance and the way that people’s heads sometimes appear to be completely unbound by the normal limits of human anatomy. They go “ewwwww” when they see the naked Cyclops and they marvel over early 19th century depictions of the sirens.

And I’m used to most of the comments.
But one, in particular, disturbed me. Well, no, actually, it intrigued me AND disturbed me.
It was in reaction to this picture. That is a picture of the Enchantress, Circe, who was supposedly beautiful, alluring, and kind of evil. She turned Odysseus’ men into swine (admittedly, they acted like swine anyway, so they kind of deserved it) and kept Odysseus for her own for quite some time until he had to beg her to leave. And even though Homer calls her a “fair-locked” goddess, that’s the picture they chose to use.
Which is important, considering that one of my students – one of my incredibly intelligent, well-spoken, well-read, and usually thoughtful – looked at the picture and said “Isn’t she supposed to beautiful, or whatever?”

“Yes…why?” I replied, thinking that he was going to comment on how he didn’t think she was that pretty. They often make comments about what they think is and isn’t pretty – as if I care. Instead, he said something even more…interesting.

“Then why does she look like an African?” I cocked my head and looked into his brown eyes, which he promptly buried behind his brown hands when he realized his error, as four of his best friends – all Black females – swooped down upon him.

“What is your problem?!” they shrieked. “What are you trying to say? That because she looks African she can’t be beautiful?!” I didn’t even need to step in! Even some of the White females in the class jumped on him. “Would you say that to your MOTHER?!” the asked. The White males stayed out of it.

“I mean…” he struggled to explain, “I thought she was Greek! I just meant…why didn’t she look White! Why does she have to look like….one of them poor Africans you see on TV? She doesn’t just look African, she looks like, Somalian or something.” He said all this with a pained expression on his face. He realized he’d messed up and uncovered some deep truth about his culture that he did not want to admit. He hurriedly tried to cover it back up. “Doesn’t she?” he pleaded.

“Well, she does look poor,” one of the girls conceded. I pressed her for more information. “Well, because she…just…looks like her hair is in rollers or something, I don’t know.”

“So..because she looks Black, she’s ugly and poor…okay…I see how it is…And you all said that you didn’t buy into those Cinderella stories,” I tsked at them, reminding them of how we’d read five different “Cinderella” stories and how I’d argued that stories like these helped shape their own ideas of beauty – blonde haired/blue eyed and the like. “Okay, we’ll leave C alone about it…for now…let’s move on to our review session…”

What a teachable moment.

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About alburnet

New mom, new natural, and..for the last year...still a new teacher!

Posted on March 28, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I tried to look at the picture to see what he might have seen, for certainly he would think some black women beautiful, even if it was a limited range. So I picked out some specific features that would make her look ugly and realized that even though they were not related to coloring, they definitely betrayed sad cultural stereotypes of beauty. Maybe he was thinking she has a jowl, and baggy eyes, and a hunch–but that points to how we worship youth only as beautiful. And yeah, her hairstyle looks like a cloth wrap here, when we usually expect Beauty to have loose flowing (European) hair.
    This book suggests Greeks worshiped African beauty and took their gods from Africa:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=JMY1p0t_bHoC&pg=PA214&lpg=PA214&dq=was+circe+african+odyssey&source=bl&ots=T-lCa4poHR&sig=Wy2VjLhdgbtpWLvSSz_GREEp9Ok&hl=en&ei=o72wS_HEG8L58AbtyOjcCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CB4Q6AEwBjgK#v=onepage&q=was%20circe%20african%20odyssey&f=false

    • Yeah – I was expecting him to talk about how she was hunched over, or how her chin stuck out a little far. But I was not expecting the comment that she was unattractive because she looked African.
      Thanks for the link – I think I might bring this discussion up in class again, briefly, when we move on to talk about other forms of beauty and cultural identity.

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