Anti-Blackness, beauty, children and harm.

I have to quote Beyoncé “a negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”. Seriously, I literally have the nose all the Jacksons got surgically altered. Growing up, I had no idea this was the case, until one fateful morning crammed in the back of a bakkie that took me to school in grade 4. Sitting by the canopy door was a premium position. So when another is picked up, it was always a dramatic scramble to plough your bottom onto the wooden bench. Simply because no one wanted to move only to end up in the dreaded corners of the canopied bakkie. This meant an extra helping of discomfort and barely any room to breathe. As this usual routine of scrambling for space happened. The man who took us to school asked in a sincere tone. Uzohlalaphi uYanela* (where will Yanela* sit)?  Another kid in the bakkie replied boldly and loudly, “phezu kwala mpumlo inkhulu ka Wandisile” (on top of Wandisile’s big nose). Children being anti-black simply indicates their exposure and socialisation in anti-black sentiments. 

That is my insecurity origin story. I quickly developed a rather stubborn self-consciousness with an equally counterproductive self-talk to match, all because my nose is big. A feature that usually unleashes insults steeped in anti-blackness. Anti-blackness in this context being a form of hatred that deems phenotypically black physical features as undesirable void of beauty therefore inferior. Think, tightly coiled hair, a big nose with no pointiness, big lips, dark skin…you get the picture! In my experiences recounted here and some not, black people are significant perpetrators of anti-blackness. We mock one another incessantly, the advent of social media has time and time again shown that adults bully children for their appearance deemed undesirable and being anything other than the Eurocentric standard of beauty. Naturally, to this day I can easily recall how that made me feel. It served as a cornerstone to the story I told myself. A story that persisted well into my late 20’s. A story of not enough, not worthy and not lovable because I had a big nose. I was rarely the recipient of compliments but rather jokes, teasing and bullying especially from adults and some children. When you are coded as not beautiful because you have features that are not celebrated but persistently mocked. That serves as a form of harm. Society often uses the benchmark of beauty to determine how to treat you. And many around me did not miss a beat lamenting how a big nose was undesirable and a reason to taunt me with unkind words. This was the persistent encounter I had with anti-blackness that was a significant theme of my childhood. I understand and have perspective now that existing in our black bodies means experiencing constant critique by way of Eurocentric beauty standards.

 A standout memory for me that affirms that anti-blackness was persistent in my childhood is when a distant relative stayed with us for a few months. During this time Backstage was still airing and Thobi Mkwanazi was one of the main cast members. I must have heard from this relative countless remarks likening our noses with a dramatic tone of disapproval sprinkled with disdain that she (Thobi) with those features like mine took up space on a popular soapie. This adult was a relentless bully till her departure. This at 32-years-old I can rationalise to mean being the subject of value, desire and adoration which being an actor yields, for that relative was reserved for people with features unlike mine. 

This article is intended to reflect on how children among the vulnerable members of society experience vulnerability as a result of where they sit on the beauty spectrum. Many social studies concretely highlight the experiences of people based on their appearance and ability. Good studies go as far as to highlight the harmful treatment black girls with black features can sometimes experience in an aim to give us language to explain social phenomenon that would otherwise be unexamined. I would love for adults to advance beyond the insidious and significantly harmful hold beauty has on us. That we may see, socialise and interact with children without this bias that continues to plague us as a result of anti-blackness. It typically results in unkind treatment and language. That stays in the minds of those who received it. It becomes defining.  It is unfair to burden black children with being beautiful according to Eurocentric standards in order for them to receive regard, value and sometimes care or simply to be seen. We can all do better. We can make strides toward the deliberate celebration, adoration and affirmation of children that is not anchored in arbitrary beauty standards that out of reach to us in our black bodies.

*-Real names not used.