Sisterhood Blog

When Pseudo-Science Is Used To Bolster Racist Beauty Standards

By Sarah Seltzer

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There’s almost too much awful male behavior to write about this week, from the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the admission by Arnold Schwarzenegger to fathering a love child to this gag-worthy article about the rise of dude editors.

But a very special prize for awfulness has to go the folks at Psychology Today. The magazine published an article about black women’s perceived attractiveness that hearkened back to the era of racism being justified by science. Seriously, the next thing I expected to see was a piece called “Phrenology: Why It Still Matters.”

Not only did Psychology Today decide to print this offensive article but instead of apologizing for the subsequent uproar, they insisted that it had been good and healthy to air the discussion so everyone could understand how upsetting and loaded this issue was — as if black women don’t already know. This is an example of both utter cluelessness about the nature of racism and also a classic Internet fail: When you smear an entire group of people on the web, it’s always a good idea to apologize profusely and abjectly first, try to have a teachable moment later. And also: Don’t tell said group of offended people that they should be thanking you for offending them.

There’s not much I can say about how appalling this kind of writing is that hasn’t been said by some of my favorite writers and colleagues already. Shark Fu has connected this story with the recent anti-choice campaign targeting black women and calling their wombs “dangerous.” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd noted everything that the article’s author failed to do :

So basically, rather than asking whether the respondents in that study were providing their answers based on internalized racism, or delving into the subjectivity of attractiveness based on each individual human (both far more interesting topics) this dude just decided that ‘black women aren’t pretty.’ So not only is he wrong, he is a bad scientist… and probably stupid.

From a Jewish woman’s perspective, I think it’s incumbent upon us to sit up and take notice of this kind of deeply hurtful writing. The parallels, as always, are far from exact, but they exist: Despite our being a hugely diverse group, our attractiveness or lack thereof has been frequently racialized. We often walk through the world feeling crushed under the weight of beauty standards that don’t include us. And as we all know, faux science has been used to justify our genocide and cruel experiments on us.

Now there’s a circulating petition on the issue over at Change.org. Psychology Today may already have a reputation that’s less than stellar, but it clearly shouldn’t even have the thin veneer of respectability.


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