It was 1991 when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for the first time. I have read it several times over the past twenty or so years as it always proves to instruct me in critical and deep ways. I went on to read all of Morrison’s texts and studied her with fervor in college because she opened my eyes to racism and sexism and how we exercise those on one another in society. But The Bluest Eye made me – a blue-eyed, blonde, white woman – aware of the cultural power and weight behind how I look. It is this look that is forced upon all as the iconic beauty stamp, whether you look like the stamp or not. This is exemplified in this passage from The Bluest Eye,
Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. “Here,” they said, “this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’ you may have it.” I fingered the face, wondering at the single-stroke eyebrows, between red bowline lips. Traced the turned-up nose, poked the glassy blue eyeballs, twisted the yellow hair. I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable.
In a sense, Morrison has been a primary instructor to me. She had a key role in beginning my journey toward understanding race, human dignity, privilege and the role and responsibilities I play within each of these. But as I now have the added responsibility and privilege of raising girls, the passage above plays on repeat in my mind, influencing my parenting in a tangible everyday kind of way.
In our house lately we talk nonstop about brown skin and white skin. We have seasons of talking quite a bit about race, and I don’t know if its my children’s ages (10, 6 and 4) at the moment, but there is meaningful discussion about who gives skin color and why. We talk much about God and much about biology in these discussions. My youngest daughter loves the brown skin of her sister and wishes often she could be brown. My oldest daughter loves the color of her skin but wishes at times she had blue eyes like her brother and sister. And the words Morrison penned play on and on as I listen to the conversations of my children. I hear these words as I listen to them talk about individual aspects of beauty – affirming, not affirming, wishing, and wanting.
I have written often about the power and role of diverse books, television, meals, movies, toys, billboards, role models, commercials, art supplies, fellowships, schools, and friends – these all play a huge role in affirming our diverse world. This week I realized that I cannot have enough. I will never have enough of any of these things. And I don’t kid myself either in thinking that my girls will go without woundedness as they struggle with the cultural dragons of beauty that don’t even involve race per se. But the need to affirm their individual beauty will never end nor will the fight to absorb these affirmations before the cultural ideal steals them away.
So in our house beauty will be both/and – beauty in black and white, beauty in brown and blue, both. The hard work of making beauty both/and always starts and ends with my world view as I seek to devalue the idea that screams beauty is either/or. Beauty is not singular – it is not only. Each is lovable. Each is beautiful. As a parent of a transracial family my home must communicate loudly to my girls (and my son) that beauty is both/and. Anything else is unacceptable.