Saturday, May 25, 2013

Self Truth

There is an interesting, semi-longform, article over on The Atlantic, headlined: "Self-Racism: Changing the Look of a Nation," about the desire for many South Korean women to have more "elfin, anime-like appearances," appealing to a standard of beauty inspired by the heavily-managed and meticulously-manufactured Korean pop-music culture. The piece relates that some twenty years ago, in her paper "Medicalization of Racial Features," Dr. Eugenia Kaw noted a "self-racism subtext" in how Asian-Americans viewed themselves. "She wrote that the 'alteration of Asian American women of facial features is less of a transforming process, and more of a normalizing one,' to allow them to fit in with their Western peers." In other words: assimilation through looking White.

This is a sore point for a number of different groups in the United States, activists within which often see the widespread adoption of a general standard of attractiveness that prefers Caucasian features as toxic to non-Caucasians. And to be sure, one doesn't have to go back all that far - in the grand scheme of things - to understand why. If you've ever read an encyclopedia from the 1950s, it can be remarkable the degree to which middle-American cultural prejudices were presented as scientific truths. And when it came to appearances, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit, you weren't bad because you were drawn that way - you were drawn that way because you were bad. All sorts of different non-Caucasian facial features were held to be indicative of intellectual and character defects. And even today, people with facial deformities are still often thought of as mentally deficient. Against this backdrop, it's easy to see how anything viewed as an attempt "to fit in with their Western peers" could also be viewed as coming to the conclusion that one's non-Western peers were naturally unattractive.

African-American culture in the United States is famous (or, infamous, your choice) for its stereotypical hostility to "acting White," viewing the adoption of "Whiteness" among Blacks as the encroachment of a damaging cultural hegemony designed to eliminate "African-ness" and perhaps re-instate servitude in the form of a fawning (and doomed to be futile) desire to obtain acceptance through mimicking people who will always be able to point out another flaw. (But it should be noted that Americans in general tend to be sensitive to perceived rejections of their cultural norms and possible marginalization, and White Americans are not completely above feeling that not wanting to be like them is evidence of hostility.) This creates a dynamic in which many African-Americans judge their peers' level of self-acceptance and self-pride (individually and culturally) through a lens of adherence to a particular definition of "Blackness." While these definitions are viewed as being somehow inherent to being African-American, they're simply learned social norms, and since buy-in to a certain understanding of "African-American culture" can never be effectively unanimous, this can (and does) create an ironic, and often darkly comic, situation in which one is criticized as "self-hating" for, basically, insisting on being one's unaffected self.

In an increasingly globalized world, as cultures continue to diffuse into one another, the development of a generalized standard of attractiveness (among other things) is a predictable, if perhaps unfortunate, side-effect. And that standard is going to include some, and exclude others; "everyone is beautiful" is unlikely to ever be more than a "hippie" opinion or disingenuous advertising copy. Some groups are going to find that they have increased social currency in the new scheme, and others will lack it. In this situation, what will be the view of perceived "normalization?" Will buying into the prevailing norm, by people who are not lionized by it, be viewed as appropriate, or a craven capitulation to a cultural hegemony that all but the would-be hegemons are morally obligated to fight against? Can self-regard be understood as the adoption and taking ownership of whatever norms work for the individual, regardless of the physical changes that might be required, or does self esteem require the acceptance of an assigned cultural role, and in effect being owned by a set of cultural norms that have rights in and of themselves, and, accordingly, can place obligations on those who share ancestry - or appearance - with those who take up the traditional mantle willingly?

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