The best-selling “The Vanishing Half” examines colorism and beauty standards

The best-selling “The Vanishing Half” examines colorism and beauty standards

Written by Tufayel Ahmed, CNN

While the world continues to consider systemic and anti-black racism during a summer of protest and awakening after the assassination of George Floyd, a new novel explores another layer of discrimination that people in the world experience. black communities.

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett is the story of the twins of Vignes, Desiree and Stella, who want to escape from their small fictional village in the South-South, populated only by light-skinned blacks.

In the 1950s Mallard, Louisiana, residents venerate its proximity to whiteness and consider dark skin undesirable. The twins are revered for their righteous complexion, but equally remembered for their race by the unjust world around them; years before, they witnessed their father lynched by a white crowd, and now, when they just want to go to school, they are forced to work alongside their mother as maids to rich, white families to finish. to find.

At age 16, Desiree and Stella fled Mallard, ending up on two very different paths. Years later, one sister returns home, poor and with her young dark-skinned daughter in tow, while the other, still deeply affected by the trauma of witnessing her father’s death for the simple fact of being black, now “ passes ”as a white woman. and benefited from the privileges of his new life in a middle-class California suburb.

I never imagined this book would emerge during this time period when there was so much trouble around the race around the world

Brit Bennett

The novel’s themes of colorism and racial inequality seem to have been discussed with readers at a time when more Americans are being consciously educated on issues of race, as one increased book sales on the subject.
“The Vanishing Half” peaked at No. 1 on The New York Times’ best-selling fiction list for three weeks in a row after hitting the shelves and remaining in the list at the time of publication. Meanwhile, HBO has already taken the television rights to adapt it as a limited series.

Brit Bennett, author of “The Vanishing Half” (2020) Credit: Emma Trim

In a telephone interview, Bennett admitted to feeling “ambivalent” about the book’s success because of the circumstances that stand out from its publication. “I never imagined this book would emerge during this time period when there was so much annoyance around race around the world,” the author said. “I didn’t imagine it would be the biggest conversation around him. It baffled me.”

Bennett is pleased, however, that he inspires people of color to talk, and even confront, about colorism in their own communities.

Colorism it is not a problem limited to black communities in the United States. Prejudice or discrimination is perceived towards people with darker skin within ethnic groups of color throughout Asia and Latin America. In the United States, the roots of colorism can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, according to Dr. Aisha Phoenix, a postdoctoral researcher at SOAS University in London and author of the 2014 article, “Colorism and the Politics of Beauty ”. , “published in the academic journal Feminist Review.

“Preferred treatment was given to light-skinned slaves, who were mixed-race children of slave and slave owners. They were allowed to work in the house and were seen to have a higher status than those who had darker skin and those with features that were more akin to African characteristics, “Phoenix said in a telephone interview. “The contrast between the way they were treated helped root the idea that fair skin was better.” In “The Half Vanishing,” this ideology is rooted in the population of Mallard.

Bennett came up with the idea for his novel following a conversation with his mother. “She told me about a town I remembered hearing about growing up,” the author said. “It was a village full of light-skinned Creole people, where everyone got married so that their children would look progressively lighter from generation to generation. I found it very strange and also very disturbing.”

Unfortunate colorism

Bennett’s hopes that black and minority ethnic readers will question and begin to dismantle colorism as white supremacist construction. “I hope it allows us to hold conversations in our communities about the ways we internalize white supremacy,” he said. “I wanted to think how can we free ourselves from this toxic ideology of white supremacy?”

Discovering the belief that lighter skin is better than dark skin will not be easy. People of color first experience colorism at a very young age, especially at home or school, rooting these ideas from adolescence, found an academic review of 2018. This experience continues into adulthood, already that colorism endures everyday life, whether at work, through the media, or within the criminal justice system.

Alicia Williams, a renowned author by profession, experienced a growth in colorism in Detroit, Michigan. She was compared to lighter skin cousins ​​and often felt bewildered due to her darker skin tone.

“In elementary school, there were two Danes who had long hair, what’s called‘ good hair ’… and I had short, fast hair,” Williams said in a phone interview. “And the danes were fair-skinned. I tried so badly that I stuck to them. I wanted to be seen with them, because if you saw me with them, maybe I could be so handsome with some, or combine or just feel as if I have updated “.

Williams recalled feeling aware of her hair and darker skin from a very young age, adding, “My brother was just serious about fair-skinned girls with long hair … so I grew up seeing that, what did that tell me? ” Immovable. Not even my brother saw value in me. “

Years later, working as a kindergarten teacher, Williams observed children of color feel uncomfortable choosing beer pencils that matched their skin tone. “I remember a little girl crying because her hair was thicker and dirtier. And she was getting angry. And so the idea of [colorism] it’s a lot, ”Williams said.

A different kind of discussion

Williams’ own experiences and her work in schools led her to write a middle-grade book, “Genesis Begins Again,” about a dark-skinned black girl struggling to accept her appearance and is abused at school. . The book has given Williams the opportunity to visit schools and break down colorful myths. “This is the book I needed when I was 13.” I’ve heard that [from people]Williams said.

Genesis Begyn Again Credit: Simon & Schuster

“We need to recognize that we have prejudices in our own community,” he added. “And we have to challenge our family members. Even to this day I’ve had a family member say, ‘Oh, your daughter’s gums are dark.’ I wrote an entire book about it, and I said, “Are you seriously trying to do colorism?” You have to call it what it is. “

“The media helps perpetuate colorism by prioritizing light skin over darker skin tones,” especially in relation to women, Phoenix said. “If fair-skinned women are always the most beautiful, this helps instill in communities the idea that fair-skinned women are prettier than darker shades.”

Habeeb Akande, a black man from London, admitted during a telephone conversation that in his teenage years he saw light-skinned black women as more desirable than dark-skinned black women. “My preference was given to watching hip-hop videos of Ja Rule, where I saw a lot of golden brown and unsightly Brazilian women,” she said. “That informed my perception.”

Akande believes we need to see a more positive portrayal of darker-skinned women in the mainstream media to challenge this perception, especially among black men. “When blacks are depicted, the‘ acceptable face ’of Blackness is a lighter-skinned or mixed-race black person,” Akande said. “We need to see a wide range of black beauty. This will change people’s consciousness.”

“(Colorism) has always been grossly dirty … we know it continues, but we’re not really questioning or questioning it,” Phoenix added. “‘The average leak’ is a great opportunity to explore this topic because it gets public and when people talk more, things start to change.”

Since the novel’s release, Bennett says he has heard from readers the deep discussions they have been having in their book clubs about personal experiences of racism and colorism. “It’s a lot more complicated when you talk to people about their feelings than when you have these political conversations about it,” the author said. “There’s a bigger conversation we have about systemic racism and it’s crucial to have. But I’ve enjoyed these conversations about interpersonal experiences with race. They don’t feel as contentious or as defensive as the [political] conversations we often have. People have told me about family members who have gone through or about people who are multiracial who feel broken between different cultures. “

“I talked about a lot of complex family stories,” he added with a laugh.

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