Racism hurts white people too.
Sometimes this (very true) statement makes me think of my college introduction to microeconomics textbook. It postured that in perfect capitalism, racism in the form of segregation and discrimination would never occur because it would stand in the way of maximum profits. Restaurants, for example, would necessarily miss out on some of the best waitresses by using discriminatory hiring practices, or miss out on perfectly good customers because of segregation. Surely some other restaurant would snap up those waitresses and customers and if one didn’t, the economy would lose out and everyone would be hurt.
Sometimes, I think of the iconic image below- it is a photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine students who desegregated Little Rock High school in Arkansas. She is being followed by an angry white mob which includes Hazel Massery, whose face is twisted in palpable hate. In an effort to “protect” this school from black students, Hazel Massery lost some of her humanity to the acidic hate of white supremacy. She was reduced to her basest instincts. She was hurt.
Now a new image, and a more concrete concept, pops up when I think of the deleterious effects racism has on everyone, including white people.
(The remainder of this post contains NSFW images.)
“I’m 19 and I’ve hated my private area ever since I can remember up until now. There have been times when I was younger where I actually put ice on my labia and tried to numb them and cut them off. I don’t trust guys down there. This page has helped me realise I’m not the only one.. I hope one day I’ll learn to accept them.
Thank you for the work you’re doing on this page.”
And this one too.
“Im 19 and always wanted reconstructive surgery. I’ve hated my labia since I was 13. I thought any guy who touched me would be disgusted and turned off. I always tried to tuck them in, and was scared to go to the doctor because I thought something was wrong with me. Making it even worse I was dared to watch porn at a sleepover party years back and all the girls had neat, tiny, tucked in labia. After meeting my fiancé, I was still very self conscious. He told me I was beautiful and he loved my body but I thought he was saying these things to make me feel better. After seeing this blog, I love my labia and I’m not ashamed anymore.”
These quotes are from the Large Labia Project, recently featured on Salon. The project is an effort to break down harmful ideas about what vulvas are “supposed” to look like, which vulvas are “beautiful,” which vulvas are “normal.” As part of the project, women share a picture of their vulva, sometimes with a description of their insecurities about the size and symmetry of various parts of it- insecurities that they often say stem from the “clam shell” aesthetic of a porn industry that prefers small, neat-lipped vulvas.
I think that when we dig a little, there an even deeper source from which these insecurities stem- racism and the Cult of True (white) Womanhood that was developed in contrast to black women and our bodies to justify our dehumanization. Europeans and later white Americans used ideas about the hypersexuality of black women as a tool of social control. If it was true that black women were hypersexual, depraved and insatiable, then we needed to be conquered and controlled- for our own benefit and that of anyone we might seduce. It also excused America’s historical lack of protection for black women. If we really possessed as little sexual restraint as animals, it was acceptable to breed us as such. And in the very laws of America, these ideas allowed us to be deemed unrapeable- how can you rape a group of women who always, always want it?
These absurd and dangerous beliefs were justified based on the supposed physical characteristics of black women- our “abnormally” large breasts, hips, buttocks, and yes- vulvas. Sarah Baartje was a Xhosa woman who was captured on put on display in Europe because her body type fascinated Europeans. When she died, her genitals were put on display for public oggling in Paris until 1974. Baartje is just part of the legacy of how, as Patricia Hill Collins notes, “European audiences thought that Africans had deviant sexual practices and searched for physiological differences, such as ‘enlarged’ penises and ‘malformed’ female genitalia, as indications of deviant sexuality.”
The concept of white womanhood in America has long been constructed in contrast to black women, who have been denied consideration as true, “proper” women. However, the cult of white womanhood, founded on untruth, has backfired- it is clear from the Large Labia Project that women of all races possess beautiful vulvas of all shapes and sizes. But according to the ideals of white womanhood, the women posting on the Large Labia Project, the majority of whom appear to be white, have vulvas that are unacceptable. By virtue of their very physical properties they are ugly. Abnormal. Lascvious and impure. Downright improper. And these ideas, flowing all the way from the foundational principles of the slave trade, are still causing anguish so severe that women are entertaining ideas of mutilating themselves (or going through painful and increasingly expensive “labioplasty” surgeries) to fit the (white) standard of beauty. Even white women.
Racism hurts white women too. Just another reason why, for the benefit of all women, feminism must continue to challenge and break down a culture of white supremacy.