While feminists argue about how the female body is ordered and controlled within a disciplinary regime of femininity in a patriarchal society, those who are involved in racial body politics emphasize on a “double discrimination”: the one which is imposed on female bodies in general and the other which is imposed on non-whites in particular.

The term body politics refers to the practices and policies through which powers of society regulate the human body, as well as the struggle over the degree of individual and social control of the body (encyclopedia j.rank). Apparently body politics is inseparable from power and knowledge production about self and body. This becomes more significant when one considers racial body politics. The attribution of ethical, moral, temperamental, and social characteristics to individuals or populations based on skin color, facial features, body types, and sexual anatomy figure prominently in racial body politics (ibid). While feminists argue about how the female body is ordered and controlled within a disciplinary regime of femininity in a patriarchal society, those who are involved in racial body politics emphasize on a “double discrimination”: the one which is imposed on female bodies in general and the other which is imposed on non-whites in particular.

Body politics functions and works in three different levels: personal perception (how one evaluates his/her own body qualities), institutional inscriptions (how institutions perceive and evaluate body qualities) and the social consequences of institutional and personal inscriptions and perceptions. In all these layers individuals are subject to a constant “gaze” which evaluates one based on an established dominant criteria. 

United States plays a major role in establishing and disseminating racial body politics for two reasons: the long history of slavery and colonization; and more contemporarily its significant media power, cultural commercialization and fashion industry in the world.

 The roots of racial body politics in the United States goes back to the Atlantic slave trade when black bodies were perceived as commodities not human beings; traders and even moralists of the time justified African’s slavery and subjugation by arguing that dark skins are at the negative pole in the dichotomy of white and blacks and good whites were juxtaposed with evil blacks. Any facial and biological difference between black and whites was sign of the latter’s inferiority and backwardness: broad facial and body features of blacks were regarded as sign of licentiousness, sensuality and lack of intelligence. Myth and popular stories were spread about sexual organs of black men and women that promised excessive sensuality to whites. Interestingly the self-constructed myth was used to blame the bodies of black women and men for their being victims of rape, lynching, and castration. The roots of such perceptions are so deep that according to West (1982): “the notion that Black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern west.

The racial logic that was attributed to black bodies by whites had a grave and enduring impact on the three levels mentioned earlier.

Personal level

 In the personal layer, the blacks and later other non-white ethnicities like Chinese, Arabs, Hispanic, etc., internalized white beauty as the ideal one: white bodies and white facial features are regarded as being beautiful and desirable ones.  The mainstream beauty ideal is almost exclusively white, making it unattainable for women of color. There is a widespread tendency among blacks and other non-white women for bleaching skins, dyeing hairs for lighter-colored, straitening hairs, using lighter makeup and colored eye-contacts, and going through sever diets to shrink their figures.

Media plays an important role in shaping and imposing white beauty criteria on non-whites. Kristen Harrison (2006) conducted a study to test how media shapes beauty ideal with regard to body features. Using survey data from 61 African American teen girls, she studied how TV exposure influenced the girls’ beliefs about how others girls perceived their bodies. She discovered that for larger girls, TV exposure significantly influenced their belief that their peers thought they should be smaller. For the smaller girls, TV exposure significantly influenced the belief that their classmates expected them to be larger. interestingly, Harrison found the same result three years earlier when she found white women’s exposure to TV beauty ideals predicted the large-busted women wanted smaller chests and small-busted women wanted larger chests. While representation of women of color in media has increased slightly over the past decade, finding positive depictions of women with dark skin tones or natural hair is still nearly impossible in mainstream media. Further, when we do see women of color represented as beauty icons in media, they almost always already fit white ideals –meaning they already have light skin tones, light-colored, straight hair, ideally “white” facial features, thin figures, etc.

The influence of racial body politics and white supremacy is to the extent that has led to intraracism or colorism: a kind of racism among people of color which prefers those females or males that have body and facial features that are closer to white ideals. Within the United States, colorism is observable among all races. Though it is more common among African Americans, it also occurs among Latinos, Indian immigrants, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and even among European Americans. According to this view physical appearances closer to whites have greater prestige and guarantee a better social status and job opportunity. This perception has a historical root in the United States.

Miscegenation, which was the result of sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white male slave owners led to a large number of mixed race individuals with both white and black origins.  The terms mulatto, quadroon and octoroon were used to identify a black person with one-half, one-fourth and one-eighth of African ancestry, respectively (Keith: 1991: 760-778).Slaves with lighter complexion were allowed to engage in less difficult tasks; they were allowed to do domestic duties, while the darker slaves were assigned to do the hard labor, which was more than likely outdoors (Hill, 2002: 77-91). Consequently light-skinned blacks had more economic and social opportunity compared with their darker-skinned counterparts. This has led to “brown paper bag test” which refers to a practice by African Americans which was a common ritual among certain African American communities that would not let anyone into group whose skin color was darker than a paper (this was practiced almost until 1950s).

Institutional inscriptions and social consequences

Body politics has institutional inscriptions which mean how institutions perceive and evaluate body qualities of non-whites. Such inscriptions have social consequences on lives of people of color. Such politics makes social, economic, educational, and political impacts for people. It is the combination of polices, practices, or procedures embedded in bureaucratic structure that systematically lead to unequal outcomes for groups of people. (Barker, 2003; Brandt, 1991). Racist perception of body leads to disparities among different races that are often tolerated as normal rather than investigated and challenged. The criteria for making discrimination are body features and body characteristics of individuals.

 There are considerable racial disparities in economic outcomes and health, as well as evidence that these effects of race differ by skin tone, with darker skin tone being associated with inferior economic outcomes and higher blood pressure.

The possibility of having negative relations with police is higher among darker skinned blacks or other people of color compared with that of whites. It is less likely for them to have higher education or income level or to hold a public office. Darker skinned people are also considered less intelligent, less desirable in women mostly, and are overall seen as inferior to lighter-skinned people (Hochschild, 2007: 643-670). Lighter skinned people tend to have higher social standing, more positive social networks, and more opportunities to succeed than those of a darker persuasion. Scientists believe this advantage is due to not only to their ancestors' benefits, but also to skin color.

According to a survey conducted by Harvard Law School Lighter skin tone is clearly associated with higher employment rates for women and higher educational attainment for both women and men. The employment rate for women with very dark skin tone is strikingly lower than for women with lighter skin tone. In contrast, evidence that skin tone affects wages is limited. For both sexes, in both datasets, those in the light category have the highest average hourly wage, but this value is significantly different from those with darker skin only for men (Joni Hersch, 2006:1).

Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) released a report on whether educational attainment, a key indicator of socioeconomic status, is related to skin color in Latin America and the Caribbean. Based on data from LAPOP's 2010, Telles and Steele's analysis concludes that people "with lighter skin color tend to have higher levels of schooling than those with dark skin color throughout the region, with few exceptions." The authors go on to say that "the negative relation between skin color and educational attainment occurs independently of class origin and other variables known to affect socioeconomic status."

Body politics and resistance

Body politics is about the power to control bodies on the one hand, and resistance and protest on the other hand. “Black is beautiful” began as a cultural movement and resistance in the United States in the 1960s by African Americans. The movement spread to other blacks around the world, most prominently in the writings of the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko in South Africa. The movement attempted to raise consciousness and self-esteem among black people about their natural features such as skin color, facial features and hair. The movement also encouraged men and women to stop trying to eliminate African-identified traits by straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin.Resistance to white beauty features included wearing hair in a natural, unprocessed “Afro” and donning African-inspired clothing.

Black pride is another resistant movement in Brazil which takes pride in black features. The movement is popular especially throughout poorer population, and in the Brazilian funk music genre. Brazilian funk’s origin reflects Brazilian black resistance. According to George Yúdice youths were engaging black culture mediated by a U.S. culture industry met with many arguments against their susceptibility to cultural colonization.



Keith, V. M., & Herring, C. (1991). Skin tone and stratification in the black community. American Journal of Sociology, 97(3), 760-778

Hill, Mark E. "Skin Color and the Perception of Attractiveness Among African Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference?" Social Psychology Quarterly 65.1 (2002): 77-91

Hochschild, Jennifer L. "The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order." Social Forces 86.2 (2007): 643-670.

Hersch, Joni. “Skin-Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality” (2006): 251-255.

comments: Tue Sep 17, 2013 15:25 GMT
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