by Ayano Tsukada
On June 9, 1961, a California black newspaper announced the beginning of the very first major beauty contests for black women held in Northern California. This beauty pageant, however, was not like one of normal beauty pageants that you would think of. To become Miss Bronze, African American women couldn’t just be beautiful. They had to be more than that: a representative of the African American race. It doesn’t sound very difficult, however, for the contestants of the pageant, it was.
In the United States, features of bodies are given meaning by culturally diffused “systems of representation” and two systems of representation circulated within black communities. One big system is a nationally dominant system of representation corresponding to dominant standards of beauty; beauty from the white point-of-view. The other system is a black system of representation that is used only among blacks. Historically white systems of representation excluded black women in general, but put some light-skinned women as “exotic” types. Light-skinned women were considered beautiful in black system of representation as well, but were not considered “exotic” within the black content. Light skin was a representation of economic and social privilege. Because there was more than one system existing in black communities, black women were made to look at themselves through the two systems of representation, which made it very difficult to be both beautiful and representative of their race at the same time. The contestants had to be beautiful enough in the white system of representation but had to be black enough so that they can represent their race. For example, a light-skinned contestant cut her hair short because long hair represents whiteness. Not too black, but not too white, this was their challenge.
Though African American women had never been and will never be considered as White, they still have to be judged in the white system of representation. This was what was happening in the Miss Bronze contest. However, Black women are not the only ones that have double consciousness. Black men have double consciousness, too. For example, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, changes the way he speaks and acts in front of white audiences and black audiences. Women also see themselves through both women’s point-of-view and men’s point-of-view. We know how to act in the society where men are dominant. We internalize dominant views of ourselves and at the same time, we criticize them. This may not sound good, but I would like to think of double consciousness as a gift. The double consciousness allows them to step back and take an objective view of themselves. Like it or not, we are living in the world with different people and we cannot run away from that. Then isn’t better to have the eye of others inside of you?