For Brown Girls: on Karyn Washington, and Sara Baartman

This weekend I was saddened to read of the death of Karyn Washington, the founder of the website “For Brown Girls”.  The reports that she had taken her own life at the age of just twenty-two, following her struggle with depression, were the first that I had heard of her excellent work. If I had known of it sooner, I would have forwarded it to my friends and relatives long ago. The aim of her website is a wonderful one: it was, in her own words, “created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combatting colorism and promoting self love! FBG was created to celebrate darker shades of brown- to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in. However, women of all shades may take away from FBG the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance.”

Washington’s mission was as beautiful as the skin of the girls whom she sought to celebrate. I have long wondered and worried about the difficulty that black girls and women face in everyday life, and through the lives of my family and friends I have seen this problem with uncomfortable clarity and frequency. As any one of them can tell you, it’s not that they merely experience racism and sexism separately: it’s that the two prejudices seem to have some sort of strange multiplier effect, intensifying the discrimination that they receive. There’s one person I know who was hounded out of a job because her colleagues couldn’t stand to take orders from her; another whose peers felt so threatened by her progress that she, too, was shown the door; and yet another, who was made to feel as unwanted as an old piece of office furniture before dispatched by her company of several years. The ample sums that they quietly received via their employment tribunals told its own story.

The objectification of black women for the amusement or revulsion of others has been going on for centuries, both before and after the most lurid example of Sara Bartmaan, the “Hottentot Venus”.  Baartman, for those who don’t know the story, was a black woman who was taken from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded around Europe, often in a cage, for the entertainment of the public. Those who came to see her gawped at and mocked her dark skin and large buttocks, which were both supposedly signs of racial inferiority. After her death at the age of 26, her dehumanisation continued, her genitals being pickled and displayed in a French museum.

If Baartman’s suffering was the tale of a racist attempt to destroy the black woman, then Washington’s life can be seen as one more necessary and successful effort to reassert her worth. Indeed, the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus” affair is firmly with us: it can be still be seen in the pages of our fashion magazines and on our catwalks, with insidious effects elsewhere. In October 2009, the online dating site OKCupid revealed from an extensive analysis of its data that: “men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.”

I asked a good friend about these findings and she nodded wryly in recognition: after all, what could you do? What can you do when people are conditioned to call you bossy or aggressive or intimidating?  What can you do, as the writer Bridget Minamore has noted, when people have so often been told that you are strong or “fierce” that they have forgotten or never realised that you can be tender?

Well, if you can, you find strength in yourself, in solidarity and the love of those who truly value you, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll stumble across lives like that of Karyn Washington.  Judging by the experiences of several people whom I know well, I think that being a black woman can at times be emotionally exhausting, given the assaults that are frequently launched on their self-esteem. I am therefore grateful to Karyn Washington for making the lives of countless girls and women of all colours so much happier.  I also hope that her legacy is a world where black girls don’t have to be brave, or tough, or any of the rest of it; a world where, quite simply, they can just live.

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