Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Raggedy Race Science Revisited: Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?

Lisa Lampanelli is white. She is also one of the most existentially and physically unattractive white women I have ever seen. What then to the hypothesis that whiteness equals beauty?


Apparently, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. If Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa's "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" is to be believed, it is an empirical "fact" that can be arrived at through the scientific method.

When this story circulated about these Internets last week I did not comment on the big ballyhoo the resulted because it was uninteresting and a bit "meh" to me.

While I understood the hurt feelings, feelings by themselves are not a substitute for reasoned engagement (on that note, his colleagues and students are taking Kanazawa to the woodshed as they should). Moreover, I found it more problematic that Psychology Today quickly deleted the piece and through it down the memory well. That was cowardly, but they are in the money making and not the truth telling business.

Ultimately, Kanazawa's work is piss poor science and I did not feel the need to put on my wading boots. The argument as outlined suffers from problems of construct validity (is Kanazawa actually measuring "beauty" or something else entirely? Are his variables accurate? Are objective measures of beauty as gathered by subjective interviewers reliable or consistent?). The model that he offers is also misspecified (are the relationships between the independent variables correct?). I am not a stats head, but even I could catch those pop up fly balls.

The measurement of beauty is an interesting project and certainly worth exploring. But, and here is Kanazawa's critical error, the concept of beauty is laden with history and socio-political baggage. The notion of beauty is socially constructed and not a fixed or real thing; beauty legitimates certain regimes of truth; and like the race science of an earlier age validates the assumed superiority and assumptions of those who are both creating and administering the test. While trying to reduce this to a scientific puzzle, Dr. Kanazawa, a professor at the esteemed and prestigious LSE, should have known to pick up a few history and social science texts--and consult with his colleagues who study the history and philosophy of science--before endeavoring to explore the relationships between race and science.

[The fact that an Asian brother is conducting research that validates the beauty of white women--and what that says about internalized white racism and the power of Whiteness as normativity--is another dynamic that demands comment, one I will leave that to others.]

The idea of whiteness as THE beauty standard is centuries old. It was created at the nexus of the imperial and colonial projects to rationalize and justify the exploitation of the world by Europeans. The idea that whiteness equals beauty is exposed as a patent lie when the normative philosophy and race thinking underlying the assumption is exposed on its own terms.

To point, the following selection on the relationship between whiteness, beauty, and science from Nell Irvin Painter's great book, The History of White People:

White asks, "Where shall we find unless in the European, that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain...?" The mention of brain leads to a physiognomy of intelligence that recalls Camper's facial angle; White continues, "Where the perpendicular face, the prominent nose, and round projecting chin?" He ends with a soft-porn love note to white feminine beauty that incorporates the fondness for the blush found in many a hymn to whiteness. White and Thomas Jefferson shared with many others this enthusiasm for the virtuous pallor of privileged women. White asks, "In what other quarter of the globe shall we find that blush that overspreads the soft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings, and of sense? Where that nice expression of the amiable and softer passions in the countenance; and that general elegance of features and complexion? Where, except on the bosom of the European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with vermillion?"

Sadly, even in the 21st century there are many people who belong to the colored races of the world that both consciously and subconsciously embrace the idea that whiteness is de facto beauty.

It is funny then, that some may scream and howl at the offense committed by Professor Kanazawa, but how many of said protesters believe on a deep and existential level that he was actually correct? Thus, no small amount of Fanon mixed with Freudian projection is the 800 pound elephant in the room that few want to engage.


Henri B. said...

My opinion is probably a gross oversimplification but I think the idea of black women being less attractive than their white counterparts is just another idea handed down from the days of slavery to justify those trips to the slave quarters. "That mulatto isn't mine, my darling. I find the negress detestable."

Seriously, he talks about a race difference in intelligence as if that is an accepted fact. Even if I had considered being offended by this that line would have lost my attention faster than accidentally running into a white supremacy website.

But as far as variables you've asked the beginnings of the right questions. My first question would be are we measuring women who have had work done? How about natural hair coloring? With or without makeup? I've already spent more time on this than that article deserves.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute, now -- didn't a few of us talk about how clearly busted Arnold's jumpoff was?

I believe one of us (not naming names) said "you can't polish a turd" and "we can't all be winners."

Doesn't this imply that we think our standards for beauty are objective (for lack of a better term)?

What gives?

Hank Nasty said...

Does the construct of Whiteness have no end to its pervasiveness and perniciousness?

chaunceydevega said...

@Tanya. Those are other good complicating factors. How would that be coded for in the "beauty" scale?

@Anon. Yes, his jump off mistress is unattractive...to me. I am not trying to come up with a generalizable claim with any pretense of empiricism. I wouldn't smash, but Arnie did. His call. And taste.

Question: are you really that democratic in your taste? Are you attracted to all types? I am curious as this seems to be s sensitive area.

@Hank. Be nice. Whiteness is loving, inclusive, and beautiful. Jeez!

Paul Sunstone said...

Obviously, Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa never met a certain young lady by the name of Harriet. She was first pointed out to me, before I actually met her, by a friend (White) who one evening suddenly sucked in his breath, dropped what he'd been saying, and said, "Look! That's got to be the most beautiful woman I've seen in this coffee shop. Ever. She carries herself like a dancer. Or a queen." Classic Black features, to the extent there is such a thing, and graceful as a mountain lion. But I wonder if Kanazawa would have found a reason to weed her out of his study?

Vesuvian Woman said...

You need to quit frontn and Follow me. I'll show you healthy ways of releasing and neutralizing all that rage and confusion. Finally, I'll celebrate your ability to love uncinditionally ; )

fred c said...

Oh, the good doctor is just trying to get over on the White women. His study is a crude tool, but if you want to drive a nail, well, you get it.

There are beautiful women all over the world, of every type. More importantly, there are women of every type who are hot, hot, hot. Let's not confuse the wrapping paper with the gift. I've known women, not naming any names (but baby, you know who you are), that most guys wouldn't think merited a second look, but who turned out to be hotter than a German machine gun on D-Day. And that's better than beautiful in my book.

Oh Crap said...

Re: Lampanelli, this is funny http://bit.ly/jXzzWJ.