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THE EUGENIC ROOTS OF COLORISM

The genetic correlation between inner moral character and exterior physiognomy was commonly asserted by eugenicists in the late 1920s and into the following decade. Eugenicist and University of Wisconsin professor Albert E. Wiggam, after judging a 1929 Miss Universe beauty pageant in Galveston, Texas stated, “Beauty is nature’s flaming banner of her evolution… It is often said that ‘beauty is only skin deep.’ It is as deep as protoplasm, as inherent as intellect, as vital as character… It is woven into the protoplasmic fabric of the race with all that is admirable and excellent.”

Wiggam attributes eugenic traits like character, intellect, and beauty itself, to evolution and protoplasm, making a solid connection between science and social standards of attractiveness. His assertion makes external appearance an indication of moral character, intellectual capacity, and hereditary fitness. The 1920s witnessed the rapid growth of skin bleaching and hair straightening products for African Americans, designed to correct the eugenic blemishes of dark skin, kinky hair, and a supposedly overall unattractiveness.

Eugenics connected physical and aesthetic otherness to moral otherness and argued that character and morality were situated within germ plasm as well. Kinky hair, dark skin, thick lips, and wide noses all constituted physical otherness – which viewed even from a distance, categorized blacks as defective, inferior, and unappealing. intellectual capacity, and hereditary fitness.

Cosmetology students in Crescent Beauty School Classroom, 1950s. / Courtesy of the African American Museum of Iowa


Taking their cues from hereditarian thought on the suitability of mates, business colleagues, and social connections, manufacturers of black beauty and hygiene products commoditized reducing the appearance of “Negroid” features or negro-ness. In many regards appearance superseded education in attaining social mobility. Employing studies of Negro students’ attitudes towards visual negro-ness, between 1925 and 1935, this project reveals the respondents’ widespread acceptance of light and brown skin along with curly or straight hair, and a rejection of dark-skin and curly (or kinky) hair as the ideal beauty aesthetic, irrespective of the respondents’ own physical traits. It is worth analyzing more fully newspaper ads for “beauty” products that sell their wares as what I term, “evolution in a jar,” as well as Lonely Hearts column personals that reveal an overwhelming desire among Negro men and women for any type of mate who was not dark-skinned. By selecting a mate that exhibited Wiggam’s protoplasmic beauty, African-Americans could assert racial fitness, demonstrate social adjustment, and promote the inheritance of those traits in their offspring. To enhance their desirability to potential mates, Black men and women attempted to mask and alter those traits believed unappealing by using cosmetic products.

While beauty, sexuality, and health constitute separate issues, the popularization of hereditarian thought helped determine what was aesthetically beautiful, sexually acceptable, and medically sound, making them occasionally overlapping categories and concerns. Just as Wiggam proclaimed aesthetic beauty a component of biology, fifteen years earlier in 1915, Army Medical Corps Major R.W. Shufeldt, proclaimed skin bleachers useless in changing the dysgenic biological nature of Negro users.

“The Negro is not responsible for his animal nature any more than for the opportunities he takes to gratify the normal impulses which are a part of him. It is not a changing of the spots on the leopard, although some, indeed many, think this to be the case,” he wrote.

Another writer in The New York Evening Telegram on January 28, 1904, claims to have discovered a treatment for the Negro which will have the effect of turning his skin white. But then counts the solution an actual albatross about the necks of white society who would then be unable to distinguish the races and risk contamination.

Black publications consistently worked in tandem to support the aesthetic beliefs

and pronouncements of larger society. Magazines and journals like the NAACP’s

Crisis magazine promoted light skin over darker complexions (perhaps unconsciously)

by visually attaching social value to women and children with “fair” skin. In this 1924

Children’s Number above, all of its cover models appear mixed race and

do not include any brown-skinned children. / Courtesy photo


“Just as though all savagery, cannibalistic tendencies, thievish propensities, mendacity, and the rest were in the skin of the animal! Such an expedient might, if effective, prove to be of value politically; but it would be worse than useless biologically, for the danger sign – his color – would be removed, and the opportunity would be greater for this semi-metamorphosed race to mix its cannibalistic blood with that of the unsuspecting Anglo-Saxon in the United States.”

Much of the eugenic framing of race studies by Acumen is done to aid the understanding of the continued demands for skin bleachers, hair straighteners, weaves, polishes, and tonics to rid Black bodies of any identifiable associations with anti-black sentiments. The beauty industry enjoys a centuries-old mission of supplying mostly caustic and costly aids to repair perfectly healthy and beautiful people who have been conscripted unfit and undesirable based on their black and brown skin tones. Our nation’s beauty schools and aestheticians, as well, created industries to highlight traditional Black features and create new standards of beauty.

Using James Baldwin’s sentiments, “If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not,” let’s work to embrace natural Black beauty in every form.


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