Its Effect on the Perceptions of Beauty and Initial Relations between
African and African American Women
Omomah Ilamosi Abebe
Mentor: Professor VéVé Clark
Graduate Student Advisor: Trane
This study analyzes the relationship
between African American and immigrant African women, specifically from Nigeria
and Ethiopia, within the United States. It looks at how their initial
relationships and first impressions of one another are influenced by stereotypes
and personal ideologies of what constitutes beauty and womanhood in their
It is often assumed that a common racial
identity allows for an automatic “kinship” between different ethnic
groups, because similar experiences are associated with being of the same race.
Although this assumption does hold some validity, difference in ethnicity can
itself affect the formation of relationships within a race. John H. Stanfield,
in his essay “Ethnic Modeling in Qualitative Research,” defines race
as “constructed categories of populations that gain social and cultural
relevance when random human qualities such as intellectual abilities, moral
fiber, personalities, aesthetic tastes, and physical abilities become fixed and
systematized through their association with phenotypical attributes”
Stanfield, 333). Race is defined by color, and also characteristics that are
seen as ‘supposed to go along’ with that color. Therefore, race has
often been used to homogenize the different experiences and personalities of
various ethnic groups within Stanfield, 336). What makes ethnicity so important
is that it is a “critical attribute of race in that it is a basis of
diversity within and between racial categories” (Stanfield, 333).
Specifically, when talking about the black race, many ethnic groups and cultures
arise from this category: African American, Ibo, Yoruba, and Jamaican, to name a
This literature review will discuss
ethnic differences and conflicts that occur in the United States due to
immigration. It discusses how ethnicity played a major role in the interaction
among white Americans and white ethnic groups immigrating to the United States.
Nevertheless, despite ethnic differences, assimilation was available to white
ethnics through Americanization. This option was not available, to the same
extent, to the Africans who were brought from their homeland to America during
slavery. Rather, because of their race,
became the process in which Africans existed within the United States, later
developing an African American identity. This, in turn, like ethnic differences
within the white race, affected the relationship African Americans were to later
have with immigrating Africans. This research therefore reveals some of these
experiences. I focus on how definitions of womanhood and beauty, due to
differing cultures, affect the first impressions of and initial relationships
between African American and African women.
Background and Literature
The United States of America
frequently has been described as a nation of many nations—a mixture of
immigrants from all over the world. Between 1820 and 1930, there were
approximately 35 million European immigrants who came to this country (Schaefer
ix). They came with diverse languages, cultures, and traditions, seeking
freedom and economic opportunity—the “American Dream." The
diversity these groups brought, and still bring, to this country has been seen
as both a source of pride and of problems (McLemore 45). One of these problems
is the difficulty in defining what it is to be an American.
How does one go from a
“foreign” identity to that of an “American”? Is this
switch possible for everyone; if so, do all who can, make the
“transformation”? It is often believed that it’s through the
“three-generations process” that an immigrant can be acculturated or
assimilated within American
society. By the
end of this process, the third generations are expected to be fully assimilated.
Assimilation for white European
immigrants is seen as natural, and an inevitable outcome. For other races
assimilation is not so easily attainable. John Higham believed that
“although white Americans have generally shown some hostility toward all
foreigners, they have been more willing to accept the members of some groups
than others” (7). In particular, the history of the United States shows
that white resistance to the inclusion of different groups is greater against
those who are defined as “non-white” than against those who are
considered to be “white." Thus, the assimilatory process for blacks, if
assimilation were to completely occur, was highly unlikely. Nevertheless,
acculturation did occur by the formation of an African American identity, making
it distinct from any African as well as American culture.
The African slaves imported into the
English colonies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were diverse
peoples, differing widely in appearance, traditions, and language; they saw
themselves as belonging to distinct tribes, not to a race. Michael A. Gomez
explains that English colonialists began the homogenization of Africans with the
as well as the middle passage, giving them a single, inclusive name: Negroes.
“There were specific mechanisms in each phase of the African’s
experience—the initial capture, [the] barracoon, [and the] transatlantic
trek...through which he was increasingly nudged toward reassessment of his
identity” (Gomez 154). In addition, upon arrival in the New World,
plantations “functioned as a remarkable melting pot, in which distinctions
between Mandigoes, Iboes, Angolans, and other African peoples were largely
obliterated” (Pozzetta 8). This process of ‘cultural
obliteration’ laid the foundation for an African American identity and
culture in the United States.
When discussing recent black immigrants,
who are not under the conditions of slavery and thus voluntarily immigrate, Roy
Bryce-Laporte, in “Black Immigrants: The Experience of Invisibility and
Inequality”, believes their “views and experiences have yet to be
regarded as valuable historical or sociological data in their own right”
(32). This could be partially due to the history of the United States
dichotomizing its people into two groups— black and white—which in
turn “does not allow for the idea that black people are themselves a
diverse group with differences to warrant examination...” (Cathran 581).
So then, not only can recent black immigrants be seen as “pressured by
larger society to be Americans, but they [may] also feel pressured to be black
Americans and less African, West Indian, or whatever” (Bryce-Laporte 48).
It is for this reason that the study of black immigrants to the United States,
and their interaction with African Americans is of interest. Therefore,
perceptions of beauty, which can be derived from one’s culture, becomes
one aspect which can be analyzed for its effect on the relationship between two
This research was completed in the
summer of 2002. It consisted of twenty interviews, and a self-created
“Model Test," which is later defined. Of the twenty interviews ten were of
African American women, five of Nigerian women and five of Ethiopian women.
African American women were defined as born within the United States and whose
parents were also born in the United States. “African women," due to the
limitations of my research and
were women born in Nigeria or Ethiopia and who later immigrated to the United
States, as well as daughters who are first generation in this country. All
participants were asked the ethnicity they identified themselves as; although
some African women were born in the United States, they continued to identify
themselves as African.
The participants were asked questions
about their individual experiences, opinions and other relevant information.
The following are sample questions that were asked to both
- Basic demographic
information (born, raised
exemplifies beauty and womanhood in your tribe/ within the African American
your relationship with African/African American women in
interviews took place, the “Model Test” was administered. This
consisted of showing the participants fifteen photographs of African and African
American female fashion models (taken from the 2002, 37th edition of
TRACE Magazine). The images selected were designed to reflect a spectrum of
physical features depicted in the fashion industry. I had the participants try
to identify the ethnicity of each model as African or African American. The
purpose of this test was to see what physical characteristics were looked for to
identify someone from each group. In doing this I was able to investigate if
stereotypes about an African and African American “image” existed;
how such stereotypes, if in existence, related to one’s perception of
beauty and, in turn, affected initial relationships. I also took note of any
other comments that were made about each model, which helped to facilitate
discussions about beauty.
All subjects were asked to participate
in this research by myself and through word-of-mouth. Announcements were made
at events that catered to Africans and/or African Americans, informing them of
my research interest and the qualifications to participate. I also encouraged
those who heard my presentations to convey the information to family members
and/or friends, who also qualify.
Typical responses from each group were
chosen to present the general patterns of the comments received. Some
methodological limitations to this research are a small sample size, the ages of
my participants and location. During the time of the interviews, most of the
participants were living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and were mostly of
college age. Although it cannot be said that they represented the opinions of
all Africans and African Americans in this country, they were able to speak from
cultures they upheld and identified with, and therefore can be studied as a
sample of opinions held within their respective cultures.
The following is a demographic overview
of the participants:
yrs. old = 1
- 20 yrs.
old = 7
- 23 yrs. old
- Over 30 =
- 18 yrs. old
= 1 (Father Nigerian, Mother American, born
yrs. old = 1 (Immigrated age
yrs. old = 1 (Immigrated as a
yrs. old = 1 (Father Nigerian, Mother American, born
yrs. old = 1 (born in US, raised in Nigeria, immigrated age
- 18 yrs. old
= 1 (born in
yrs. old = 1 (Immigrated age
yrs. old = 2 (born in US, raised in Ethiopia, immigrated age
30 = 1 (Immigrated as an adult, following husband’s
Date and Data
In conducting the “Model
Test,” I found that there were several characteristics commonly looked
for, by both groups, to identify one as African: darker skin tone, small eyes,
strong cheek bone structure, a broad nose, “kinkiness” of hair, and
fuller lips. Among the African participants all comments that were made were
specific to why they categorized a model as a certain ethnicity. This
contrasted with the African American participants. In addition to giving
reasons for identifying a model as a certain ethnicity, spontaneous comments
were made regarding the models aesthetic appearances, and whether or not they
liked them. The following are examples of comments from some
Figure 1: Liya (Ethopian model
– Source: Steve Wood, “Liya,” Trace Magazine 37 (2002):
41. Reprinted with permission).
“She looks mixed, I think she’s really pretty [...] African
Ethiopian [...] the whiteness of her eyes and bone
Figure 2: Alek Wek (Sudanese model
– Source: Steve Wood, “Alek Wek,” Trace Magazine 37
(2002): 45. Reprinted with permission).
American: “Personally I don’t think the girl
is cute, I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with her ethnicity. Maybe
‘cause she don’t have no hair. I think that she is a model, because
she is so dark. Almost like her darkness is exploited, and this is the reason
why she is a model. I feel like they really emphasize her darkness. Her being
a model is ironic. I think that she is a model because she’s not cute.
They say, “oh this woman is so exotic, she’s African, she’s so
rare” and in all of that she’s beautiful.”
she’s African [...] I think I’ve seen her
Figure 3: Jessica White (African
American model – Source: Patrick Ibanez, “Jessica White,”
Trace Magazine 37 (2002): 63. Reprinted with
“See this girl has hair, she’s really cute. She’s black
looks more African American than
about her face.”
Figure 4: Carla Maria (African
American model – Source: Patrick Ibanez, “Carla Maria,”
Trace Magazine 37 (2002): 64. Reprinted with
“[...] I don’t know...when I see African woman, they don’t
have this little button nose like she got [...] African
Nigerian: “She has
softer African features, her Cheekbones [...] she might be
Figure 5: Simone (Ugandan model
– Source: Patrick Ibanez, “Simone,” Trace Magazine 37
(2002): 67. Reprinted with permission).
African American: “I
think that she would be cute, if she wasn’t so Greasy [...]
looks African...her skin color, and lips.”
Figure 6: Jenine Bandle (South
African model – Source: Patrick Ibanez, “Jenine Bandle,”
Trace Magazine 37 (2002): 69. Reprinted with
“She looks like she’s black and white [...]
American [...] I think she’s pretty.”
Ethiopian: “She has
a really strong face structure [...] she’s
T. Arnoldi in Bryan Turner’s
The Body and Society, suggests the importance of one’s
physical appearance, and perceptions of it by others, in determining cultural
difference. He states, “it is through both the lived experience of
our bodies and our awareness of our culturally objectified body, that we come to
know ourselves and to know others” (10). Physical appearance, attitudes,
demeanor, gestures, and how one ‘decorates’ the body, say precise
things about the society in which a person lives, the constraints and
expectations a society puts upon its members, and the degree to which
individuals are or are not integrated into that society or that of another.
Therefore, what becomes of great significance is how one copes with the change
of having one’s body—which had been socialized in a particular
culture—adapt to a different culture. Perhaps this explains why all of
the African interviewees reported being teased when first coming to America.
They were teased for characteristics that identified them as
The “Model Test” also proved
to be valuable because it allowed a conversation about the general role of
models in our society. Models are portrayed to represent the epitome of beauty
for a particular race and/or ethnicity. The representation of a particular
group in the modeling industry, just as in any medium, affects how another group
perceives that race and ethnicity. Thus, in the interviews, conversations about
the differences between African American and African models emerged.
The following is a quote, given by an
African American participant, critiquing the representation of Alek Wek,
pictured in figure #2:
A lot of black women were mad because
they were like, how are they gonna portray every black person as that.
Basically they’re saying we want a white looking black girl to
represent us in film or in the magazines and we don’t want anything that
looks African. They don’t make her look pretty, they make Cindy
Crawford look pretty, they make Tyra Banks look pretty [...Alek Wek] always
looks greasy. [...] I think America, white people, are portraying her as the
African black girl. This is what Africans look like, they are dark, they
don’t have no hair, they don’t wear no makeup and they’re
greasy. That’s not fair. I think that’s what black people think of
when they think of Africa, and that’s something they don’t want to
be associated with (my emphasis).
In contrast, an Ethiopian participant
commented how she liked the different representation of a black woman that Wek
portrays. Another participant, who is Nigerian, believed that black Americans
might view the representation of Alek Wek “as negative, because they are
defining beauty through European eyes...they’re seeing her through a slave
The comparison of these statements about
Alek Wek is important. In the former quote, the portion italicized expresses a
possible want of some African Americans to disassociate themselves from
internalized perceptions of being “African” —distorted
negative images taught and displayed in Western
disassociation can be allotted to the want, whether consciously or not, of some
African Americans to assimilate within the larger American society. James
Stuart Olsen, in his book The Ethnic Dimension in American History, wrote
that among minority groups in America there is a “...will [to] want
to relinquish those traits that make them distinctive so that they may
'disappear' socially” (102). Because of slavery and its
stigmatizing effects, some African American women may not want to be identified
with those traits that hinder their “disappearance” within American
society—those differences that were used to call them inferior and to
stunt social mobility. As a result, women with features such as Alek Wek may
become a reminder of the black woman that was deemed inferior and unattractive.
Not wanting to be different may also explain why some of the African
participants, who went through the United States’ schooling system,
attempted to “disappear” within African American society by changing
their original African names, to those they believed sounded more
‘black,’ and attempting to talk ‘black,’ in order to
homogenize themselves into what they perceived it meant to be black in
It is here where we can see how
stereotypes are perpetuated which in turn, can impact perceptions of beauty.
Differing perceptions may contribute to a more negative initial relationship
between the groups. An Ethiopian participant speaks about how she feels African
American women are viewed by Ethiopian men and women, and expresses some common
stereotypes of black women as crazy, loud and dominant:
Ethiopians I think [are] mostly scared
of black women. And I think that basically has to do with the fact that they
know that black women are either, what they heard or see in the media or
whatever, they are so independent, loud, and strong. [Ethiopian men are]
brought up in a society where women are like mellow and quiet. I think pretty
much that’s what it all comes down to, just knowing that African American
women are either too crazy or too loud, and too outgoing and sociable. And
that’s really not common in African women; they’re really shy.
She continues, “I know a lot of
family members that just have that attitude about African Americans. And I
think some of them [are] due to their experience[s]...being teased by African
An example of one of the stereotypes
held about Africans within the black American community is the notion that being
African means having a dark complexion. When I asked all participants if they
thought dark skin was often associated with Africa, every participant answered
“yes." An African American participant told of the effect she thought
I think that connotation is kind of
negative. If I was to associate a black person with being dark skinned...[she
goes into a monologue] “damn girl you’re dark," “I aint
dark”...I mean people get all offensive when you say
they’re dark. So, just to automatically associate African women with
darkness is automatically gonna bring some other kind of
Color pigmentation has played a
significant role in the lives of African Americans, tracing its roots back to
slavery. It was used by whites to mark inferiority and to justify the
enslavement of blacks. Skin complexion was also used within the slave community
itself to create hierarchies, causing division, and sometimes jealousy.
Therefore to automatically associate dark skin with Africans—a
characteristic that has a negative history in this country—continues
stereotypes and may affect the initial relationships between both groups
When asked what was considered beautiful
in African as well as African American culture, all twenty of the participants
defined an African American woman’s beauty aesthetically and an African
woman’s in respect to her family, characteristically. The following are
quotes said by an Ethiopian participant, about each group, that typifies the
sentiments of all the interviewees.
It’s basically like taking care of
your family—a responsible mother, a responsible wife. I mean I’m
telling you all of this from like my mother’s experience and my
grandma’s [too]. A lot of people judge you by your kids. So I guess
beautiful is not in the sense of your features or whatever, but just how you
take care of your family.
African American beauty:
A women who takes care of her
body...meaning like get[ting] her hair done, get[ting] her nails done. I guess
who puts on makeup whenever she goes out. Goes to work, being independent.
Other ‘beauty markers’ that
were given for African American women were skin tone (a light complexion),
slenderness, and “nice” hair.
These different notions of beauty seemed
to be connected to the participants’ cultures. They appear to reflect
cultural differences between their views on the role of women within the family.
The following quote, by someone who has a Nigerian father and African American
mother, and identifies herself as African American, demonstrates how the
participants compared the role of women in each culture. Her statement is of
much value because her parents are separated and she maintains contact with
both. In visiting her father, who is now remarried to a Nigerian woman, she is
able to compare the roles of women in that home to that of her mother’s:
They’re similar [African American
women and African women] in the sense that they both demonstrate strength and a
certain kind of dignity about them. They contrast on different issues of how
they go about showing it. The African American women, her demonstration of
strength is probably in her career...independence. The African woman might show
her strength in like influencing her children in the long run. Like being a
model of morals in her household. Making sure her house is taken care
The following is a quote from an African
American woman recalling conversations with her Nigerian best friend about how
Nigerian women view African American women, in regards to family:
They don’t think the black woman
respects the black man... [because] they don’t let him take his rightful
place as the man, as the ruler of his home. [And in regards to children]
there’s not enough discipline [...] definitely there’s a respect for
parents in African children that’s lacking in American children. They
can’t stand the disrespect in children.
Therefore, an African woman, because she
may hold in high esteem the role of “homemaker," may view an African
American woman, who portrays her strength through a career, rather than her
children, negatively, in that she may not initially have much respect for her.
This negative sentiment is apparent also in the language used by the African
participants describing African American women as “loud” and
“crazy.” Again, it was frequently said by my interviewees, from
both cultures, that an African woman’s beauty and respect are gained
through the success of her family, success being defined by moral and ethical
terms, not finances.
Ethnic differences within a racial group
are not foreign to America’s history. The role that culture and
experience play when it comes to the interaction of two groups, even if they are
of the same race, is important. Although one may want or expect Africans and
African Americans to have comfortable encounters with one another, it appears to
be quite usual for tension to initially arise.
One factor that may facilitate tension
is perceptions of beauty. To what extent is the conception of beauty of African
women, as defined by the participants, derived from their family role? And does
this differ for African American women? If disparities between the two in fact
do exist, to what extent is tradition and African culture vs. African American
culture responsible for it? A more detailed exploration of conceptions of beauty
between both groups needs to be undertaken. The questions raised above are just
several of those we can ask ourselves in trying to determine how culture,
through perceptions of beauty, affect the initial relationships between African
and African American women.
Acculturation is the restructuring and blending of cultures by one’s
adaptation to a dominant society, whereas assimilation is the complete
conformity of a person—taking in a culture as one’s own. This is
difficult for blacks because the color of their skin allows for racial
example, S. Dale McLemore in his book, Racial and Ethnic Relations in
and other structures that held captive Africans, along the coast of West Africa,
until their journey across the Atlantic.
Further reading on this topic is Ronald A. Reminick’s Black Ethnicity:
A Conceptualization of Black Culture, Social Organization and
to the availability of funds, I interviewed African women who resided in the
area I was presently in, which is heavily populated with Nigerian and Ethiopian
Nigerian culture, the children of a marriage customarily take on the identity of
the father. Therefore most “bicultural” participants considered
themselves Nigerian vs. American.
Allen, Robert L. The Concept of Self: A Study of Black Identity and
Self-Esteem. Detroit: Wayne State University, 2001.
Allen, Robert L. The Concept of
Self: A Study of Black Identity
and Self-Esteem. Detroit: Wayne
State University, 2001.
Bryce-Laporte, Roy Simon. “Black
Immigrants: The Experience
of Invisibility and Inequality.”
Journal of Black Studies 3.1 (1972): 29-56.
Cathran, Mary E. and Jennifer V.
Jackson. “Black versus Black:
The Relationship among African, African
American, and African Caribbean Persons.” Journal of Black Studies
33.5 (2003): 576-604.
Gomez, A. Michael. Exchanging Our
Country Marks: the
transformation of African Identities
in the Colonial and Antebellum South. North Carolina: The University of
North Carolina Press, 1998.
Higham, John. “Integrating
America: The Problem of Assimilation
in the Nineteenth Century.”
Journal of American Ethnic History 1 (1981): 7-25.
McLemore, Dale S. Racial and Ethnic
Relations in America.
London: Allyn and Bacon,
Olsen, James Stuart. The Ethnic
Dimension in American History.
New York: St. Martin’s Press,
Pozzetta, George E., ed. American
Immigration and Ethnicity: a
20-volume Series of Distinguished
Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.
Reminick, Ronald A. Black Ethnicity:
A Conceptualization of
Black Culture, Social Organization
and Personality. Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1988.
Schaefer, Richard T. Racial and
Ethnic Groups. Glenview: Scott,
Foresman and Company,
Stanfield, John H. "Ethnic Modeling in
Qualitative Research." Handbook of Qualitative Research: Theories and
Issues. Ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks: SAGE
Publications, 1998. 333-358.
Turner, Bryan. The Body and Society:
Explorations in Social
Theory. New York: Basil