Yesterday my little cousin Mudiwa cried and told her mother that she feels that she is not cute like other kids because of the color of her skin. At 7 years old, this was the first time any of us had heard her speak explicitly about her ebony skin. We knew to anticipate this conversation—anyone growing up Black in Colorado will have the pleasure of experiencing at least a few of these self-conscious epiphanies. Everyone is running damage control and the women in my family are scrambling to provide reaffirmation and comfort in order to mitigate the pain caused by this internalization of racialized beauty norms. My mom asked me if there was any advice I could share about what I would have liked to hear when I first experienced racial insecurity, but I was at a loss. My first experiences with racism were very very different, and by way of being male I have never had to contend with an analogous feeling of unattractiveness connected to my skin color.
Something that Spike Lee illustrates in School Daze which is embodied in Mudi’s experience of feeling less “cute” than her peers is that from day one, Black women have entirely different experiences of insecurity mediated by racial and sexual identity. As we discussed in class on Thursday, scenes like the “good and bad hair” sequence in the salon provide examples of a specific, unique way that women’s bodies become “battlegrounds” of Black identity, White supremacy, and patriarchal hierarchy. Embedded within the musical dance battle sequence in Madame Re-Re’s salon are several tensions between women Black communities, most notably issues of color caste and socioeconomic status, neatly rolled together and encoded within an insoluble conflict over aesthetic presentation and physical beauty. When reading this scene it is critical to understand that this is not a Black issue—it is is Black woman’s issue. Men in this film, and in life, do not deal with this particular conflict of aesthetic that becomes surrogate and vessel for every insecurity that comes along with being Black in a White world. Men don’t experience it because it is the male gaze that adds the distinct quality of normalized beauty to these insecurities. Black women are Black women in a White male world.
It was difficult for my classmates and me to decide exactly how much credit to give Lee for his treatment of women in School Daze. On the one hand, the “good and bad hair” scene seems like an elegant illustration of intra-racial conflict caused by a racialized male gaze. But this analysis often feels too generous, since this is Lee’s one attempt to put women at the center of discourse in School Daze. Regardless of Lee’s intentions, the scene did help me to think about the significance of Black women’s specifically aestheticized experiences of racism and what they mean within the broader context of Blackness in America.