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June 11, 2003

What's in a nose?

Check out this article in Salon titled Black like me -- but not too black which discusses the tensions that exist among African Americans who want a nose job. The author hits some good points, you'd have to be a fool to deny that the European aesthetic ideal is dominant today, that many (most?) non-white people would probably change aspects of their physique to more closely fit that norm (by this, I don't mean that they would become white, just fiddle enough at the edges to be less ethnic looking without morphing into freaks like Michael Jackson). One thing that annoyed me is that the author notes that she is "light skinned" and has "fine hair." Her broad African nose apparently gives her cred to speak on this topic, but I really am more curious about what more obviously African looking people think about cosmetic changes in appearence. The reason I say this is that there are studies out that indicate that racial bias and prejudice falls harder on dark-skinned and often more African featured blacks. These are the people that would stand to benefit the most from cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams that worked. Light skinned blacks on the other hand often seem to have a bit of both worlds, using the hypodescent definition of African Americans to claim the mantle of "oppressed," but being able to interact more easily with white Americans because of a greater phenotypic resemblence [1]. Light-skinned blacks have a social reason to oppose the widespread use of techniques to melt away distinctive African features, because they themselves are born with those traits and lose their advantage over their skillet-blonde cousins.

George Schuyler even wrote a novel, Black No More, which explores the absurd twists and turns that result when a black doctor invents a procedure to turn blacks "white" [2]. We talk a lot on this blog about "genetic engineering," but it seems to me that cosmetic procedures that alter phenotype rather than genotype (germline) will become cheap even sooner-and those who argue that polygenic phenotypes like IQ will not be amenable to manipulation can't dispute that skin coloration or nasal width are easy to change with brute force methods. As C. S. Coon predicted back in the 1960s racial identity might become more optional, causing a host of social changes. Of course if a genuine skin lightening cream that was affordable came on the market Asia would be the #1 region to market it.

[1] In criticizing his ex-comrade Shelby Steele, ex-black conservative Glenn Loury notes, "Shelby is half-white, his children are 1/4 white, he can afford to oppose affirmative action as he lives in a white world...." Similar criticisms have been thrown at John McWhorter, enfant terrible of the black neocons, as his combination of light skin, Caucasian features and "white" accent don't endear him to more "authentic" spokespersons for the race. Of course, both Steele & McWhorter accept hypodescent, I remember Steele joking about how his children go to black churches and people for some strange reason think they are white just because they look white (This was on C-SPAN's BOOKNOTES, the host seemed kind of confused as to what Steele meant).

[2] Read Interracial Intimacies for a detailed exploration of Shuyler and his family as well a good summation of Black No More.

Posted by razib at 10:41 PM