I'm going to say a phrase, but before I do so, you have to close your eyes, and clear your mind.In my experience, the vast majority of respondents say things like "cheerleader," or "she has long hair." Then, usually, "blond" and "blue eyes." If the respondents are non-white, they tend to quickly use the word "white" to describe the girl who popped into their minds. If they're white, it usually takes them longer to say the word "white," but it almost always comes for them too.
Then I'm going to ask you what picture popped into your head in response to the phrase.
Okay, got your eyes closed? Good.
Got your mind as empty as you can get it? Good.
Now here's the phrase: "All-American girl."
Okay. Now describe the girl who came to mind for you--what does she look like?
What this experiment demonstrates is that the category of "All-American," the category of American "ordinary," is occupied by white people in the minds of almost all Americans, be they white or not.
The occupancy of whiteness on America's cultural center stage has widespread effects throughout nearly every element of American culture, as well as within nearly every American mind. One sad effect is the favoring of white beauty standards, even among non-white people.
A lot of Asian women, for instance, have eye operations to widen their eyes. They do so for various reasons, but a common one, sometimes conscious and sometimes subconscious, is to make their eyes less "narrow." Narrow compared to what? one might ask. How did other, wider, non-Asian eyes come to be a standard for beauty that made Asian eyes seem not normal, but narrow in comparison?
Similarly, black women straighten their hair and use skin lighteners. They do so for various reasons, but an often subconscious reason is to make their appearance more like that of white women.
Women of color can now win local, national, and international beauty contests that are not in some way specific to particular races and ethnicities. But they can only do so if their appearances match a set of criteria initially established by previous white winners, and by a broader social and cultural emphasis on the beauty of white women. This set of criteria also holds true, in most cases, for the talent portions of such contests, and any demonstrations of markedly non-white talent only win if they are toned down, smoothed out, made palatable, or "decent"--and thus in effect, "whitened" as well.
A brilliant high school student named Kiri Davis recently made a poignant, informative, seven-minute analysis of this problem, demonstrating some of the insidious effects of the imposition of white standards on non-white people:
UPDATE: Not that the imposition of beauty standards is just a black-and-white thing:
directed by Karen Lum