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I Saw the Face of Beauty—and It Was Black

In 1993, my mother ushered my sisters and I into the car and drove us to a neighboring town. The streets were lined with people of all races; black, brown, white… everyone eager to get a glimpse of the newly-crowned Miss South Africa.

But unlike all the previous years and unlike any other Miss South Africa, this year was different—for the first time in my country’s history, South Africa had crowned a Black girl as the new Miss SA. We waited a few more moments amongst the crowds before finally Jacqui Mofokeng, the new Miss SA, was escorted in a shiny, white convertible car. 

I remember forcing my little face past the tall man in front of me, trying to get a glimpse of the Black girl as she waved at the scores of people. I wanted to see, to also be a part of this moment in our country’s history. My little eyes finally got sight of her as she sat smiling with the white sash across her body, the words “Miss South Africa 1993” printed in big, black letters across the sash.  

It was true, Jacqui was different, but it wasn’t only that she was Black. She was Black and she was beautiful. Up until that moment, I was raised in a country and a system that taught me that these were two complete opposites. It was not possible to be both Black and beautiful. It was an oxymoron of sorts. 

Every doll I had ever played with, every magazine I had ever opened, every fictional character in every book I had ever read, every actress in every movie I had ever watched—every single beautiful woman I had seen until this very moment, were white. Before seeing Jacqui on that day, I had never even considered the possibility that a woman who was not white could actually be beautiful. 

 

Up until that moment, I was raised in a country and a system that taught me that these were two complete opposites. It was not possible to be both Black and beautiful. It was an oxymoron of sorts. 

 

My eyes did not move—it was fixed on the young girl on top of the white car. I was confused. Jacqui’s glistering smile was more beautiful than any movie actress’. Up until that moment, the system had successfully succeeded in making me, a non-white girl with big bushy hair, believed that I wasn’t, and would never be beautiful. At its foundation, racism challenges our ability to see ourselves as equal; equally beautiful and—here lies the crux of it—equally worthy. 

Contrary to popular belief, racism is not only the hatred of someone based on their skin tone, but it is also the ingrained belief of the oppressed that makes them question their own self-worth. This belief stretches far beyond physical features and reveals itself in our relationships, whether romantic or otherwise. This belief can take years, sometimes decades to overcome—and in other unfortunate cases, it can lay dormant forever. 

Bringing into question the belief of our own self-worth is a challenge many of us still struggle with to this very day—20-something years post-apartheid in South Africa. The inability to believe that you are enough can lead to broken homes, and addictions, and years of rejection and pain—which are just some of the underlying effects of racism that no one talks about because it’s not a visible or tangible effect. Your self-worth often escapes you when you were taught to believe that it is attached to a system that penalizes you for your skin tone.

 

Before seeing Jacqui on that day, I had never even considered the possibility that a woman, who was not white, could actually be beautiful. 

 

This very belief can mess with a young, brown-skinned girl. It messes with you when you look into the mirror and see two brown eyes staring back at you, instead of blue or green eyes. It messes with you when you see your big curly hair refusing to fall flawlessly into your eyes after you’ve beaten it into submission with a relaxer or straightener. Racism isn’t only the hatred of others based on your skin color. No, it is deeper than that—it is also the hatred of you on yourself, based on your skin color.  

Until that day in 1993—and even as a little girl—I had never questioned the “face” of beauty before. Jacqui Mofokeng was not only the first black Miss South Africa, she was also the beacon that planted the seed of doubt in my mind. For the first time I started to question what beauty really looked like. I started to question the system, but even more than that, for the first time I started to wonder whether I too, could ever be considered “beautiful.”

 

Contrary to popular belief, racism is not only the hatred of someone based on their skin tone, but it is also the ingrained belief of the oppressed that makes them question their own self-worth. This belief stretches far beyond physical features and reveals itself in our relationships, whether romantic or otherwise. This belief can take years, sometimes decades to overcome—and in other unfortunate cases, it can lay dormant forever. 

 

Seeing Jacqui on top of that car planted a seed in my mind, but I have still spent the greater part of my adult life trying to fit into a country that once rejected me. For years, I had looked for outside acceptance when all I needed to do was to look inside. I’ve never won a beauty pageant, but I am everything my little eyes saw in Jacqui on that day; equally beautiful, equally dynamic and—here lies the crux of it—equally worthy.