I had a show and then got sick so I’ve been out of touch for a while. I just become aware of the way blackface/colorface issues have surfaced in the last few days. When I saw the French Vogue with white models in blackface and then last week’s America’s Next Top Model in colorface I was and still am practically tonguetied with anger.
Dutch model in blackface
As Thea Lim at Racialicious says in reaction to the color face on America’s Next Top Model:
I suppose it is a good sign that we can still be shocked speechless by the racism in pop culture, right? Because it means that we aren’t totally cynical and embittered. Right?
I really share those feelings. Every time I look at these images when I’m writing this post I get angrier.
Threadbared had this to say
… occurrences of blackface in fashion — specifically, the 14-page editorial featuring Lara Stone, a white Dutch model, painted black and shot by Steven Klein for the October 2009 issue of French Vogue and also Carlos Diez’s show at Madrid Fashion Week (September 22, 2009) in which models walked in blackface and, at times, with bared breasts.
There is indeed quite a lot to say about both events. To begin, fashion’s seeming ineptness for dealing with race in ways that do not accommodate and/or supplement the already too long histories of racial objectification and commodification. We’ve discussed much of this history on Threadbared (see especially here, here, here, here, and here) already and will no doubt continue to, as there seems to be an inexhaustible amount of material. Second, these events (and others like it) are revealing of the ways in which multiculturalism and multiracialism –under the guise of postracialism, postmodernism, or just artistic edginess– enables the continuation of white supremacy. For example, some are defending French Vogue for its provocativeness (”creative images . . . can sometimes [be] off-putting”) and for its postracialism (arguing that it is “sort of beautiful in that having a person of one ethnic background look convincingly like she might be of another race shows the interconnectedness of us all”). But what is on display in French Vogue and on Diez’s runway is not beautiful black bodies, but what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point” that white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.’”
The “violence of revulsion” that women of color generally, and black women particularly in the cases of this issue of French Vogue and Diez’s show, experience is not mediated by postracialism. In fact, the violence of revulsion is redoubled here. Blackface highlights the privileged universal empty point that white bodies continue to occupy even in this so-called postracial moment, and in so doing, it positions racial difference against whiteness, as the other to whiteness. Moreover, blackface and other performances of racial commodification produce a different kind of “violence of revulsion” — an everyday violence of revulsion like I experienced when I discovered Klein’s editorial and Diez’s fashion show.
By this second order of “violence of revulsion,” I mean the assault of racism and the assault of colonialism’s traces on what was for me, until that moment of violence, a relatively mundane workday at home. Violently interrupting this scene of banality is not simply these images of racial arrogance, but my own visceral response of anger, exasperation, disappointment, and a feeling I can only describe as racism fatigue. Such images and their inevitable postmodern, postracial, freedom-of-artistic-expression discourses and apologists are not only tired, today they are tiring.
Thea Lim quotes her “tipster” Cassandra on America’s Next Top Model:
Each girl was given two ethnicities: Tibetan/Egyptian, Greek/Mexican, Moroccan/Russian, Native American/East Indian, Botswanan/Polynesian, Malagasy/Japanese. Five girls are white, one is Asian, and a few are donned in black face and all in “ethnic” outfits (a combination of an aspect of each culture, evident in the photos), which Tyra explains, “Every outfit is not necessarily what people of that culture are wearing now, it might not even be a necessary exact of what they’ve worn in the past, it’s a fashion interpretation of it.” Nicole, assigned to look Malagasy/Japanese, remarks how she’s always wondered what she looked like as a different race and that she felt she looked “exotic.” The girls had to somehow embody what people of those ethnicities were like i.e. Tyra saying, “Think Egyptian, think [insert ethnicity], think of what those people were like, etc.”
Nicole Fox, a pale-skinned redhead, with darkened skin, a bone necklace and a West African-looking headwrap.
And here’s novascotiagirl commenting on this in Racialicious:
It just seems bizarre that Tyra would think it was okay to decide that because she personally is okay with painting one of the models half black and have Japanese and doesn’t see it as “blackface,” that other people of colour (including other black people who are not so okay with it) would not find it offensive to see their races mashed together with face paint and stereotypical dress on a white model. How f***ing presumptuous. She combines East Indian and Native American by painting a white girl brown, dressing her in a sari, putting a dot on her forehead and a feathered headdress on her head. Are you kidding? How f***ing reductive to the complexity of what it means to be a person of mixed race. And of all the combinations to put together, whose identities have been inappropriately shoved together by colonizers. People of mixed race were exoticized so explicitly in this show. That they included one of the white, painted models saying, “I feel so exotic,” blows my mind. Are you kidding me? Not to mention the fact that Tyra kept referring to people of mixed race as “half” something which, as many posters on this site have noted, suggests they are something other than a whole person who needs to be broken down in to bits of racial heritage in order to be appropriately pigeonholed. F***!
The whole time it was on my partner and I kept saying to one another, “is this actually on TV?” It was f***ing surreal and awful. And as my friend astutely noted in her own rage-filled email, “THE OTHER thing that irked me about that shoot was they were posing in a freaking sugar cane field. And Tyra gave a whole spiel how the sugar can industry brought people of different races to Hawaii to prosper. Umm Tyra — the sugar can industry also brought different races to America. It was called SLAVERY.
Another beef I have is them going to these ‘exotic’ locations and posing in ridiculously expensive clothes, with no concept of how detached they are from local realities.”
Most of this post was other people’s words. When I feel less angry and more able to say clearly what I think, I’ll write mine.