Blackface/ Colorface: A Face of Racism

Laurie says:

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.”

color face antm

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.

10 thoughts on “Blackface/ Colorface: A Face of Racism

  1. Yup. A lot of Fashion Advertising appears to depend heavily on some kind of Shock Value, and to be aimed at Rich White people (who may be slightly shocked by things like this, but generally not to the point of being disgusted).

    As a lower-middle-class semi-intellectual White male, I just glance at the pages and pages of such advertising photos (in, say, The New Yorker), recognize that there must be a fairly large number of people to whom such fantasies are appealing, wonder if their contributions to the world have much relationship to the income they get, and *sigh*, much as I do when driving down from Los Angeles to San Diego, past those miles and miles of million-dollar houses.

  2. I would dearly love to say that I am shocked that anyone today would think blackface/colorface would be a good thing to do. But I am afraid that it seems the first order of business in the fashion world is to leave ones brain at the door and disengage any and all critical thinking.


  3. Harvesting sugar cane is also an extremely dangerous job, up there with coal mining. Injuries fall into three main categories: machete accidents, including severed body parts; injuries from impalement on the cane itself (e.g. putting out an eye); and heat stroke. I doubt any of these injuries would help you get into Vogue.

  4. I think that while the place these images were shown is the fashion world (both elite and very TV mainstream), we need to look at these blackface/colorface images in the context of the larger culture. When you’re using images that reflect a history of the degradation and oppression of people of color, that’s not fundementally about the cluelessness of the fashion industry but about the everyday world we live in.

    BTW Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled” is a brilliant take on blackface, it’s performance and US society now. It also has some good information on it’s history.

  5. I find it ridicules that only in AMERICA a shoot with fashion model Lara Stone would be suggestive as BLACKFACE. If PEOPLE took a step back and looked up what BLACKFACE was about PEOPLE would see that it was an interpretation of African Americans in the early 1900’s, with done up black paint, white painted on lips, finished off with an afro on Caucasian people. As you can tell from the shoot with Lara, the only referent that has slight validity to racism could be suggestive of the darkening of the skin with no reference to any kind of race, only that her skin was darkened. Furth more, by putting a reference to Lara Stone’s French Vogue shoot as BLACKFACE further perpetuates racism, by marginalization and subjugated codes.

  6. Shawn,

    What you say would make sense if France and French Vogue were in a protected bubble from the rest of the world, particularly the US. No information or images ever from the rest of the world.

    The photographers intent was to shock. His previous shoot used pregnant women smoking. He clearly thought blackface was shocking. That’s why he did it.

    The history of blackface is a lot more complicated then you suggest. Spike Lee’s amazing movie “Bamboozled” among other things has a lot of historical information.

  7. Laurie

    Take a step back please, no a couple more steps. Did you look at the whole shoot with Lara Stone in French Vogue? I think not, cause if you did you would see not only was she “BLACKFACE” she was “WHITEFACE”. And from my research what BLACKFACE means and what Steven Klein did, do not add up. FYI, Pregnant Models smoking was shot by Patrick Demarchelier, get your references right please.

    A good definition for BLACKFACE is white blackface performers in the past used greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips with white paint, often wearing woolly afro wigs, gloves, or ragged clothing.

    Lara Stone in French Vogue shoot has tanned or dark skin and I see no connection with the two. But what I do see is how people assume that the tanning of her skin is reference to the African American community. White people are tan or dark, Asians are tan or dark, Spanish, Latin, Greek and so on are tan or dark. To automatically associate Lara Stones French Vogue shoot to a specific minority perpetuate that problem in that community which there was no reference to any ethnicity in the Vogue shoot, only that her skin was darken.

    A good movie to see “WHITE CHICKS” I think it is funny how two African American actors paint themselves white, make themselves look white, and act white by mocking white people in the movie, now PLEASE, someone tell me, is that ok?

  8. Well, first of all, the ladies’ faces were NOT black, they were brown! (For those of you who are color-blind, ha, ha.) ….Second of all, even if they were black, so what! Black is beautiful, baby. Haven’t you heard? Look at all the white women getting their lips thickened, their hair curled, their skin tanned, and now, NOW – have you seen this – there’s a pair of ladies’ panties you can buy called
    “BOOTY POP”!! For those of you who can’t afford the surgery.(I kid you not). Go to to see them….Somebody is laughin’ their A$$-off all the way to the “Bank”. (Sorry – had to go there)…..It’s a good time to be Young, Gifted, and Black!!

  9. If trolls could read, they might understand that the blackface or brownface or whatever you want to call in these fashion editorials and ANTM is problematic because it allows white women to be treated as raceless people who can playfully paint on any kind of racial identity and then take it off the next morning. The act of taking on characteristics of other races is not merely playful for women of color, but deeply politically charged (e.g. hair straightening), and as such this is yet another area where whites are privileged as being “default” humans. Rather than being defensive or dismissive, the privileged must recognize and respect these completely justified feelings of offense from marginalized people.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.