New Blackface Not Fashionable; Still Racist

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In a society that privileges a typically European (read: white) standard of beauty — pale skin, straight hair, slim noses and lips — there is a penalty for being the opposite of that standard, for having physical features common to people with African ancestry. Black people pay the cost for their physicality everywhere from the bedroom — where blackness can reduce a woman's sexual currency — to the boardroom, where employers develop policies that penalize African-Americans for wearing their hair in natural styles. But in no career is the penalty for "looking black" higher than in fashion, an industry devoted to beauty and to framing, promoting and defending whiteness as its standard. Read more...

I lamented the fashion industry's marginalization of black women in a recent post on Change.org's Race in America site (excerpt above). The near invisibility of black women, and other women of color, in fashion magazines and on the runway has been an ongoing controversy. Jezebel.com, which has been tracking participation by models of color in New York's fashion week since 2007, called this year's shows "almost a total whitewash." From within this context comes the disturbing trend of "blackface" in print fashion -- painting white models and adorning them with afro wigs. It would seem that the fashion industry doesn't want black women ... even when it sorta does.

The latest photo spread to attract attention appeared in the October issue of Numero magazine and featured blond, blue-eyed, white model Constance Jablonski sporting darkening makeup, faux tribal prints and accessories, and various afro wigs, while cavorting with a naked black baby in some savanna-like locale. It is a veritable stew of race fail -- at once managing to offend, appropriate culture, further stereotype and discriminate against black women. As difficult as I imagine it might be for a black model to participate in this hot stereotypical mess of a fashion shoot, why not simply hire a black model rather than paint a white model to look like one?

The answer may be found in what the fashion industry considers "acceptably" black. In the Canadian short film, The Color of Beauty, which followed a black model hoping to make it big in modeling, photographer Justin Peery offered that black women who succeed in the fashion industry have "the very skinny nose, the very elegant faces"  that make them appear "like white girls that were painted black." That, Peery said, is what agents see as beautiful — girls who have a different skin pigment, but the same features as any other white model. As for girls with "big eyes, big noses, big lips — big whatevers, all traits that are common to African Americans" — well, it's a lot harder. Of course, black women come with a variety of facial features and skin colors. But, it seems, in the end, the blackness preferred by the fashion industry is a "blackness" best supplied by someone who is not black at all. And so, while models of color continue to go underrepresented on the pages and covers of magazines, we are treated to fashion spreads like this one, or this more horrifying one from L'Officiel Hommes.

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It seems a little silly, I suppose, to hope black women might be treated well in a misogynist industry. Racial discrimination is but one of the fashion industry's sins, and its sins against women are too numerous to explore here. And fashion is so frivolous, isn't it? Surely there are more pressing problems facing black womanhood. 

This trend matters, though. It matters because all racial discrimination matters. It matters because it is time we laid blackface to rest (and pan-African exoticizing along with it). It matters because women and men of color working in the fashion industry are entitled to the same opportunities as their white counterparts. And it matters because as long as the keepers of the beauty aesthetic deem the physicality of black women unacceptable, we remain "broke" in a sexist society where female beauty is currency. 

Tami also blogs for What Tami Said, Change.org's Race in America site and writes the column, Colorstruck, on Psychology Today.

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