It's a new millenium, but blackface is still offensive
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
The model is gorgeous. She's a professional model, though, so of course she is gorgeous. She is wearing what appears to be one of the baddest (as in "good") pantsuits I've ever seen in a blue, floral print. When you see the photo of her, however, it is not her beauty or how stylishly she is dressed that draws your eye. What gets you is that she is made up in what is essentially blackface.
The model, 16-year-old Ondria Hardin, is white. In the photo her skin is darkened to a chocolate brown. The magazine describes it as bronze but it looks more like a cup of cocoa than an Olympic medal. Another image in the spread shows the model in an elaborate head wrap with skin that is even darker. Obviously it has caused some controversy.
Some look at this and see high fashion and couture and that's it. That's easy to see. Miss Hardin is fierce with her modeling. As Tyra says, she is doing it H-to-T. Perhaps that is why seeing this woman model with her skin seriously darkened under the heading "African Queen" is so jarring to the senses. If what was needed for the shoot was a dark skinned model that can bring it, then why not hire an actual woman of color?
In a statement to The Huffington Post, photographer Sebastian Kim said about his shoot, "I would like to apologize for any misunderstanding around my recent photos for Numero France. It was never my intention (nor Numero's) to portray a black woman in this story. We at no point attempted to portray an African women by painting her skin black. We wanted a tanned and golden skin to be showcased as part of the beauty aesthetic of this shoot."
He also mentions that they were going for a 60s Moroccan look and that the title of "African Queen" was unfortunate, further contributed to misconceptions about the fashion layout and was not his idea but the editors' of the magazine. (Morocco is in Africa so ... never mind, that's another discussion).
As much as there has been an outcry about this, a lot of people's reaction is, 'why is this still such a big deal?' The black community hears that quite often when a fuss is raised about an injustice, rights violation or insult that we clearly see as such but that others see as a misunderstanding.
To know why this is such a big deal you have to know the cultural and historical story of blackface. Simply defined, blackface was a style of makeup that originated in the minstrel shows of the 1800s. Literally, blackface makeup was either a layer of burnt cork on a layer of cocoa butter or black grease paint or some other such combination of items to turn the skin a dark black. There were usually large red outlines around the lips. Other versions had the lips and eyes outlined in white.
Entertainers in minstrel shows would perform jokes, songs, dances and skits that showed the ugly stereotypes about enslaved Africans and life on a plantation. Performers spoke in a dialect that perpetuated the image of blacks being ignorant. There were set personalities, the docile Uncle Tom, the sassy Mammy, the happy-go-lucky Jim Crow and the arrogant Zip Coon, the hypersexual Jezebel and the white-woman crazed Buck. During the mid to late 1800s, these caricatures were the most popular form of entertainment in America and formed the basis for the general attitude towards blacks by whites, especially those outside of the south who had little interaction with black people.
As blackface stage performances lost popularity, the racist portrayals evolved into cartoons, radio, movies, TV shows and music videos. All the while, the impression of black people as being racially and socially and intellectually inferior has been perpetuated and strengthened through repetition. Many black performers found that the only way they could get work was to appear in the blackface makeup.
For years, black performers were denied the ability to work their craft as white performers in blackface took their place. The legacy of blackface extends to present day as we constantly debate in the black community current forms of entertainment that we feel perpetuate the "coonish" imagery of the minstrel past.
Fashion spreads - especially those in high-quality magazines - are art. Art is subjective and is often uncomfortable, and yes, offensive. Yet no other race has to defend and explain why they are offended by exaggerated imagery of themselves.
Because of the systematic oppression that used this imagery to justify its actions, there is a pain attached to blackface that has never healed. At worst, we can see something like this, another improper interpretation of our history, as yet another issue that divides us. Or we can take this as an opportunity to learn more of the truth about our past and understand the historical context of modern race relations as a way to heal those old wounds.
- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The Daily News.