There have been a lot of black face incidents in the fashion industry of late. Since fashion is no less removed from culture than anything else, and since it is guilty of many messages that demean women (from glorifying violence against women, reducing women to parts, and starving women so that girls watching hate their bodies), I have not really weighed in on the issue. However, last night on America’s Next Top Model, a show I do not watch, Tyra Banks decided to not only put together a photo shoot that depended on superficial cultural appropriation but also paint white models brown or black:
Under the guise of celebrating interracial relationships, and our President, Tyra Banks informs wannabe models that Hapa means 1/2 Hawaiian and 1/2 something else and that they will all be given bi-racial identities to emulate for their photo shoot. As seen in the video, most of these girls have no clue about the cultures they have been assigned and are given no help in learning anything about them. So there are three layers of wrong here:
- cultural appropriation – when members of the dominant culture take or emulate often superficial aspects of a non-dominant culture
- black face – the use of make up & or hair dye to change the color of primarily white people to that of people of color for the purpose of ignorant portrayal (usually to demean & always based on stereotype &/or ignorance)
- ignorance and failure to educate – the models not only know nothing abt most of the cultures they are assigned but are given no way to learn them; worse, the show relies on them making ignorant comments about their black face & grooms them to think such behavior is acceptable & outside of racism
This continues a longer thread in Tyra Banks’ career, starting with her Talk Show. Often on that show, she tries on identities of marginalized people for 24-48 hours and then reports on the experience while showing clips. She then, inevitably, informs her audience how much she has learned from passing for the day with a full camera crew at her side. Under this superficial consciousness-raising model, Tyra has put on a fat suit, dirty designer jeans and sweat shirt to be homeless for the day, altered her facial features to be “ugly”, etc.
Her narrative, like that of the models in last night’s show, does less to provide the credibility she so desperately wants and instead reveals how ridiculous her behavior is in the face of real oppression. Thus “homeless Tyra’s” biggest issue is that she is bored b/c there is nothing to do when you are homeless and she is humiliated because she has to use a public bathroom to brush her teeth. Real homeless people worry about where they are going to sleep, how they are going to stay safe from physical and sexual violence, whether they will need to engage in extra-legal activities to eat, sleep, or live another day, or simply where they will go if the weather drops below freezing or a heat wave settles in their town. “Fat Tyra” is astounded that people don’t open doors for her or smile at her when she is buying coffee, while real large women worry about being harassed by random men and children calling them ugly and unlovable on public streets, picked on or mocked by passersby and friends and family alike, ostracized from economic and social events including jobs, or provide demeaning health care that compromises their level of care or ability to receive preventative care. Her minor moments of clarity pale in comparison to her colossal failures to understand the basics of the oppressions she attempts to expose. And her revelations are like a sitcom in which gross inequalities are solved in the course of an hour.
No matter how insulting this formula is however, Tyra Banks has always made the pretense of learning about her subject and consulting experts before and after playing dress up in the house of oppression. She makes no such claims on last night’s Supermodel, instead informing the models how important their clothes and make up will be in order to pass for bi-racial. In short, she encourages the grossest kind of cultural appropriation because of its seeming “harmlessness”.
As a black woman, standing beside a queer man of color, she capitalizes on their shared status as people of color and intersectionally marginalized identities to justify cultural appropriation and black face. As the second most successful black woman in media, she harnesses considerable following and economic power in order to reinscribe practices that are inexcusable. In a desperate plea for ratings, she tries to hide this offense in a 5 minute lesson about Hawaii that is as superficial as the task she sets for the models. Besides convincing a handful of young girls, some of whom are clearly poorly educated, that trying on cultures for fashion is acceptable and fun, she also provided every racist watching, an out for the next time they put on black face. And as if encouraging it, the episode aired just 3 days before Halloween.
I am insulted as a woman of color, as a biracial girl, and as a thinking human being. And despite all I know about history, I am astounded that this show got a greenlight from the network; though I don’t doubt the fact of Tyra’s blackness made them think they’d get away with it and they are likely right.
If you would like to complain, and I hope you do, here is the contact information for both Tyra Banks and the WB. Please tell them that cultural appropriation and black face are never acceptable:
Tyra Banks Production Company:Bankable Productions 6310 San Vicente Boulevard Suite 505 Los Angeles, CA 90048 Phone: 323-934-4308
Tyra Banks Manager:Benny Medina
1100 Glendon Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Dawn Ostroff, CEO
Warner Brothers Network
4000 Warner Blvd., Building 34R
Burbank, CA 91522
E-Mail The WB
Sadly, this stunt got Tyra exactly what she was looking for, the internet is lit up with discussion of this week’s show. In some ways, I think the best thing we can all do is send our letters of concern and education to the network and to Tyra and then refuse to discuss anything she does again. Sometimes the deafening silence is the best solution to a person who would sell out their own for ratings.