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Vogue, Zwarte Piet, and the Americanisms of racism

October 16, 2009

The recent uproar over French Vogue’s highly mediocre and controversial Lara Stone blackface spread has really made me realize how localized the aversion to blackface is.  I like to pretend that I’m a thoughtful and openminded individual who doesn’t let American culture brainwash me, but on this one, I just assumed that blackface was one of those things that just Wasn’t Done, devoid of cultural context.  I mean, how can anyone look at this poster and say, “Yep, looks okay to me”?

For those who haven’t seen the internet throw up all over these, I’ve put some of the pictures from the photoshoot at the end of the post.  There are a lot of people – non-Americans, “it’s art!”-defenders, etc, who are denying they’re at all problematic.  What’s wrong with them, they ask?  Let me count the ways:

1.  This photo:

because I know I can’t be the only one for whom it’s giving Mammy flashbacks.

2.  The spread makes no conceptual sense.  It wanders in and out of various levels of saturation and contrast; it seems unsure of whether it is a studio or location shoot; it has a white woman painted to look like a black woman.  Then they paint her white again, in an exaggeratedly pale tone and cracked paint.  I actually really like this image:

There have been some attempts to justify the theme by commenters that I do think have some merit, but the whole thing feels to me like mediocrity hiding behind a cheap controversy.

3. Dammit, I forget what my third point was.  Basically, the driving idea here is that the spread took an obviously provocative concept and then just used it like any other mildly unusual makeup or an interesting backdrop.  There is no challenge in the spread, nothing that challenges blackface stereotypes or even challenges the powerful knee-jerk reaction against it.

Zooming out from the actual images themselves, there are other points to consider: there are 0 –  – women of color in the entire magazine.  You want a black model?  Hire a fucking black model, don’t paint a white one.  Additionally, the photographer, Steven Klein, is an American, so there’s no way that he or any of the other producers can plead ignorance (and the way they’re flirting with stereotypes indicates they’re anything but, even though Vogue’s statement was that they were unaware they’d caused any offense).  Cultural context isn’t an appropriate argument here, either; Vogue Paris (as this entire story proves) doesn’t pop out of existence when it crosses the French border.

I won’t be calling for Steven Klein’s crucifixion anytime soon, though, because his work spawned a discussion that lead me down some productive google searches.  To start with, all the discussion around it (in addition to my own gut reaction) made me realize how untouchable blackface is – far more so than even the Holocaust, for example.  Blackface isn’t anywhere in popular media – not as historical context, not as a source of comedy, not even as a source of outrage.    I don’t think I even saw a picture of blackface, let alone knew what it was, until high school.  There’s really no way to touch it, no matter what the approach, without immediately working someone up into a tizzy.

That unparalleled intensity is why it’s so weird that it seems like Americans are the only ones who really care.  A lot of European commenters have been like, WTF?, which prompted me to go on a search that eventually ended here:

I’ve seen this video nearly a dozen times by now, and I’m still entirely unable to decide on an appropriate reaction.  Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” is the Dutch equivalent of Santa’s elves, and he’s used in pretty much the same context.  So all those sickly-sweet and earnest commercials, traditions, etc. that come along with Christmas that we roll our eyes at but kind of secretly enjoy?  Imagine that, plus a dude from a minstrel show.  Yeah.  I don’t get it either.

Then there’s the Hey Hey It’s Saturday debacle in Australia where a group of white dudes dressed up in blackface to perform a Jackson 5 piece:

This happened last week sometime, and Harry Connick, Jr., of all people, was the only one there who was like, this is kind of fucked up.  (On an unrelated note, who knew he spoke like that?? His voice is – unexpected.)  But he said it better than anyone:

[Americans] have spent so much time trying to not make black people not look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we really take it to heart.

So no, France, it’s not okay that you think that is okay.

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