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I can’t decide if I should find the photo above offensive or not. I do not find the nudity offensive, I do not find the hair pulling offensive either. However, what some have found offensive is the fact that the model to the left is painted in “blackface”. Instead of using a dark skinned model, magazines such as V Magazine and French Vogue opted to use a technique called “blackface” instead. This has caused much controversy lately but it turns out that blackface used to be practiced in theaters many years ago. Picture 37

According to npr.org, during the 19th century, blackface entertainment was common. Caucasian actors and actresses would paint themselves dark in order to appear African American. The trend began in 1830, when actors began using greasepaint and other ingredients to paint their skin. Blackface was used up until 1978 in Britain but was viewed as racially inappropriate in the Untied States much earlier than that. Despite this, blackface has recently made a come back and was featured on America’s Next Top Model (left) as well as in French Vogue (right) last month.

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During an episode of America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks wanted the models to appear as bi-racial. As a result, they had to be painted in blackface. Lara Stone was featured in French Vogue in blackface. The issue of French Vogue was dedicated to supermodels yet no African-American or Asian supermodels were recognized in the issue. I can see why this causes a problem. How about you?

The big question is this: is blackface offensive or is it actually just a compliment? My friend, Celeste Warner, feels that it is offensive. She offers a very personal glimpse in to her opinion as to why here:

“I do not know much about race relations in european countries, but I do know that in America, black face was used in minstrel shows to portray blacks as bumbling idiots, singing and dancing for the entertainment of whites. I can’t imagine it being much different in other predominantly white countries, since the concept of african inferiority is such a widespread one. And, no matter how much people deny it, the media has a HUGE effect on how we percieve whole groups of people, especially if we very rarely come in contact with members of particular groups. So, for someone who doesn’t know any black people to see a minstrel show or a model in blackface, is most definitely a bad thing, and should most defintely be considered by companies/designers before putting out an ad like this one. if a statement was trying to be made, I have completely missed it.

It is argued that because blackface and minstrel shows were used so long ago, we shouldn’t be so sensitive about them today; that their racist intentions are no more, and that it should now be okay for ads like this to be displayed because their not used in a racist manner. I understand that arguement, but I disagree with it. I mean, will is soon be okay to portray black men hanging from trees and a cross burning in the background if the designer isn’t trying to deliver a racist message? it is also argued that if black actors and models can slap on white makeup, like the Wayans Brothers did in [the movie] “white chicks” that white actors and models should be able to do the same. I don’t think that it’s okay to poke fun at any group of people without understanding their struggles, but seriously, what harm can a couple of black actors in white makeup do to white folks? I’m not condoning it, but no matter how many “white face” movies are made, it will never have the effect on whites that blackface had on blacks.

If you look at racism and the strained realtionship between blacks and whites (especially in america) you will see that white hatred for blacks and all things african stems from their own insecurities and the twisted way they glorify themselves, while black hatred for whites is, for the most part, simply a reflex, a response to the ill treatment and unfortunate circumstances of our being black in a country which hates us for reasons we have no control over.

As for Tyra Banks, I like her, and I think that she has a good head on her shoulders. I can’t imagine her allowing herself to be pressured into doing something like this; I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume and that if she was not trying to make a statement with this photograph, then she was simply toying with makeup, lighting, etc. I will say, however, that I don’t like that she does not educate the models about the struggles of being whatever race(s) they’re supposed to be portraying. So, they leave knowing, “hey, if i put on this amount of makeup, and do this to my hair, I can look biracial!” but they don’t know what biracial people go through; it becomes a mockery, then.

Overall, I do not see blackface as a compliment. Our black skin is beautiful enough to be featured in high fashion magazine pages, as long as the wearer does not also have a broad nose, big lips, and thick, wooly hair. Whenever black models are used, they’re almost always wearing weave and have european features, like a thin nose and light colored eyes (thanks to contacts). the only big time black model I can think of who is cherished for her african features is Alek Wek, but she shouldn’t be the only one. No one takes into consideration the effect that these images has on young girls. On her show, Tyra had an episode in which she discussed little black girls and how their hair and self image affect each other, but she still gets up there everyday with that weave on her head. That’s a little counter productive, in my opinion. We’re told what is beautiful, and a lot of the time, what we’re told is almost the exact opposite of what we are. So, we look for women who are like us who people think are beautiful. Alek’s black skin, her big lips, her bald head–even though we see these features on the cover of magazines, we still do not identify with her because she is ugly. She’s too black, and she’s too ugly; it’s her ugliness that makes her exotic, and that’s why people like her. That’s how we see Alek, and that’s how we see ourselves. We’d rather bleach our skin and straighten our hair and wear contacts than be as ugly as aAek and have to wait for someone who really appreciates us. It’s so sad.”

I’d like to thank Ms. Warner for her input. I greatly appreciate her insight as I have been very torn with this issue. As a young bi-racial woman, I think it is much more difficult to take a stance on an issue such as blackface mostly because I am in “the middle” so to say. I can identify with both races and my life has been defined as being a mix of both races. I can usually identify with what the media markets towards me, whereas, someone such as Ms. Warner usually can not. In my Intro to Sociology textbook, Ms. Warner’s opinion on the media’s impact is supported. The book, which was written by James M. Henslin, states the following: “… Without our knowing it, the media shape our images of people. They influence how we view minorities and dominant groups; men, women and children; people with disabilities; people from other cultures – and the elderly.”  so does this mean that Blackface should simply be inexcusable and eliminated in the media? Not necessarily. At lunch, Ms. Warner and discussed several racial issues and I expressed that I feel that there is a lack of compassion towards African-Americans but that blackface might simply be a compliment in the form of artistic expression. It might just be that caucasians are seeking a more excotic look. Despite this, I also expressed that we’re often accused of “pulling the race card” in situations such as this and I’ve noticed that most students here at my college feel like “the race card” gets “pulled” too much. I’ve been told this,  mostly in response to the fact that Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is visiting our campus on December 3rd and when speaking of him, most students get hostile and tell me that they feel as though he pulled the race card upon his getting arrested in Cambridge, Mass. I do hope that he offers students here a broader insight because it is often not as simple as “pulling the race card” and when Celeste and I were speaking, I discovered that there simply is a lot of miscommunication between races. We don’t take the time to understand cultures and the African-American community often feel as though certain cultures are forced upon them. This feeling is perfectly illustrated in Chris Rock’s new movieGood Hair“. And while I still don’t know exactly how I feel about the use of blackface in the media, I would really just like to see an increase in education about culture. Maybe then these controversies could be avoided. If French Vogue or Tyra Banks had taken the time to specify and explain the history of blackface to its readers and viewers then I think the controversy could have been avoided or lessened so greatly.

How do you feel about blackface? Is it offensive or is it an artistic expression?

Sources: nymag.com, wikipedia.com, vmagazine.com