In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the politics of racialized bodies more than usual. As a person of biracial descent (my mother is white, and my father is half-black), this isn’t an issue that is ever far from my mind. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked (by perfect strangers, no less) “what I am” and “where I’m from.” I’ve been asked (when out with my white mother) if I’m adopted. I’ve faced questions and received comments, based solely on my appearance, that would never be asked of or directed towards individuals who are white. For racial, biracial, and multiracial individuals alike, the constant interrogation over our appearances—and the assumptions of identity and behaviour that often accompany this barrage—are a constant reminder that in a culture where whiteness is still considered the norm from which all else deviates, those who appear different are always forced to answer for who they are.
Ken Tanaka’s recent video for YouTube Comedy Week, entitled “What Kind of Asian Are You?” cogently points to the sheer ridiculousness of the logic of this interrogation of race and ethnicity by turning the tables on a white man after he asks a Korean woman “where her people are from.” In a similar fashion, NPR’s Code Switch project, which features a team of journalists writing about race, culture, and ethnicity, put together a slideshow of some of the awkward and offensive questions that racialized people face on a daily basis. When General Mills launched a new commercial for Cheerios, featuring an interracial couple and a biracial daughter, the internet exploded: General Mills had to halt the ability to post comments to the video on YouTube because of the sheer amount of virulent racism hurled towards it.
This is just a small sample of what’s been going on in the media lately regarding racial identity, and of the many struggles that racialized people face on a daily basis. It’s also an indication of the fact that racism, both overt and covert, is still extremely prevalent within our culture. Now, I’m going to go out on a very generous limb by suggesting that many of the comments, questions, and labels about racialized appearances do not emerge from a location of sheer malice in the style of white-supremacist groups. However, these articulations exist within a spectrum, in which natural curiosity, internalized narratives of racism, and the ignorance and denial of white privilege all exist.
What fascinates me most, as someone who is interested in the body as read through the lenses of fashion and beauty, are the comments that pertain to the ways in which racialized beauty (and, in particular, biracial or multiracial beauty) is read. Indeed, many of these comments are earnestly seen or intended as compliments, rather than as symptoms of the historical commodification and sexualization of racialized women. I’ve written before about my various criticisms of a lack of critical thought about diversity in the fashion industry, although I’ve focused mostly on diversity of size and shape. However, as we well know, among the other privileges that exist within the modeling industry (youth, thinness, and some arbitrary definition of “beauty”), white privilege is alive and well, and, in my opinion, the privilege that often underlies many of the others.
As someone who has dabbled in modelling, and who has interviewed with a couple of modelling agencies, I know first-hand that one of the first things out of agents’ mouths are questions about ethnic and racial heritage. I was reminded of that last week, when a local agency—Wilhelmina Vancouver—posted about two of its biracial models.
In introducing one of their latest models, Wilhelmina used the following hashtags: “#eurasian #mixed #halfer.” I must point out that this post was later edited to exclude the word “halfer.” A couple days later, an update about a model on an international contract featured the hashtags “#eurasian #mixed #exotic.” Now, I can see how those who are writing these posts may conceive of these words as simply descriptive, and that they are using terms like “exotic” and “halfer” in order to point to the beautiful mosaic of all colours and creeds that are ostensibly represented in our wonderful, multicultural society. I can see how they might think that these are totally, non-problematic compliments.
And yet, it’s important to call attention to the fact that these seemingly innocuous posts are symptoms of the exact same things that Ken Tanaka and NPR’s CodeSwitch are trying to address.
For instance, why is it that only the racialized models receive hashtags that a) identify their race and/or ethnicity, and that b) link their racial identity directly to their beauty? I certainly don’t see the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde models identified with hashtags such as #purebred #white #alabaster.
- Why is it that modelling agencies ignore the ways in which whiteness has appropriated, commodified, or sexualized racialized beauty by calling it “exotic”, and, more tellingly, the manner in which the praising of biracial beauty often comes at the expense of and the exclusion of fully-racialized individuals?
- Why don’t we talk about the fact that the racial makeup of people is often still spoken about in the same way as dogs’ pedigrees are: in terms of “purity” and fractions of heritage?
- Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models still make up the large percentage of models featured on magazine covers, runways, and in catalogues in North America and Europe?
- Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models have their eyes taped and their faces painted black in order to mimic racialized physical traits?
- Why aren’t we talking about the fact that surgeries to achieve more Western features and products such as skin lightening creams are part of a multi-billion dollar industry?
- Why aren’t we talking about the fact that most lines of makeup are created for and advertised with skin tones on the much lighter end of the spectrum? Or that “flesh” tone is still code for “white”?
- Why aren’t we talking about the fact that biracial or multiracial individuals are still constantly interrogated about their racial identities, because there is a fervent desire to attach a label or category to “othered” appearances, and that these labels allow for organization, commodification, and marketing of appearance to various markets?
- Why aren’t we talking about how we still police people’s racial self-identification? How some women aren’t considered black enough, or white enough? How people fall between the gaps when they identify as something other than what people WANT them to identify as?
I acknowledge that fashion isn’t usually seen as a particularly potent arena in which to begin meaningful discussions of oppression of any kind. People are very willing (in the name of capitalism, under the guise of “art”) to blatantly exploit race, and to continue obviously racist practices, such as the recent use of white model in blackface for an editorial entitled “African Queen.” People are very willing to subscribe to the “multi-culti” narratives of inclusion and love, willing to claim that they “don’t see colour,” and that they have “evolved past racism.” However, since fashion and beauty are all about the visual, all about the image, they provide a unique environment in which to observe the types of narratives and attitudes that are created around and about racial identity and appearance. It’s a microcosm, in many ways, of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and it’s worth looking at. As Touré notes in a NYT article, we do not live a post-racial world. We don’t live a place where we can casually throw around words or questions about race without any historical or social attachment to them. But we can live in a place where we begin to think and talk a bit more critically about racial issues, and start to face them head-on. We can question why we want or need racialized beauty to be exotic, why we need to know “where someone’s from” or “what they are,” and to think deeply about how we have come to learn about, understand, and live out race in our own lives. Racial issues are difficult: they can force us to confront out privileges, our biases, our assumptions, and our desires. Just because I’m part-black doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with my own privilege from often “passing” as white, or white enough. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to learn about the history of Orientalism, or the disproportionate amount of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women. I’m not exempt from this process of inquiry: none of us are.
But from where I’m standing, from the racialized body in which I’m living, that’s a hell of a lot more beautiful, honest, nuanced, engaged, and community-oriented than the depoliticized hashtags, labels, and identities that we often assign each other about how we look.