The Issue on Black Models

by Guest Contributor Minh-ha, originally published at Threadbared

While the much-ballyhooed Italian Vogue‘s “All Black” issue last July 2008 was an overwhelming disappointment, it apparently succeeded in awakening the fashion industry to the fact that industries of beauty culture produce, circulate, and secure very limited ideas of beauty especially in relation to race and size. Unfortunately, a lot of the response from American Vogue has been of the “some of my best friends are black” variety. Consider, for example, the editorial Vogue ran called, “Is Fashion Racist?” Recounting the hard luck stories of three young (and working) black models, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Arlenis Sosa, the article seems to conclude that the answer to racism is for models to keep a “strenuously positive” attitude. Iman offers this advice: “Nobody likes to work with someone negative.” And further, that the real problem in the fashion industry is not racism but the supermodel’s fall from power.

The latest issue of Teen Vogue, however, presents a much more honest portrayal of the politics of race and beauty in fashion. And again, Iman and Dunn are featured. Rather than glossing over the institutional structures of fashion’s racism, they rightly point out that the lack of opportunities for black models reproduces racial alienation. On this issue, a journalist at Jezebel is also astute when she asserts that “black” can be a homogenizing category of identity that misrecognizes the ethnic and racial diversity of non-white models. “Selina Khan is from the French-speaking Caribbean island of Martinique and swears she’s not black, but ‘Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and Vietnamese.’”

Actually what Khan really says is: “My mom’s Indian, mixed with Arabic and Creole, and my dad is Vietnamese. Yep, Indian and Chinese.” When the interviewer asks Khan to clarify–”I thought you said Vietnamese”–Khan explains knowingly, “It’s ethnically the same thing. Just a different country.”

Now, if only we could get Khan to stop misrecognizing all Asians as being the same.