Coloring Whiteness: POC Community Building and Mistaken Racial Identity

by Former Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Nina Garcia

I can count the days following Fashion Week on two hands, the same abacus I could use to count the women of color featured on its runways. Despite constant cries from communities of color, models, the press, and even many designers to increase diversity on the catwalk, progress is slower than the careful steps taken in a pair of Alexander McQueen heels. The fashion world is working at a snail’s pace to color its image, and even then, only by way of appeasement, tiny bits to the masses so that they are temporarily satisfied. But among those scraps, people become desperate, sometimes seeing glimmers that hope that are far from it, and yearning for some acknowledgment from those who have little connection to their plight despite presumed allegiance.

To cite a specific example, one need look no further than the coverage of one of the most poignant protests of fashion’s alienation and exclusion of black fashion editors (and, not-so-tangentially, models and designers) on the opening day of Fashion Week. One of the participants noted that the only prominent woman of color in the business and publishing side of the fashion industry was Marie Claire Fashion Director and Project Runway judge Nina Garcia (pictured, at top).

I stopped reading for a moment. Since when is Nina Garcia a woman of color?

In the United States, color is a strange marker, particular because it rarely has as much to do with phenotype as it does one’s past. Of course facial features, skin color, and even speech patterns may be indications of racial and/or ethnic background, but it goes far beyond what is in the eye of the beholder. Beyond the factor of family trees, parentage being one of the biggest indicators of race (i.e. one may appear phenotypically white, but with one non-white parent, the possibility of whiteness dissolves), region, nationality, and language play huge roles as determining factors in the race game. In fact, despite markers of everything BUT non-white heritage in all other facets, including one’s appearance, like in the case of Nina Garcia, a last name of non-English origin can mean more than what literally meets the eye.

If you do a Wikipedia search on Garcia, you’ll see she grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia, home to many European immigrants. She was afforded many luxuries from an early age due to her wealthy parents and had a privileged upbringing that involved studying in the United States and France before going into fashion. At this point, you might find yourself asking, “What does this have to do with race?” Everything, in fact, considering that class has an almost direct correlation with race in Latin America. Though race in the United States is often times though of as “fixed,” despite one’s class, racial mobility is a reality in Latin America, particularly when tied to class and education. Make no mistake: Nina Garcia would not be considered anything but white in Latin America. Additionally, even if in some alternate universe Garcia were black, her class level alone would allow her to “transcend” the racial category, placing her – at least on a social level –as something other than black.

But Garcia aside, the issue of assigning race as a means of coloring Latin@s or people of other ethnicities who do not fall easily into the “white” and “black” racial categories we have configured for ourselves in the United States is a difficult one, fraught with a need to classify and, more than anything, create allies in the fight for social inclusion and recognition, even when there is not an understood alliance on both sides. The process is complicated, and I can imagine quite confusing for many who may have been considered one racial category or possibly not of any particular category at all beyond their nationality in their country of origin, only to come here and receive a racial categorization that is not only inaccurate, but also applied for the sake of ease. It’s much easier to lump all Latin@s into one category of non-white or non-black than to consider that within every single nation in Latin America, there are specific racial categories and groupings that directly correlate to the respective national histories therein.

This is not to say, of course, that Latin@s who may have considered themselves one racial group within their country of origin but who conform to or accept their newly assigned category within the U.S. do not exist. If anything, the general acceptance of a new racial category (and consequently, labeling others in new ways as well) is a part of the assimilation process when one immigrates to a new country, be it the United States or elsewhere. But for many, particularly those who have never had to think about race, the process of receiving a racial category, and usually one that does not directly correlate with their respective national equivalent, can be an unwelcome form of identity alteration.

In the case of those who come from higher class backgrounds and, in particular, are deemed white in their home countries, the shift can be disarming and a blow to one’s sense of racial self-esteem, particularly if the new racial category indicates a “descent.” While certainly a humbling experience, it is nevertheless one that, in its own way, a form of forced assimilation. It’s also a classic example of what I refer to as “identity imperialism.” By re-categorizing groups from other countries based on our own groupings, we show not only a general lack of familiarity with the world beyond our borders, but also a limited understanding of ourselves. An example can be found in the embracing of Brazilian models as a welcome “alternative” in the fashion world a few years ago. The dozens of Brazilian models gracing the runways? Still white. Their nationality does not dictate their race. Why many fail to understand this, despite “American” as a nationality not being an indicator of racial categories, is beyond me.

As I mentioned in a piece I wrote long ago about race in Latin America entitled “We Want You . . . To Think Just Like Us,” despite our lazy re-categorization of immigrant groups and their racial identities, we don’t have it all figured out on our home turf:

In discussions (from an American perspective) related to race in other countries, there tends to be a forced application of American racial categories and norms, as if our identity grid fits each racial landscape without a need to vary its shape. And though we like to pretend that race is clear-cut in the United States, it’s obvious that concepts of race are more mutable than we like to admit.

Take the category “people of color.” What does it actually mean? Is it truly a useful term for the sake of building community within marginalized groups if some of the people within it benefit from privilege? If you consider black Americans, for example, studies have shown that despite blacks of all shades being categorized as one group racially (something that happens with less frequency in Latin America, as there are often categories for the people of multiracial backgrounds who phenotypically may not be easily placed squarely within the categories of black and white), blacks with lighter skin, if separated from their darker peers statistically, have more economic success (included therein, higher levels of education and higher paying jobs). Despite our not separating light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks in comparative race studies, the statistics hint at skin color-based privilege in action. The same could be said of studies on Asian-Americans, which often lump together all categories of ethnicities therein, ignoring some of the problems of poverty and access troubling certain communities.

That said, can we legitimately force people from other countries into our own specified categories for them, despite our having yet to fully grasp the complexities therein? As we move to a more explicit and open multiracial America (and I say this as we have always been a country with people of multiracial backgrounds, just not one where we could openly embrace that due to the circumstances of racism in our country), it is time for us to reconsider the categories we have, and analyze whether or not they are still working as a means of building community, particularly when our presumed allies are technically playing for other team, lacking any connection to the experience of marginalization based on race (and/or class).

Miss Wendi’s voice? She now writes exclusively about music and fashion at her site Retail DJ.