Unintentionally Eating the Other

by Guest Contributor Minh-ha T. Pham, originally published at Threadbared

Last Thursday, Crystal Renn, the model who recently appeared in a Vogue Japan spread with her eyes taped in ways that were suggestive of an old theater makeup trick meant to make white actors look “Asian,” offered an explanation and defense of the cosmetic practice. Tape, it should be noted, is only one of many tools in the arsenal of this particular form of racial drag, also known as yellowfacing – a practice that is literally older than America. Contrary to popular headlines suggesting that “yellowface is the new blackface,” there is nothing new or novel about yellowfacing. One of the earliest incidences of yellowfacing in the U.S. occurred in 1767 when Arthur Murphy presented his play The Orphan of China in Philadelphia.

What interests me about this moment of racial drag or “transformation,” as Renn’s called it, are the reactions to it and her own explanation of the decision to tape her eyes. In last week’s published conversation with Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers, Renn insists that she “wasn’t trying To ‘look Asian’ in that eye tape shoot”. And I wanted to believe her. I have great respect for Sauers. Her writing has always displayed a great deal of thoughtfulness and acuity and she’s been a generous supporter of Threadbared for a long time. For all these reasons, I approached Sauers’ conversation with Renn as a generous reader, willing to be convinced. After all, Sauers initially assumed Renn was yellowfacing too. If she could be surprised with Renn’s explanation, I thought I might be too.

Here’s how Renn explains the eye-taping:

  • In a way you become something else.
  • No, it tends to be when there’s more makeup and drama. And the point is transformation.
  • To transform is the greatest part of my work. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. And to be able to try to do as many looks as I can and to show as many faces as I can, it’s exciting to me . . . I’ve had moles painted on my face. I’ve had freckles painted on.
  • I become something else.
  • We didn’t even think about [race] on the shoot. I’m the one who suggested it, and it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s something that I regularly ask makeup artists, you know, if it will bring something more to the character. Offer a different face.
  • As the model, as somebody who thrives on the transformation, I am beyond thrilled to do stories where they change my gender, where they take me and make me something completely different.

What is so striking about Renn’s explanation is its ambiguity. She never says what look she was going for – just that she intended to become “something else.” This intangible “something” that has more “drama”, more “character” , and is so “exciting” is, for Renn, not racially specific. It is instead a generalized exotica, an experience of vague sensuousness. But do racist acts require intentionality? And what are the implications of Renn’s deracialization of a practice that was so clearly racist to so many people?

“Eating the Other”

Renn’s understanding of this “transformation” is reflective of a broader cultural logic in the mainstream fashion industry that has historically viewed and engaged with racial difference as a depoliticized and dehistoricized aesthetic. Racial difference, evacuated of its history and politics, becomes a set of design elements and sartorial flourishes (a kente pattern here, a frog closure there, a Native headdress on the weekend – why not?) that are absent of meaning and context. Fashion’s depoliticization of ethnicity and race rely on and reproduce what Nirmal Puwar calls “the amnesia of celebration.”

The problem is that the violent racist abuse meted out to Asian women who have worn these items has no place in the recent donning of these items. . . “Do you remember when you thought we were ugly and disgusting when we wore these items?”

The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.

This desire for transformation through the Other is not unique to fashion; it is connected to a much longer history of what Black feminist scholar bell hooks (always in lower case) calls “imperialist nostalgia”: the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. Bodily transcendence through sartorial and cosmetic play is enacted by the consumption of otherness – a “courageous consumption,” in hooks’ words – because it is about “conquering the fear [of racial difference] and acknowledging power. It is by eating the Other,” hooks explains, “that one asserts power and privilege.”

But Renn wasn’t “even think[ing] about [race] on the shoot . . . it didn’t even cross [her] mind.”

Here, I want to return to my earlier question: do racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no. A well-intentioned compliment about how well I speak English or a clumsy flirtation that begins with a deep bow like I’m the Dalai Lama (both have happened to me) are meant to be friendly gestures that close the gap of racial difference. (“Don’t worry – I’m culturally sensitive.”) Yet, these examples are clearly born of racist ideologies about what “real” Americans look like and what are “real” Asian cultural practices. Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.

But I think Renn’s (mis)understanding about eye-taping and intentionality is suggestive of something more than unconscious racism. I think that Renn’s explanation exemplifies how race is understood in this “post-racial” historical moment. What does racial discourse sound like in the age of post-racism? Well, I think it sounds like Renn’s explanation. This isn’t to indict Renn; instead, my point is to suggest that Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license. Renn’s transformation is conditioned by its proximation to racial otherness and yet the language of creative license (Renn says: “To transform is the greatest part of my work.”) denies race as a driving and organizing factor in this transformation, it denies both her racial privilege as well as the eye-taping technique as a common cultural practice of racism. This kind of post-racial consumption of race in which the historical violence of racial difference makes no difference at all denies the ongoing reality of racism in the age of postracism. It is conditioned by the many privileges of whiteness (first and foremost among these privileges, a racially unmarked body). Recall Puwar’s incisive observation – which I’ve quoted numerous times on Threadbared – “It is precisely because white female bodies occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked that they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized female bodies.”

We see the discourse of postracism also in Renn’s assertion that she is “not 100% morally okay with [blackface shoots] — I would feel that I’m taking a job from one of them. I would feel that I’m taking a job from a black girl who deserved it.” Renn’s sensitivity towards the need for more diversity in the modeling industry is not surprising. She has been a vocal proponent of size diversity among models (for a time, she was one of the most successful plus-size models) and has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders and the pressures that come with the constant scrutiny of young women’s bodies in the media.

Her statement that she would never engage in a blackface shoot does two things: First, it elides the issue at hand (yellowfacing) for what seems to be for Renn a more real and authentic act of racism, blackfacing. In so doing, her statement suggests that anti-black racism is the only authentic form of racism worth talking or caring about. Second, it suggests that practices of yellowfacing and blackfacing (like, redfacing and brownfacing) take modeling jobs away from nonwhite models. This logic assumes that these acts of racial drag are meant to represent an actual racial body. Let me be clear: yellowfacing is not a practice of racial passing, of a white model passing as Asian. Photographers, magazines, and designers know Asian models exist and know how to hire them. But they don’t hire them for these jobs because yellowfacing is not about tricking audiences into believing that the body in view is actually Asian.

I’ve become really impatient with responses to racist practices of racial drag that involve comments like: “Why didn’t they just hire a Black/Asian/Latina/Native model?” (Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.) This question glosses over the actual operations of yellowfacing, blackfacing, etc. which is not about Asianness or Blackness but about Whiteness. It is about consuming Otherness, it’s about making racial difference commodifiable and palatable through whiteness, it’s about reproducing and securing white privilege. To quote hooks again, “eating the other” – hooks’ term for the consumption of difference – offers:

a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream while culture.

__________________________________

NB: It’s unclear to me who is actually to blame for Renn’s eye-taping. She’s insisted that it was solely her idea but editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo has also taken credit for the idea. I asked Ashley Mears, a former model and now sociology professor at Boston University whose book about the political economies of the modeling industry called Pricing Beauty is due out this month from the University of California Press if Renn might be falling on her sword for Dello Russo. According to Mears, it’s plausible that Renn had some creative input. As she explained, “models tend to have very little input in the terms of their work or in how their images are crafted or manipulated. However, at the higher levels of the industry where Renn is working, in which stylists and models work with each other repeatedly on high-end productions, there is a greater degree of collaboration with models, especially if she takes initiative to be involved.”

 

Crystal Renn’s other forays into racial drag, also published in Vogue Japan (June 2011)

  • Pitterpatter

     

    Thank you for such an insightful post! It certainly puts
    words to what I am feeling. I definitely agree with your
    analysis that the model’s beliefs illustrate how racism is thought of today.
    The model’s justifications reflect new racism, a new form of racism that is
    subtle and embedded in institutions and our ideology. Just because racism is
    not explicit does not mean it does not exist. While the model did not intend
    for her actions to come off as ignorant or offend anyone, it shows how powerful
    racism is. This new racism is concealed by “colorblindness”, which is evident
    in the model’s assertion that race was not even a factor. I find it interesting
    that the model says transforming “makes [her] the happiest”. She has the luxury
    of being able to temporarily transform into “something else” and then return
    back to privilege. Because she is white, she will also return back to a group
    that is the standard of beauty. It reminds me that while she takes pleasure in
    taping her eyes, many Asian Americans are unhappy with the shape of their eyes
    and resort to a permanent transformation through surgery. As an Asian American,
    I have struggled with the idea of what beauty looks like. I used to hate the
    shape of my “Asian” eyes because it did not reflect the dominant idea of
    beauty. I wonder if the model would still find such pleasure in the eye shape
    created if it were permanent instead of for a brief moment. Would she
    permanently want to transform into a different “character” and leave behind her
    privilege?

  • Pingback: Crystal Renn pretends she is Japanese « popcultureglutton

  • http://photojenna.wordpress.com/ Jenna Sauers

    Hi Minh-ha, 

    I think your piece is great and necessary — what you write about racially unmarked bodies, privilege, and the question of intentionality in racism is totally on-point and insightful. And I agree that Renn was unfortunately non-specific in her talk about “transformation.” (I probably should have pressed her harder on that.) But, with respect, I think you may have misunderstood Renn’s actions — you seem to proceed from the assumption that what she was doing was definitely, 100%, in fact, performing in yellowface. Again, with respect — because obviously I value your writing highly — I think that you may have failed to consider the other explanations she gave, and some other dimensions of the use of face tape in the fashion industry.

    I mean, obviously taping a model’s eyes can be a component of yellowface (the example that comes to mind most readily for me, which I mentioned and linked in the interview, is a toe-curlingly awful video directed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel that featured a grab-bag of white models with taped eyes, impersonating Chinese historical figures). And there are other examples, too — I don’t mean to imply that only something that egregious can be “truly” racist. And Renn errs insofar as she implies that the only offensive thing about blackface and racial drag in fashion is that it takes a job from a model of color. 

    But there are a lot of ways that tape can be used to change the shape of the eye area. What about what Renn said about the tape proving effective to flatten the arch of her brow? What about how face tape (and the braiding trick that Renn also mentions) lifts, smooths, and basically acts like an instant eye-lift, in an industry where youth and having a youthful appearance is obviously privileged? What about the long history of face tape in drag performance? Given the industry is a queer-friendly — hell, I’d even argue queer-dominated — space, I think that dimension has to be taken into account, too. I didn’t realize until I interviewed Renn that face tape was so common in fashion; I’d heard of it once, in Australia, from a makeup artist who mentioned face tape was the most effective way to make an “older” star (by which she probably meant a woman in her 40s) look young and “fresh” on a cover. I think that racial drag is awful. And stupid. In about a million different ways. That you articulate extremely well. I’m just not sure that was what was going on here, at this matador shoot. 

    • Anonymous

      I think that there are few problems with her explanation and your own.
      She doesn’t really have the “flaws” or issues that you mention, nor are they obvious in most of her mainstream work.  She is hardly old enough to need “freshening” and I would say that if she does it frequently, the effect is not always the same, so in my mind, I’d have to ask why is it so “overdone” in this shoot and in the ones pictured above.
      She is not a man trying to manipulate his features into something more feminine.  She is not an older woman who is trying to soften her browline.  If she really had these issues, then why is this exaggerated look not her signature, and why is it so obvious that it is not something that she always does, or always does to this extent.
      It just becomes really convenient for her, and for your as her admitted friend, to make excuses for her AFTER people find the image (and the subsequent explanation) to be offensive.
      Some things are just racist, and to me, intent or regret does not change what they are.
      She can’t “take” a job from non-white models b/c they were never going to be chosen in the first place. But it is truly a sign her white privilege, elevated now by her weight-loss and position as a straight-sized model, that allows her to be so self-centered and narcissistic in her explanation of it.
      I never thought about her much, but what little opinion I now have of her if pretty low, and I’m tired of people trying to defend this as being inoffensive when it was whether intentional or not.   
      I have to say that I really dislike Jezebel whenever issues of race come up.  It becomes clear that most of the commenters are coming from a place of privilege where they refuse to consider what it is like for POC to constantly see this and then the barrage of excuses that are lobbed after the fact.
      I’m not Asian, so this isn’t my personal battle but I am a minority and I think it’s irresponsible to excuse some forms of racism if I want to fight against others. And this frankly was racist, but it’s not surprising since the modeling world is hardly an enlightened place.   It is the world that embodies white female privilege, the same privilege that you are both defending so heartily here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chandra.edwards Chandra Edwards

    This former plus-size model has apparently shed more than a few pounds. I wonder how she would feel if rail-thin models posed themselves in fat suits to “transform” themselves. She should know better than most the power of an image can change the way an entire group of people is seen, or for better and sometimes worse, see themselves. 

  • minh-ha

    Hi Julia and m., racial drag – the performance and production of becoming another racial identity not your own – is not inherently racist. Not all racial drag is racial caricature – though most have been which is why it’s easy to forget that there are instances of anti-racist racial drag. One of my favorite examples is a sketch John Leguizamo does in his one-man play, Mambo Mouth. His performance about a “cholo” transforming into a Japanese businessman and then back again reveals the contradictory but complementary racist logics underpinning both stereotypes. 

  • Julia

    Minh-ha,
    Thank you for this piece. I love how it unpacks all the complexities. And thanks, too, for introducing me to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the other.” I definitely have some more reading to do.

    Could I ask you to say more about this? “Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.” I’m having trouble even imagining what this would look like..

  • Julia

    Minh-ha,
    Thank you for this piece. I love how it unpacks all the complexities. And thanks, too, for introducing me to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the other.” I definitely have some more reading to do.

    Could I ask you to say more about this? “Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.” I’m having trouble even imagining what this would look like..

  • http://twitter.com/gograpefruit gograpefruit

    Thank you so much for posting this. I was so frustrated after reading Sauer’s interview with Renn; it seemed like as long as she was using eye-taping to create a character, we the public were supposed to accept it divorced from its cultural context — and that’s ignoring really hard, because she did it for Vogue Japan! Appropriating racial features generally linked to Asians just because she finds it interesting and another model trick up her sleeve is not okay. And I’m afraid the general acceptance of the eyetaping explanation by even the general Jezebel (progressive, liberal LGBT-friendly) community is highly disquieting. Please continue to write pieces like this, Guest Contributor!

  • http://wthellokitty.tumblr.com Hello Kitty

    Great analysis by Minh-ha.

    Speaking of racial drag it’s interesting how it works for White people.  As a kid in the 70′s whenever I tried to dress in western period clothes I felt awkward.  My awkwardness turned to self-consciousness and shame when my friends–White and Black–pointed out how I still looked Chinese and “weird”.    That’s why Threadbared’s photos of “ethnic” women in American fashions from bygone decades are so meaningful.  The privilege of being White means it’s socially acceptable to don other cultures’ styles.  

  • Syngen

    While I do think she’s exercising an incredible amount of privilege, I don’t think she was going for changing the shape of her eyes. She wanted to change the shape of her *brows*. While some people may interpret that as Asian (I am Asian and did endure the schoolyard taunts.) I do think the intent is to create a more severe, angular look to her face. (This look I interpret as an attempt to look slightly inhuman.) In her other work where she tapes, it’s pretty clear to me that that’s what she’s going for. HOWEVER, since it is an acknowledged “yellowface” technique, it makes me uncomfortable just the same. 

  • FashionMav

    But how, and why, do we celebrate and condone gender-bending in magazines while decrying race-bending? I can’t remember the last time I picked up a high-end and/or international edition fashion magazine that DIDN’T have men in women’s makeup or clothing, women in men’s clothing and styling, or any other combination of gender and apparel specifically, purposely mixed and rematched in function of showcasing clothing or looks.

    That’s somehow considered “fashion forward,” yet race is completely off-limits, and I struggle with that division especially when it comes to international editions of magazines in places that don’t have the exact same racial issues and history as here in the United States.

    • http://twitter.com/DYomoah Doreen

      Huh? Gender is not something that’s inherent, it’s something that is completely socially constructed in order to oppress 50% of the population. Make up isn’t female. Trousers aren’t male. Men didn’t even wear trousers for most of human history. To equate this to someone dressing up as a caricature of someone else ethnicity, someone who is systematically on the receiving end of discrimination is disingenuous, at best.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a difference between a man wearing a skirt and lipstick and a man  trying to look like he has feminine breasts. This example seems to fall into the later.

  • Digital Coyote

    I wonder how much Renn’s obliviousness is related to her want to get higher profile jobs now that she’s no longer a “plus size” model. 

  • http://www.jenniferdeguzman.com Jennifer deG

    Not thinking about race is a privilege of the… well, of the privileged. Thank you for this piece. Very insightful!

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

    When I first saw this, it made me think of the Vulcans and Ramulans in Star Trek. I´m curious to know your thoughts on that particular kind of make-up..

  • Alex

    Speaks to the narcissism that I think that actions of racism exhibit in the fashion industry. Its all about the self and no thought is made to the “other” person who is not White. That is all it is, narcissism. 

  • j.

    “I wasn’t even thinking about race” reminds me of the whole “I don’t even see race, I’m colorblind!” that people also like to trot out.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrea-Leong/545025527 Andrea Leong

      “I have lots of Asian/black/middle eastern/Pacific Islander/misc. non-white  friends!”

  • Elton

    Willful ignorance.

    • Anonymous

      This. How can Renn do this without ” even thinking about race”? By just not thinking.

      It isn’t OK, regardless of her intent or the intent of those who styled her. 

  • http://twitter.com/danthrasher Daniel Thrasher

    My first reaction – while I didn’t think Renn intended any racial implications, it was clearly an inappropriate thing to do and someone along the way to printing the issue should have realized it.

    After seeing the bottom pictures – her posing and styling is definitely influenced by various Asian sources – the hand position of the right shot reminds me of knock-off Bollywood, the pose on the left has martial arts meets Bhuddist imagery, etc.

    Does the fact that this is for Vogue Japan impact how it should be interpreted?  If it was for Vogue Italia or the main Vogue, would it be a more or less serious offense?

    • kim

      I know right. If she “wasn’t trying too look Asian” she sure seems to have a habit of it. Those bottom images look like a cheap Bollywood meets Bodhavista meets Harajuku knock off. Not to mention her eye makeup.