The French Vogue blackface brouhaha is nothing new. The Daily Beast’s Elizabeth Gates on Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour, and fashion’s long history of horrible race-relations.
I would love to say I was surprised when Carine Roitfeld turned the latest issue of French Vogue into a modern minstrel show, giving over hours of makeup prep time to the transformation of model Lara Stone from little Dutch girl to imitation black woman. But I wasn’t. I wish I had been so moved by the spread that I took to the streets and demanded that my beloved local newsstand banish the issue. But I didn’t. It’s hardly worth the effort to use this moment to proclaim, again, that “the fashion industry hates black people,” in Kanye West-style. To be perfectly honest, beyond wishing Steven Klein and Carine Roitfeld had used their collective genius to actually create something new, I brushed this off as just another day in high fashion—racism included.
When I really sit back and consider the spread, I’m actually a bit impressed that Roitfeld had the gall to push fashion’s history of racial discrimination to the forefront of her magazine and leave it out there for the world to discuss without an explanation of her decision.
Jaded though I might be, I would be fooling myself if I thought the draftsmen behind fashion’s most beautiful things were ever going to be sensitive to race, black women, or how they represent our cultural history. In fact, I’m not exactly sure why this was a shock to anyone. Are racial tensions supposed to have magically healed since Americans elected Barack Obama to be our president? Surely not, when it seems clear to me that many people, both here and abroad, are still confused about what to really make of his election anyway and have taken to testing boundaries across the board like a bunch of prepubescent teens: Beer Summits are held to solve race matters; Republicans have become hecklers shouting “you lie!” as if the president deserves the same treatment as an NBA player; the Norwegians offered up the Nobel Peace Prize as if it was a slice of pie.
As far as I’m concerned, the world at large has become altogether too comfortable with the bending of boundaries, and while a model in blackface over in France is certainly striking to some, it’s hardly a departure from fashion’s normal treatment of black women. And lets just get this out of the way now: Yes, I am black and I love it. Yes, I voted for Obama and I idolize Michelle. Yes, I am thrilled there is a black family in the White House and above all I truly think he was the best candidate on the ticket and that he deserved to win. It is simply that I wasn’t among the delusional majority that thought his election was an end to discrimination or racism and I never, for one quick second, thought that his election (or the attention Michelle’s outfits warrant) would put an end to fashion’s Jim Crow laws, which have consistently banished black models from most runways, apart from Baby Phat, “Ebony Fashion Fare” and Sean Jean.
Perhaps I can say this with such confidence because the fashion community doesn’t exactly deny this, having recently brushed off the likes of Naomi Campbell (a black model who actually does get work, regardless of her age) when she sprang into a tirade about the recession causing designers to further deny black models a spot during New York Fashion Week. Or maybe I can say this is because I’ve seen it firsthand over the last eight years as I worked my way around the fashion industry doing damn near everything except modeling. I’ve dressed models, worked at design companies, attended design school, worked as a milliner, sat in on run-throughs for Oscar de la Renta collections, juggled nine coffees at once for thirsty fashion editors, hand-delivered notes to Karl Lagerfeld’s hotel, looked after a socialite’s Yorkie as she was she was getting fitted for her wedding attire, and once found myself in an elevator with none other than Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, to whom I stammered a compliment about her daughter and was rightfully ignored. The only thing that all of those experiences have in common is that I was often the only black woman in sight, the exception being when I attended Parsons and was among a hearty number of four black students. At first it almost seemed unfair that I had somehow crossed over the velvet rope when I certainly wasn’t the only qualified young woman of color.
But fashion isn’t about fairness. It isn’t about being polite, kind, sweet natured or well behaved. Fashion is vicious and cut throat—and if you really love it (and want to succeed) it can be downright maddening. To be perfectly honest, I myself am often “too nice” to be taken seriously in this industry. Kindness has no place here—and believe me, a little racism isn’t affecting anyone who might hire a fashion hopeful (or fire one the next day). Fashion doesn’t care if you’re anorexic, bulimic or if you are 12 years old from a farm in Oregon without any idea about “child labor laws”—and it certainly doesn’t care about black history. I accepted that fact years ago. Fashion has no moral code.
When I really sit back and consider the spread, I’m actually a bit impressed that Roitfeld had the gall to push fashion’s history of racial discrimination to the forefront of her magazine and leave it out there for the world to discuss without an explanation of her decision—whether or not that was her intention. I assume that the result will be French Vogue having to accept a few more “real” black models during the next round, inadvertently scoring one for the home team and leveling things out a bit.
And don’t misunderstand me—I’m not saying any of this is right, I’m just saying that this is the reality and that getting all hot and bothered about this isn’t on my list of things to do today. See, in the war on race I am a foot soldier, not a marksman. I involve myself at a community level, where I truly believe these issues of racial intolerance and confusion begin. I have belonged to the same nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the support and well-being of inner-city youth for nearly 10 years, an organization I was a “student” at before graduating to be a mentor two years later. I see no point in roughing myself up against Carine Roitfeld, when the truth is that if I was to meet her I would actually feel lucky and the last thing on my mind would be that model in black face, and I’d probably mumble something meek and flattering, just as I did with Anna Wintour between floors two and 14. I believe in change that starts at a grassroots level and I choose to leave work at work, even when my day extends to 9:30 p.m. to meet a deadline.
I am a black woman and that truly matters to me most, but if one of the brilliant girls I work with at my nonprofit were to work her way into high fashion I wouldn’t discourage her. I would simply tell her to keep me on speed dial because despite how many years pass, my guess is that she will be one of the only black women at her office too.
Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New School University and a former intern at Vogue magazine.