Discussion: Agents Only Book Black Models with White Features: Racism or A Matter of Preference?

It's something that's been talked about for years across coffee tables, at beauty salons and in church pews. The black models that become successful in Fashion bear a striking resemblance to their white counterparts.

The message to the black women in the audience is this: African-American models can be included so long as they look like white women. Thus, we achieve diversity but do nothing to sway an exclusive standard of beauty.

The short documentary film, The Colour of Beauty, is finally addressing this phenomenon via Jezebel. The documentary follows an African-American model, Renee, who is determined to make it in the Fashion industry against all odds. But as the documentary proves, Renee has a hard way to go.

From Jezebel:

Justin Peery, an agent featured in the film, says plainly: "When [a model] comes in with big eyes, big nose, big lips… Things that are common traits in African-Americans — it doesn't work...But for those lucky few girls who have white girl features…it's kind of messed up, but that's the way the industry is."

Later in the documentary, a Fashion Week casting director, Maurilio Carnino, recalls "One time one of my clients said, 'I need a black model, but she has to be like a white girl dipped in chocolate.'"

The same can be said of celebrities that are regarded as beautiful in Hollywood. Take the late, legendary Lena Horne for instance. She famously said: "I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become." 

Similarly, Beyonce's skin looked whitewashed in an advertisement for L'Oreal; the image was devoid of any decidedly African-American feature, including her pale complexion. It makes me wonder if the celebration of "white girl features" on black women permeates the music and television/movie industry in addition to fashion.

One of the most upsetting moments of the documentary occurs when Jeanne Beker of FashionTelevision hesitates to use the "R" word (racism) to describe the rejection of "black girl features" via Jezebel. She joins a long list of people, some of whom I've encountered, who don't consider their discriminatory practices "racist." I've heard it referred to as a "preference" or an innocent pursuit of "uniformity" among models.

What do you think? Is it racist to discriminate against models with "black features," rather than European? 

My two cents: is it racism? Yes and No...since dark, "chocolate" skin is embraced and, I imagine, white women with big lips or widespread hips are rejected as well. But that makes it no less exclusive, dangerous and ignorant. It accepts one feature of African-American beauty (skin) while dismissing others (lips, eyes, nose). There are so many strikingly beautiful women with big eyes, big nose, big lips. So to hear that they "don't work" in Fashion shows and editorials for no valid reason sounds discriminatory to me.

Moreover, it's damaging and heartbreaking to young women who do not see themselves celebrated as beautiful. It also is divisive within the African-American community; the more like a "white girl" a woman looks, the more beautiful she is considered to be by our society, by some of our men and ultimately, by many of us.

Growing up, I was considered on the fence. I'm brown-skinned with a nose that is very "white girl" in nature, exotic eyes and big, beautiful "black girl" lips.

Seeing no one who looked like me in pop culture or Fashion, I had to make a point to embrace my beauty despite the fact that it didn't fit the prevailing standard. I found that once I decided I was beautiful, other people caught on as well. (Ironically big "black girl" lips are en vogue now via Jessica Simpson's collagen lip injections and Angelina Jolie).

But I worry for young women who are impressionable and want nothing more than to be accepted, what does the rejection of "black girl" features say to them?

Discuss below.

Also, to see what happens to Renee alongside a painfully honest and comprehensive look at racism in Fashion, watch The Colour of Beauty.




Sadako said...

It's an interesting question...sometimes it does bother me, but at the same time, in fashion, it excludes about 99% of "real people." Like, we can say they're racist for not liking black features but what about when they don't like what the average white woman looks like either? I mean, most people wouldn't make the cut on the cover of Vogue...when do we draw the line? When is it OK to say "We don't like your look" and when is it problematic?

I don't think I can answer that, though. Tis a tall order.

Anonymous said...

Interesting movie, but I'm not surprised at all. It's the reason I look forward to receiving my Essence magazine subscription in the mail each month--to see beautiful women of color who's beauty is acknowledged regardless of their skin tone or facial features.

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