Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Today in Racism: "It's Not Blackface, It's Art, You Cynics!"

Trigger warning for racism, and also utter headdesking stupidity.


So, this happened. This is make up company Illamasqua's Christmas holiday campaign, and everything about it is horrible. After they released the right image by itself on their Australian Facebook page, complaints began to mount up, since it quite clearly references blackface and minstrel shows. Eventually the image was pulled. AND THEN RELEASED AGAIN ON THEIR MAIN, UK PAGE, with this stunningly tone deaf statement:

Our statement on the recent #ImDreamingOf campaign. Illamasqua is an independent British colour cosmetics brand founded on the principles of fairness, self-expression and delivering customers professional quality make-up. We embrace the diversity of humanity and feature people of all colours, ages and genders in our campaigns. 
Today, illamasqua has received some negative attention on our Australian Facebook page in regard to one particular image from our Christmas 2012 campaign launched earlier this month. It features a model theatrically painted white juxtaposed to the same model painted black. The model painted black has been interpreted by some as "black face". This was certainly not our intention nor inspiration.
Given that our objective with this imagery was to be playful, striking and fresh with the creation of mirror images in white and black, using colour ON the skin it is very saddening that those making negative comments are focusing on colour OF the skin. The colour of the skin didn't come into it at the time we created the imagery so we are shocked by the cynicism behind some of the comments. 
The Huffington Post wrote about our campaign yesterday and a lot of the comments were very positive...
"Super dark girls look great... As such if a woman who knows this wants to achieve that sort of look, it's cool ... She can wear darkening make-up... It's her body (as the feminists love to say) ... I say, go for it!"
"Oh come on, this isn't racist. I'm a black woman saying this. It's obvious this is art. There's more than enough real racism in this country to deal with without attacking legitimate art"
We have already issued the following statement on our Australian Facebook page:
"We thank and acknowledge your comments regarding the Christmas imagery. Obviously it was never our intention to cause offence; Illamasqua has always celebrated the right to self-expression and we continually push creative and artistic boundaries, priding ourselves on working with models of many ethnic backgrounds to reinforce this point. We emphasise that this campaign is about colour ON the skin not colour OF the skin, depicting polarity between the two images (both images are the same model) not race."

SOME OF THEIR BEST FRIENDS WEAR BLACKFACE, GUYS. Let's not even talk about "It's her body (as the feminists love to say)" in case my head explodes. Ugh. Shall we take a look at some of the comments racking up on this image? Put on your angry eyes in advance, because you'll need them.
  • "Some people just SEARCH for reasons to get angry... It's ridiculous, using the colour black isn't racist. Thinking so is."
  • "I think the images are great and not offensive. (I am usually very sensitive about PC and responsible advertising) If people know about art/fashion and trends, they would see that you are a responsible company that is very artistic. Besides, this look also channels the ''light versus dark side'' thing that is going on now. Amen."
  • "People love to use the racism card on just about everything nowadays. Why don't you complain to the singer that sung ''I'm dreaming of a white Christmas'' considering it's OBVIOUSLY a highly racist song and everything......"
  • " I am indian and i dont think this is racist at all.people are just have a dig at it because they are pathetic. Its art and its beautiful."
  • "Eh people need to be less sensitive and grow up."
  • "You can tell There id still people with a Huge lack Of brain im a make Up Artist And i think is awesom"
  • " a lot of people need to chill its makeup get over it"
  • "This isn't even "black face"! Lol black face is a lighter skinned person only doing the face in black makeup, NOT the whole face, not the neck...and its usually followed with stereotypical clothing and dance moves and poses.... Seriously people need to worry about things that really matter and stop being whiny about race and racism, grow up!"
  • "I think the only people who would see racism in this image are people who harbor feelings of racism internally. Who look for it in the world and thrive on it. This is obviously a creative and artistic form of expression through imaging and makeup."
  • "Racism is never going to stop plaguing the world unless people stop looking for it everywhere! But as many others say: People will always ( or.. I hope not ) find things to complain about and find demons/ghost/problems where they want to. It's sad. Really sad."
  •  "To people who are offered, should the white community be pissed when the wayens brothers did the movie "white chicks"? Its a r[offensive slur I won't have here] way to look at things and be offended....and even the model is in white makeup, that isn't her normal skin color in either photo...I might entertain your opinion of out being racist then, but she isn't, she is in WHITE & BLACK face"

This is the most depressing thing that has ever happened. LOL. How can so many people want to defend this? In 2012? The defending comments seem to fall into a couple of categories:

  • "ONLY RACIST PEOPLE SEE RACISM HERE." Alas, no. Educated people who are aware of the history of racism see racism here, because there is a very strong echo of racist practices. Only a racism enabler and privilege denier could look at, say, this image, and refuse to acknowledge its similarity to the advert; the hat, the suit, the bow tie, it's all there. Some people suggested that racism will go away once we stop "looking for it everywhere". I suggest that racism is not going to go away until people stop doing racist things, and people won't stop doing racist things unless we continue to call them out for doing them. We do not live in a "post-racial society", and insisting that people pretend like we do is an embarrassingly self-centred and blind position to take. Perhaps your privilege allows you to ignore and not notice the racialised discourses which exist throughout society; but refusing to accept them when someone tries to show you that they exist makes you a terrible horrible selfish person. Don't be a privilege denier. If someone tells you something is racist, it's probably racist, and you don't get to immediately decide that they're wrong. 
  • "IT'S JUST MAKE UP LIGHTEN UP, THEY WEREN'T TRYING TO BE RACIST." "Lighten up" is a particularly ironic turn of phrase here. It's never just make up when it's racism, I'm afraid. Blacking up a girl to prove you can make black make up just isn't okay. It's likely they intended it to just be make up. I have no reason to think that Illamasqua intended to be racist with this advert. But here's the thing: intent is not magical. Just because they didn't intend this to be an offensive image doesn't mean that it's not. Racism isn't something that only "racists" do. People can be offensive in many kinds of ways, often without even knowing it, because they believe that they are not "a racist". It seems likely that the PR team at Illamasqua are busy saying to themselves "This isn't a racist image, because we're not racists!" Because people think that a racist is some beardy guy out in Alabama with a gun and a cartoon of Obama as a monkey on a bumper sticker on his pick up truck. In fact, racism is pervasive in our social structure, and you don't have to be "a racist" to perpetuate that. I'm sure none of the people commenting defending this image think of themselves as racist, but by refusing the acknowledge the racist connotations of this image, they are being at best racism enablers and they don't even know it. This is how an oppressive, prejudiced system is reproduced.
  • "SHE'S ONLY PAINTED BLACK IT'S NOT BLACKFACE." See also: "We emphasise that this campaign is about colour ON the skin, not colour OF the skin." A whole bunch of people, including Illamasqua themselves, seemed unable to follow the idea that painting a girl black IS blackface. People seem to find it impossible to accept that an image's aesthetic is not separate from its symbolic, historical and interpretive meaning. Illamasqua also made this exact mistake in a previous campaign where they co-opted the Black Power fist to show that they were making a stand against... overpriced make up. That's totally the same as civil rights. Look: you cannot use an image with a huge amount of sensitive social and cultural history and then claim that you don't want anyone to think about those connotations when they look at that image. That is not the way the world works. This message especially goes out to the commenter who helpfully informed us that we shouldn't be offended by blackface, because "maybe something doesn't always have to very [sic] associated with a particular historical event. See the reclamation of the swaztika [sic] and its original meaning."
  • "WELL THEN WHY AREN'T YOU COMPLAINING THAT THE WHITE IMAGE IS RACIST AGAINST WHITE PEOPLE, HEYY?" I can answer this in a single word: privilege. White people have always had and continue to have a great amount of privilege in society. There is not a long, violent and disgusting tradition of oppressing, dehumanising and undervaluing white people, in particular by painting skin to mock them, that affects the social situation of white people to this very day. I have white privilege, and because I am a decent person, I try to recognise my privilege, and that means not getting all upset over ZOMG REVERSE RACISM, SHE'S WHITED UP TOO. Because I know that whiting up absolutely does not tap into a painful and shameful cultural history which we ought to be constantly working to acknowledge, and to redeem our society for its past mistakes by trying to improve and being alert for reproduction of the old institutionalised racist system. You guys, it's not that hard. All you have to do is recognise when something about you gives you an unfair advantage in our society. If you're a white person, you don't get to decide that something is not racist.

Full disclosure: here are my comments from their Facebook page:

 Illamasqua, I would have believed that this image was not intended to cause offence. I would even have believed that its undeniable and unfortunate resemblance to images of blackface was simply an accident. However, having had it explained to you over and over that this is an extremely offensive image with strong racist connotations, for you to continue to promote it and to dismiss the strong negative reaction of your customer base is inexcusable. While I am sure you did not intend to be racists, you have made yourselves at best racism enablers and privilege deniers. You have already had negative press on several major websites as a result of this campaign. The only thing you can do to recover from this unfortunate situation with any sort of dignity is to end this campaign immediately, attempt to educate yourselves about why it is so offensive, and offer a full and unreserved apology that accepts your responsibility for this horrific continuation of the institutionalised historic racism that has existed globally for centuries. If you cannot see how painting a girl black IS blackface, and blackface IS racism, I am shocked and appalled and extremely disappointed, and certainly intend never to purchase any of your products ever again.

And second, in response to someone questioning why we don't find the white image offensive, and saying she knew for a fact Illamasqua did not promote racism:

People don't consider the white one racist because THERE IS NOT A LONG, VIOLENT AND DISGUSTING TRADITION OF WHITE PEOPLE BEING INSTITUTIONALLY OPPRESSED, MOCKED AND DEHUMANISED THAT STILL AFFECTS THEIR SOCIAL SITUATION TO THIS VERY DAY. Anyone who doesn't understand that is simply a privilege denier. It's great to hear that Illamasqua promotes equality and diversity. That means they will be taking this image down and apologising for the great offence which they have caused, as that is what any company that did not wish to promote racism would do.

Can we dare to hope they take the hint? Can we hear from some other non-terrible people, via Facebook?

"Art shouldn't be a veil to hide ignorance.
This is flat out racist. There's no way around it.
Replacing the blacked out white girl with a whited out black girl? Nah, that won't work, and it won't have the same effect.
The difference between black face and white face is that, at the end of the day, a white person in black face can wash off the black and go back to being white. The systems that have been instilled into society oppress People of Colour in ways that white people will never understand. That's why it's not the same.
White people cannot experience racism in the same way that a black person, or any other PoC can, purely because white people are the ones who have put in place the means to oppress PoC. Sure you can experience racial hatred or racially motivated prejudice, but it's not racism, because that implies that somehow your whiteness is forgotten, and you are at a societal disadvantage because of your skin colour. And there are no instances where white people are at a disadvantage for being white."

" I know that your intentions were not meant to be racist, and I can understand why you would be very defensive about the images. However, the one thing that you and unfortunately many of your apologist fans don't seem to realise is that your intentions do not matter. They are not the point here. Whether you mean well or not, the very fact stands that the blackface image is racist. Racism does not have to be intentional to be racist. If your images are causing distress, and for very valid reasons, instead of childishly defending yourself, you should have apologised sincerely. Just because you do not find it offensive doesn't mean that it is not offensive."

" I just want to say that I'm really disgusted that your message above is covertly blaming the very people you've hurt. If you don't know that blackface is racist, then find out - go read, watch, and above all, listen. If you really are for diversity, then you need to respect the different experiences that go with that. That means listening to those you effect, and not discounting their reality. Who knows racism better than somebody subject to racism? Listen, learn, own up, and apologise properly. That's what we have to do as people, to minimise the harm we do in the world."

So far this story has appeared on BET, Fashionista, Jezebel, HuffPo, and even the damn Daily Mail. I'll take bets on how long it takes them to take it down and offer the fauxest of all fauxpologies. I bet they're very sorry that we were offended because we perceived their photo to be similar to some controversial imagery that they certainly did not intend to evoke with their innovative and creative artistic process. Ugh.

1 comment:

  1. Ailsa, this is a really thorough response to the main issues with this whole campaign! You've really accurately taken down the basis of their entire defense. When I saw this happening on Facebook and whatnot I was blown away that they could defend this AT ALL. A part of me feels like an American company would never have kept up such an offensive image after a public outcry (but the US has longer and more horrible track record with blackface, in the first place). Regardless, I found your comments insightful and powerful in light of this whole debacle. And I'm really glad you pointed out the discrepancy with their claim of it being "ON" the skin...which makes literally no sense. Anyway, very impressive post and I hope you continue to address social justice issues!