You know the drill. A European magazine, in this case the French title Numéro, darkens the skin of a white model, in this case Ondria Hardin, in a photo shoot. The Internet promptly goes ballistic (we’d say ape-shit, but someone might lose theirs at the mere mention of a primate). This time, American blogs posing as style authorities are the ones so outraged, calling the spread racially insensitive, throwing around the word “blackface,” and drudging up a host of other cases in which fashion is out of touch with ethical decency. (Even HuffPo Style is claiming moral high ground, producing a video to prove it—they’re extra outraged.) But here’s why the scandal is a non-event…
• Calling it “blackface” isn’t appropriate because the word doesn’t have the same intensely derogatory meaning in Europe (although minstrels did exist there).
• Without checking with the magazine, who’s to say they weren’t paying tribute to that crazy tan woman?
• The name of the story, African Queen, is taken from the name of the classic 1951 movie with Humphrey Bogart and perennial style icon Katharine Hepburn. Might she be the inspiration, partly?
• Titles of fashion spreads are almost always arbitrary, usually the most obvious title out there. Since there are some colorful batik prints in the story, it’s likely that an editor with no knowledge of American social sensibilities went with the first idea that came to mind. If it had been called Bronzed Queen, would anyone have made a connection to race?
• Usually the model is the most important element to a photographer, even more than a theme. Perhaps a better question than “Why couldn’t they have used a black model?” is “How could they have better used Ondria so as not to offend people told they should be offended by traffic-mongering so-called style sites?”
There are real cases of racism in fashion. Lots. This isn’t one of them.
UPDATE: Here is Numéro’s response.