Racism & The Runway, Part 2: Bethann Hardison and Thoughts on Colorism

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on Bethann Hardison’s campaign to diversify the runway as seen on her website Balance Diversity. Read Part 1 here.

By: Emily Yakashiro

There is a part of Bethann Hardison’s activist campaign letter that caught our eye in particular. Now, the whole letter and initiative is spectacular, and puts an important issue where it should be: at the forefront, in all the headlines, etc. The letter she sent to major fashion organizations such as the CFDA and BFC is here:

Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use of one or no models of color.

No matter the intention, the result is racism.

Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond “aesthetic” when it is consistent with the designer’s brand.

Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.

It can no longer be accepted, nor confused by the use of the Asian model.

-from Bethann Hardison’s letter, read more here.

 

As you can see from the highlighted section, her comments on Asian models are particularly intriguing. Robin Givhan identifies Hardison’s campaign as being specifically concerned with black models, as does this piece on The Atlantic Wire, and while Hardison’s letter above does not specifically mention black models, it may seem that she is not so concerned about the use of Asian models.

This is not the case. In the Huffington Post, Hardison is quoted saying,

“Please don’t give me an all black show,” Hardison said. “This is about diversity — all nationalities, races, colors and skin tones being equally represented.”

-Hardison, article here.

Upon further reflection, it seems that Hardison is talking about colorism (a term coined by Alice Walker) as well as racism within the fashion industry (if you’re not familiar with colorism go read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye right now).

Consider this: Proenza Schouler, Céline, Lanvin, and The Row all had Asian models in their runway shows for their Fall 2013 collections, but no black models.

Chanel and Hermès had some Asian models, and but just black model each for their runway shows for that season.

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Above: Image of Cora Emmanuel found here.

Rochas had one black model (Cora Emmanuel above)– and incidentally the only model of colour chosen for their runway presentation of their Fall 2013 collection. Even then she was only sent down the runway once by our count (and there were 40 looks shown).

All of these designers were mentioned in Hardison’s letters. We chose to highlight these designers in particular because all of them were considered highlights of the Fall 2013 season by Style.com…

It would seem that, as Hardison has pointed out, that Asian models are often chosen to be the models of colour representing in shows by designers who are especially hesitant to use models of colour racist. It is almost a knee-jerk, default reaction. Can’t you just see designers and casting directors sitting around and thinking, “Oops, shoot, there are no models of colour on this list. We’ll throw in an Asian model so we look more diverse.” Yes, it is tokenism, but there is also colorism at play here.

It is not a coincidence that Asian models are cast as the preferred “models of colour” over black women. The Asian models cast in the shows mentioned above all have fairly light or pale skin–by and large, the Asian women chosen do not have darker complexions or tanned skin. In other words, there is a degree of whiteness present that comforts the colorist eye at first glance. “Asian” in a model seems to have become a sinister code for “as close to white as we can get and still hire a model of colour.”

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For example, with the shows mentioned above, if you click on the “show all looks” button so that you can see a list of thumbnails of all the looks shown, an undiscerning eye might assume that Proenza Schouler, Céline, Lanvin, and The Row had entirely white models.  To wit: look at this one shot of Soo Joo Park above in the Chanel Fall 2013 RTW show–she has blonde hair, and her face is partially obstructed by the collar of her coat. Now, as woman of Asian descent interested in feminism and anti-oppression, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Asian presences (or absences) in the fashion world. If I did not have this ‘radar’, I might not immediately realize the difference with this picture in its thumbnail format, and would have assumed she was white. There is an ‘aesthetic’ at work here with Soo Joo Park’s look in this show that plays right into the preference for apparent whiteness, yet Chanel would still be lauded for having models of colour in their show.

Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with Park dyeing her hair blonde. And, obviously, Park is a woman of colour. But I would not have had these same issues if it had been Chanel Iman wearing this look, and I think whoever was casting director for this Chanel show was definitely counting on these factors.

Clearly, Hardison is on to something: being Asian in appearance works as a weird sort of white privilege in the fashion world; even in the whitest of shows an Asian model still manages to get a booking (albeit just one Asian model oftentimes). We haven’t heard that Wang Xiao and Soo Joo Park are competing for one spot in a show as part of the “one Asian girl” policy in the way that Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn hear that a show “already has one black girl.” Indeed, there are far fewer black models (if any at all), not to mention there aren’t any South Asian models, no Native American models, no darker-skinned Latina models.

It is also interesting to quickly note how complex the conversation must get for models who might be mixed-race; if one is white and ________, the whiteness would always be rewarded and the colour oppressed (at least that has been my personal experience as someone who is of Irish, Scottish, and Japanese descent).

Overall, Hardison’s seemingly random comment points out to the perfect storm of racism, tokenism, and colorism plaguing what seems to be the entire fashion world.

 

 

 

 

 

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