Blackface is never fashionable and pleading ignorance is no excuse for it

We are not talking about harmless dressing up here and heated responses to racist imagery are not overreactions

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2018, file photo, a model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women's Fall/Winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy. Italian fashion designer Gucci is announcing a major push to step up its diversity hiring following an uproar over an $890 sweater that resembled blackface, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. The company also says it will hire a global director for diversity and inclusion, a newly created role. Gucci also is promising to launch a scholarship program to cultivate diverse design talent.  (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
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Recent missteps on the catwalk seem to suggest that racism is back in fashion. Shockingly, a number of high-profile designer labels have all referenced blackface – a derogatory depiction of African-American people, rooted in the musical theatre of years gone by.

In these once-popular shows, white performers deployed exaggerated and offensive stereotypes to portray black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, lewd and prone to criminality. The aim of all of this was to assert white ideas of superiority, and black inferiority. In other words, racism.

The history of blackface goes back to the 18th century, but the high points of its popularity came after the American civil war, and again in the 1950s and 1960s. It is easy to map the timeline of blackface’s peaks – and its direct connection to spikes in racist attitudes and behaviours – onto socio-political events. While society has moved on considerably since those days, and many people are rightly appalled by the idea of deploying reductive stereotypes for entertainment, recent developments in the world of haute couture suggest that we still have plenty to worry about.

At the end of last year, Prada withdrew a line of luxury keychains with a character that had dark skin and exaggerated red lips – both well-known features of blackface. The brand released a statement saying that, as a company, it abhorred “all forms of racism” and that the figures did not have “any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface”.

A Prada keyring drew accusations of racism. Courtesy: Prada
A Prada keyring drew accusations of racism. Courtesy: Prada

Unfortunately, the claim of ignorance is a mechanism deployed time and time again to excuse racism.

Earlier this month, the pop star Katy Perry's fashion label unveiled a pair of shoes made of black leather, with large white eyes and big red lips. Perry said that she was "saddened" to see her shoes compared to blackface and that her intention was "never to inflict any pain." Another plea of ignorance.

Most recently, Gucci advertised a black turtleneck jumper with a section that pulls up over the mouth and, once again, mimics exaggerated red lips. Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele apologised by saying: "The fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtle-neck jumper evoked racist imagery causes me the greatest grief." Sound familiar?

We are not talking about a bit of harmless dressing up here. Pleading ignorance is no defence, and heated responses to racist imagery do not make us oversensitive snowflakes. Blackface is incredibly offensive and dangerous.

While these latest examples have occurred in one industry in Europe and the United States, the problem is more widespread. It is particularly ironic when people who have been the subjects of colonial oppression, and who continue to be encounter racist attitudes elsewhere, deploy such imagery.

Last year, the Lebanese singer Myriam Fares released a video in which she dressed up as a black woman, perpetuating several stereotypes of black people along the way. She has yet to apologise. Regional TV programmes and films also far too often feature black characters that become the butt of jokes.

Bollywood, meanwhile, is a longstanding culprit. In the 1969 film Intaqam, an Indian actor made up to look black can be seen chained and caged, beating his chest while an Indian woman dances. Even in 2012, the film Jatt & Juliet pivoted around the main character breaking up with a woman who says she wants to move to Africa to work in a charity programme, after a scene in which he imagines his future children with her in blackface.

Then there’s the matter of hierarchies of beauty based on skin colour, where white or light is considered inherently better. To achieve whiteness is a marker of success. Consider the popularity of skin-lightening creams. Or the number of weddings where the bride will be made up to be so white, you can see a line between her face and neck. You could call this “whiteface".

Blackface mocks black people, suggesting they are less than human. Whiteface does not denigrate anyone, but it does perpetuate the same idea – that white is better. Both are part of the same problem. It needs to be said in simple straightforward terms. This is racism, those upholding it should feel a deep sense of shame, and there's no denying that.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World