Memo to fashion magazines: Appropriation is not representation. It’s insulting.

I’m not sure you’re getting it. Why ultimately there will always be a backlash against ‘high concept’ portraiture of white women in blackface or redface or yellowface. I don’t understand how, in 2013, we are still having the same conversation with you regarding beauty in representation. But alas, we’ve come to yet another one of those moments.

Yes, I realize that the shifting demographics of America might be a signal to you that perhaps these taboo representations of beauty are passe, the loaded term “post racial” may steer you in the direction that women of color are comfortable and accepted into the whole of society. If you believe in the artistic vision of your photographer’s creative work, perhaps you might consider hiring a black model to engage those aesthetic modes responsibly. Your reasoning is flawed and falls flat:

The artistic statement of the photographer Sebastian Kim, author of this editorial, is in line with his previous photographic creations, which insist on the melting pot and the mix of cultures, the exact opposite of any skin color based discrimination…Numéro has always supported the artistic freedom of the talented photographers who work with the magazine to illustrate its pages, and has not took part in the creation process of this editorial.

In the 21st century, casual ignorance is no longer an accepted apology. We grow tired of these terms “melting pot”; it is selective and has for years mandated an erasure of social and cultural identities. When you chalk it up to “creative vision” of the artist, it’s an indicator that your photographers are not versed in, well, history, colonial narratives and legacies. Also, it’s pretty lazy and unoriginal. I mean, how many “African Queen” fashion spreads can y’all do? In many ways, you’ve offended a host of women of color by narrowly defining our beauty within a European imagination that fetishizes black female bodies. We didn’t know or intend to offend… It implies that you and your photographer are blissfully unaware of the cultural contexts and imagery they engage in these images.

It is also a case study in the privilege of not knowing how whiteness, with associative institutional power, in your industry unjustly sets the standard of beauty for all to follow. Your photographers and creative directors should be much smarter than that. There must be other ways of being “edgy” or “provocative” without appropriating people of color convenient to myriad of racist tropes. Alternatively, there are a considerable number of black models to choose from; your decision to select this model for this spread is obviously tied to advancing her career. I don’t fault you for supporting her development and growth, I fault you for positioning her in a spread that you could have easily selected a black model. And! Maybe you could have re-imagined the entire narrative; work with a black photographer or artist that understands contemporary culture and fashion in Africa and the Americas.

AnOther Magazine, your cover of Michelle Williams only rubs salt in barely healed wounds. There’s a lot to unpack here. But let’s for a moment, focus on the image. Williams is one of the co-stars of the new Disney film, Oz, the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the beloved “Wizard of Oz” adapted from L. Frank Baum’s novel. If I were to be a fly on the wall at the creative meeting, I’m guessing that your photographer and creative director thought it was a kind of twist or play on the idea and image catalogue of the American West and how it relates the The Wizard of Oz. And Williams being a tiny powerhouse talent from her previous film Brokeback Mountain, which also relates to cowboys, and then there’s this wizard thing happening, so boom: Harry Potter robes. Mix that altogether and you invent this “genius” cover portrait of a white woman in pigtails and feathers, flannel shirt and dungarees, with wizard’s robe. Oz meets Harry Potter meets Pocahontas meets Dorothy meets Cowboys. Right?

I’m not an idiot. I get what the images are trying to convey. It’s *still* redface and ill-formed cultural appropriation. Beyond the cover photo being offensive to Native American women, Williams’ comments in the LA Times interview also display a casual ignorance (that’s what we’ll call it today) that just underscores why the photograph bristles:

“Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins didn’t mean much to me; it wasn’t my language,” Williams said of the groups of misfits her character benevolently rules over in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. “But when I thought of them as Native Americans trying to inhabit their land or about women getting the right to vote, it made a lot more sense.”

*face palms*

Perhaps here we continue our ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation and it’s subsequent pitfalls.

Here’s writer Ruth Hopkins:

Baum was a white supremacist; a flaming racist who called for the extermination of all American Indians.

Before Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he was the editor of a newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota. South Dakota is the home of nine Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) Tribes. On December 20, 1890, nine days before The Wounded Knee Massacre where over 150 Lakota Sioux, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the 7th Calvary (Custer’s regiment), Baum wrote an editorial that called for the genocide of every last American Indian.

You guys, not only did you unlock the ire of beautiful women of color with your cover, you also sanitized history. Baum notes, and rightly so, that this imagery “is akin to putting a picture of a Gentile in a stereotypical Jewish getup on the cover of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” It can’t be our whole responsibility to educate you all about racism, the dark legacies of colonialism. It really can’t. You can teach yourselves too. But I do have a few suggestions. Perhaps, next time in the creative meeting, take a look around the room, ask the question if these images will offend anyone, and if the person sitting next to you isn’t a person of color, ask yourself why that is? Ask yourself if you know any? Consider doing the good work of hiring someone to reflect the plurality of the world we actually live in, so the next time you pitch “African Queen” spread, he or she will be there to stop you.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • Hannah

    Umm, you’re aware Baum was using satire to poke fun at the actual racists alive in his era?

    Read his full editorial. To me, statements like ” He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies. ” seems to be at least somewhat pro Sitting Bull, especially given the era he lived in, and justifying the rebellions against racist whites of that era. He states that Sitting Bull, and others, rebelled because they lost their homeland.

    Certainly, Baum wasn’t as progressive as many in the modern era, I doubt he even understood the concept of privilege, but I would do some research before calling him a racist. He was a white man in a more racist era, who advocated for women and oppressed people to at least a small extent, and was considered progressive. If you cut out parts of his editorials, they come across as racist, because you’re not reading his full opinion and missing the intended satire. Could he have been better with his humor? Could he have been more outspoken? Of course.

    • Angel H.

      Nothing about that quote or the attached link does you any favors:

      1) “He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit” – dehumanizing Native Americans
      2) “forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites” – because only white people are hard workers?
      3) “Redskin” – srsly?
      4) “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent” – bullshit
      5) “the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians” – And this is satirical, how?
      6)”Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” – We totally screwed them over, so let’s them wipe ‘em out so they won’t live to tell the tale?

  • Guybrush Threepwood

    Quick note: in the section, “You guys, not only did you unlock the ire of beautiful women of color with your cover, you also sanitized history. Baum notes, and rightly so, that this imagery “is akin to putting a picture of a Gentile in a stereotypical Jewish getup on the cover of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” It can’t be our whole responsibility to educate you all about racism, the dark legacies of colonialism.”

    I think you want “Hopkins notes,” rather than creepy-racist-author-guy “Baum notes”.

    But indeed. Right on – there’s a case to be made for separating authors from their work, but flaming racists and their Native American genocide calls do not get a pass through that.