Fashion : The Need for the Exotic Other

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March 13, 2013 By Ossob Mohamud

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The fashion industry has done it again. Take a look at this ingenious “African Queen” photo shoot depicting a white model in blackface.  It’s understandable I guess, we all know the perennial struggle of the fashion world to ‘find’(as in, hire) black models.  But sometimes they do, and the result can be even more catastrophic. In 2011 a French fashion magazine had another African Queen theme, this time featuring none other than American megastar Beyonce. What is this inexplicable ‘love’ for the African Queen anyway? I’ll get to that later, let’s get back to Beyonce in blackface and face paint.  As Afua Hirsch explains perfectly, the added pain of seeing a black woman donning blackface is that blackness is only appreciated when caricatured and exoticized.  But when it comes to maintaining celebrity status and global appeal Beyonce has appeared lighter and blonder by the year. What about this “Out of Africa” issue by Vogue India . Although the model is Indian the problem remains the same: Africa is just one big game park. So we obviously know, and cannot possibly deny, that the African Queen (and themes like it) is a racist trope. Why then the fascination with and insistent use of it in fashion magazines despite consistent backlash? Well here is a wild guess. Quite frankly, the western imagination needs to perpetuate the image of the African (and people of color in general) as tribal, backward, and Other.  There is utility in forever portraying people of color this way because it ensures the survival of white supremacy.

Let’s tackle the tasteless and offensive disaster that was the recent swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. To put it briefly, the novel idea was to place half naked (predominately white) women next to locals in exotic locations around the world. Of particular interest to me is the photo of the Namibian and the Chinese man. As a blog in Racialicious aptly points out, the glaring problem here is that people of color are intentionally put into servile roles so as to enhance the master as white and the servant as nonwhite paradigm. Asides from that, people are not meant to be exotic backdrops or props because it divests them of humanity (the dehumanization of the models in these photos as sex objects is also important to acknowledge). It is important to notice what magazines like Sports Illustrated decide to depict and how. For example,  Dodai Steward of Jezebel asks a valid question: “there were no people-props used in the Australia photoshoot. Australians probably aren’t exotic enough?” Perhaps they couldn’t find any consenting Aboriginals to put in.

The marginalization of people of color in glossy magazines is not only a fashion industry sport nor is it strictly a western phenomenon. Take a look at this photo-shoot of a wealthy Colombian family. It might take you a while to spot the black maids in the background. The photo sparked  predictable outrage. Where should I even begin, or is there a need to state the obvious? Why was it found necessary to include the maids if not to announce the racial and socioeconomic superiority of the four Colombian women?

This photo and all the others discussed, may differ in the severity of the offense but they are offenses. They serve the same function and that is to bolster white supremacy and  juxtapose whiteness with darkness, wealth with poverty and development with stagnation. These photos pigeonhole people of color into roles that silence and degrade them. It would be very refreshing to see something new, something that not only reflects a diverse reality but also preserves the dignity of the peoples of the world. It’s high time to give up this obsession with the  narrative of the exotic other and to recognize a world that will no longer quietly accept the appropriation and disrespect of its cultures and histories.

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