Unintentionally Eating the Other

Last Thursday, Crystal Renn, the model who recently appeared in a Vogue Japan spread with her eyes taped in ways that were suggestive of an old theater makeup trick meant to make white actors look “Asian,” offered an explanation and defense of the cosmetic practice. Tape, it should be noted, is only one of many tools in the arsenal of this particular form of racial drag, also known as yellowfacing – a practice that is literally older than America. Contrary to popular headlines suggesting that “yellowface is the new blackface,” there is nothing new or novel about yellowfacing. One of the earliest incidences of yellowfacing in the U.S. occurred in 1767 when Arthur Murphy presented his play The Orphan of China in Philadelphia.

What interests me about this moment of racial drag or “transformation,” as Renn’s called it, are the reactions to it and her own explanation of the decision to tape her eyes. In last week’s published conversation with Jezebel editor Jenna Sauers, Renn insists that she “wasn’t trying To ‘look Asian’ in that eye tape shoot”. And I wanted to believe her. I have great respect for Sauers. Her writing has always displayed a great deal of thoughtfulness and acuity and she’s been a generous supporter of Threadbared for a long time. For all these reasons, I approached Sauers’ conversation with Renn as a generous reader, willing to be convinced. After all, Sauers initially assumed Renn was yellowfacing too. If she could be surprised with Renn’s explanation, I thought I might be too.

Here’s how Renn explains the eye-taping:

  • In a way you become something else.
  • No, it tends to be when there’s more makeup and drama. And the point is transformation.
  • To transform is the greatest part of my work. It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. And to be able to try to do as many looks as I can and to show as many faces as I can, it’s exciting to me . . . I’ve had moles painted on my face. I’ve had freckles painted on.
  • I become something else.
  • We didn’t even think about [race] on the shoot. I’m the one who suggested it, and it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s something that I regularly ask makeup artists, you know, if it will bring something more to the character. Offer a different face.
  • As the model, as somebody who thrives on the transformation, I am beyond thrilled to do stories where they change my gender, where they take me and make me something completely different.

What is so striking about Renn’s explanation is its ambiguity. She never says what look she was going for – just that she intended to become “something else.” This intangible “something” that has more “drama”, more “character” , and is so “exciting” is, for Renn, not racially specific. It is instead a generalized exotica, an experience of vague sensuousness. But do racist acts require intentionality? And what are the implications of Renn’s deracialization of a practice that was so clearly racist to so many people?

“Eating the Other”

Renn’s understanding of this “transformation” is reflective of a broader cultural logic in the mainstream fashion industry that has historically viewed and engaged with racial difference as a depoliticized and dehistoricized aesthetic. Racial difference, evacuated of its history and politics, becomes a set of design elements and sartorial flourishes (a kente pattern here, a frog closure there, a Native headdress on the weekend – why not?) that are absent of meaning and context. Fashion’s depoliticization of ethnicity and race rely on and reproduce what Nirmal Puwar calls “the amnesia of celebration.”

The problem is that the violent racist abuse meted out to Asian women who have worn these items has no place in the recent donning of these items. . . “Do you remember when you thought we were ugly and disgusting when we wore these items?”

The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.

This desire for transformation through the Other is not unique to fashion; it is connected to a much longer history of what Black feminist scholar bell hooks (always in lower case) calls “imperialist nostalgia”: the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. Bodily transcendence through sartorial and cosmetic play is enacted by the consumption of otherness – a “courageous consumption,” in hooks’ words – because it is about “conquering the fear [of racial difference] and acknowledging power. It is by eating the Other,” hooks explains, “that one asserts power and privilege.”

But Renn wasn’t “even think[ing] about [race] on the shoot . . . it didn’t even cross [her] mind.”

Here, I want to return to my earlier question: do racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no. A well-intentioned compliment about how well I speak English or a clumsy flirtation that begins with a deep bow like I’m the Dalai Lama (both have happened to me) are meant to be friendly gestures that close the gap of racial difference. (“Don’t worry – I’m culturally sensitive.”) Yet, these examples are clearly born of racist ideologies about what “real” Americans look like and what are “real” Asian cultural practices. Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.

But I think Renn’s (mis)understanding about eye-taping and intentionality is suggestive of something more than unconscious racism. I think that Renn’s explanation exemplifies how race is understood in this “post-racial” historical moment. What does racial discourse sound like in the age of post-racism? Well, I think it sounds like Renn’s explanation. This isn’t to single out Renn for indictment; instead, my point is to suggest that Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license. Renn’s transformation is conditioned by its proximation to racial otherness and yet the language of creative license (Renn says: “To transform is the greatest part of my work.”) denies race as a driving and organizing factor in this transformation, it denies both her racial privilege as well as the eye-taping technique as a common cultural practice of racism. This kind of post-racial consumption of race in which the historical violence of racial difference makes no difference at all denies the ongoing reality of racism in the age of postracism. It is conditioned by the many privileges of whiteness (first and foremost among these privileges, a racially unmarked body). Recall Puwar’s incisive observation – which I’ve quoted numerous times on Threadbared – “It is precisely because white female bodies occupy the universal empty point which remains racially unmarked that they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized female bodies.”

We see the discourse of postracism also in Renn’s assertion that she is “not 100% morally okay with [blackface shoots] — I would feel that I’m taking a job from one of them. I would feel that I’m taking a job from a black girl who deserved it.” Renn’s sensitivity towards the need for more diversity in the modeling industry is not surprising. She has been a vocal proponent of size diversity among models (for a time, she was one of the most successful plus-size models) and has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders and the pressures that come with the constant scrutiny of young women’s bodies in the media.

Her statement that she would never engage in a blackface shoot does two things: First, it elides the issue at hand (yellowfacing) for what seems to be for Renn a more real and authentic act of racism, blackfacing. In so doing, her statement suggests that anti-black racism is the only authentic form of racism worth talking or caring about. Second, it suggests that practices of yellowfacing and blackfacing (like, redfacing and brownfacing) take modeling jobs away from nonwhite models. This logic assumes that these acts of racial drag are meant to represent an actual racial body. Let me be clear: yellowfacing is not a practice of racial substitution, of a white model in place of an Asian model. Photographers, magazines, and designers know Asian models exist and know how to hire them. But they don’t hire them for these jobs because yellowfacing does not intend for audiences to believe that the body in view is actually Asian.

I’ve become really impatient with responses to racist practices of racial drag that involve comments like: “Why didn’t they just hire a Black/Asian/Latina/Native model?” (Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.) This question glosses over the actual operations of yellowfacing, blackfacing, etc. which is not about Asianness or Blackness but about Whiteness. It is about consuming Otherness, it’s about making racial difference commodifiable and palatable through whiteness, it’s about reproducing and securing white privilege. To quote hooks again, “eating the other” – hooks’ term for the consumption of difference – offers:

A new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream while culture.

__________________________________

NB: It’s unclear to me who is actually to blame for Renn’s eye-taping. She’s insisted that it was solely her idea but editor-in-chief of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo has also taken credit for the idea. I asked Ashley Mears, a former model and now sociology professor at Boston University whose book about the political economies of the modeling industry called Pricing Beauty is due out this month from the University of California Press if Renn might be falling on her sword for Dello Russo. According to Mears, it’s plausible that Renn had some creative input. As she explained, “models tend to have very little input in the terms of their work or in how their images are crafted or manipulated. However, at the higher levels of the industry where Renn is working, in which stylists and models work with each other repeatedly on high-end productions, there is a greater degree of collaboration with models, especially if she takes initiative to be involved.”

Crystal Renn's other forays into racial drag, also published in Vogue Japan (June 2011)

44 Comments

Filed under FASHIONING RACE, THEORY TO THINK WITH

44 responses to “Unintentionally Eating the Other

  1. Nicola

    Very good discussion, although I am a bit surprised by the controversy. My first thought with the eye taping was that they were trying to mimic old style Barbie faces. The idea of yellowface never crossed my mind until I read this post.

  2. John

    Your explanation was very informed and presented well. I linked this article to a multicultural association FB page I belong to for food for thought.

  3. This is good, and the idea of “eating the other” certainly rings true for me as a white girl. Even though I think of myself as anti-racist, I’m still attracted to “exotic” consumerist spectacle and the idea of transforming myself through racialised costuming. I’m always trying to be more mindful and less of an asshole, though.

    I also wanted to say that I’ve noticed lately (in the comments here, for example) that the most popular white conceptualisation of racism is wholly concerned with individual intention rather than systemic disenfranchisement or differential outcomes. I doubt I can say it better than Rich Benjamin:

    “Americans love to reduce racial politics to feelings and etiquette. It’s the personal and dramatic aspects of race that obsess us, not the deeply rooted and currently active political inequalities. That’s our predicament: Racial debate, in public and private, is trapped in the sinkhole of therapeutics.”

  4. this is a very thoughtful piece.
    i grew up were my asian peers taped their eyes so they would have that ‘second lid’ to appear more ‘western’. it never occurred to me that non asains would do it in reverse.

  5. ebbtide

    Thanks, this is a fantastic post!

    “Yes, I believe there are anti-racist kinds of racial drag.”

    Mid-way through your post, I found myself wondering if such a thing is possible. Thinking about the many forms gendered drag can take, I’m willing to believe anti-racist racial drag it is possible, just as anti-sexist gendered drag is. After all, a genuine exploration of sex and gender is a far cry from frat boys dressing in heels with balloons in their dresses. But, all the racial drag I’ve encountered has fallen somewhere on the spectrum from offensively naive to aggressive mockery.

    What would you consider to be anti-racist racial drag?

    • One of my favorite anti-racist racial drag performances is a sketch John Leguizamo does in his one-man play, Mambo Mouth. His performance about a “cholo” transforming into a Japanese businessman and then back again reveals the contradictory but complementary racist logics underpinning both stereotypes. Also, the yellow minstrels of the 19th century in which Black actors played Asian characters in very stereotypical ways. Because the performance is by another racial minority, I think there’s something much more complicated going on than racial caricature, though. Remember, too, in the 19th century many Asian groups were already banned from immigrating to the US and those who were born here were often not allowed back in once they left the country for any reason. I don’t know enough about yellow minstrelsy to say much more than that though – just something that’s always interested me.

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  7. If the model had specified that the exotic look she was going for was Elvish or Fey, would there be this talk about racism? If this photo shoot was done by Vogue Italia would it be an issue? I agree that overt racism, the denial of rights to an individual based on their ethnicity, the hatred of another based on skin color or eye shape should always be abhorred and condemned. But it seems to me that looking for racism where none exists is becoming an issue.
    I am a student of textile art. I own many pieces of Thai, Japanese, Peruvian, African, vintage American (as in pre-Civil War), Swedish and other “ethnic” clothing. I find them beautiful and amazing pieces of art. By hooks logic, if I wear any of these items I am engaging in racial drag and am being racist because I am trying to spice up my dull, white life with exoticism and consume the other. Never mind that the American and Swedish pieces were produced by other dull, white women.
    Why can I not own and wear these items because they are beautiful and I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into their construction? Owning and studying these pieces shows me ways of manipulating fabric that I may not have thought of by myself. Is this not a compliment to the original owner/maker? A recognition of skill? Yes, there is a wish to be like that artist; to have that skill. But I would never call it racist.

    In response to an earlier comment; it is easier to understand racism when it is at the personal level. We, as Americans, assume that the larger issues of racism have been addressed by the anti-discriminatory laws of our country. And it is so much easier to change one’s self than it is to change an entire country.

    • Paloma

      “We, as Americans, assume that the larger issues of racism have been addressed by the anti-discriminatory laws of our country.”

      No “we” don’t. The fact that you think your voice represents every American is telling.
      The rest of your comment reads as:

      But *I* kind of do this and have never thought about it before. I’m not racist?! Right? I’m not racist.

      And then you go back to ignoring the opinions of POC like always.

      • “Ignoring the opinions of POC like always.” No, I was asking a question so that I might understand another persons viewpoint. I was offering my views on an article that was implying I, because I own and wear clothing from a different culture from my own, am being racist. And I was suggesting that word choices and context make a big difference in people’s perceptions about what is meant.

        How is my wearing a piece if Thai applique work racist? Why do you or the author of this piece, or anyone for that matter, find it so? Seriously, I would like to know. Because, yes, I never thought about it as racist. Since the person who gave me the garment is a friend from Thailand (and is Thai) and fully intended for me to wear it I can’t imagine they thought it would be racist either.

        Perhaps it would have been more correct to say that, “I feel that Americans” but I do think most people are more concerned with dealing with racism on a personal level because that is where it is easier to understand, talk about, and try to change. Which is why I read articles like this one, make comments and try to understand someone else’s views without making derogatory remarks.

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  10. Barrett

    Thank you for this great synthesis of hooks’ “Eating the Other” with Renn’s/Vogue’s practices. Particularly cool was your discussion of why magazines, etc. don’t hire more POC instead of dressing their white models in POCface. This is a great piece all around.

  11. Hi Melissa, thanks for reading. I really feel like your questions have been addressed in the post, particularly in the “Eating the Other” section. There, I talk about the privilege of racially unmarked bodies – white bodies –to selectively engage with and play with cultural difference without the historical burdens of racism, racialized sexism, and racialized classism. In short, white bodies in ethnic-looking clothing and accessories do not bear the burdens of being mistaken for a foreigner, for a “traditional” (read: unmodern and unliberated) woman, or for a fetish. Racism, while pervasive in our everyday lives (affecting people very differently depending on their social locations) is pervasive precisely because it radiates from and is reinforced by systemic arrangements of power that naturalize racism in ways that can make it extremely subtle. Your impulse to individualize racism ignores the institutional and historical operations of racism that have limited the opportunities, choices, and even lives of people of color in ways that they can’t choose because they are racially marked. Selectively engaging with difference is not a choice people of color have. This is why hooks says that the consumption of difference, the choice to take on the sartorial markers of difference, is a white privilege.

    For more on the histories and politics of cultural consumption, you might read Puwar and hooks essays (which I cite here) in full as well as Sunaina Maira and Mita Banerjee’s separate work on “Indo-Chic” and a new article by Anita Mannur and Pia Sahni on the same topic. A quick Google search on any these names or keywords should bring up their work quite easily.

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  13. Thanks for this great article. I think that Asian history and culture has been ahistoriczed and depoliticized so that it can become a cool consumer commodity in many areas, not just fashion.

    I have recently engaged with a group of colleagues about how use of Asian cultural/ religious artifacts and contemplative practices (Japanese bells, Tibetan prayer flags, Chinese martial arts, Indian yoga, etc) are currently presented as a certain kind of middle-class “aesthetic” choice. This idea of subjective “aesthetic” removes actual Asian people from the picture, often replacing them with white experts. It also removes from the owner or user any need to acknowledge that (a) these items belong to a specific culture and tradition; and (b) the user/owner has a relationship to that cultural history.

    This is dangerous in that it allows well-meaning folks who think they are anti-racist to engage in stereotype, individual prejudice, structural Orientalism without guilt or power analysis. The practice of eating the other — in fashion or other aesthetic or spiritual practices — prevents us from noticing that admiring and consuming Asian goods is not the same thing as an anti-racist stance. When we eat the other, we cannot hunger to know them authentically because we are already full — of ourselves.

  14. Hi Minh-ha,

    I think your piece is great and necessary — what you write about racially unmarked bodies, privilege, and the question of intentionality in racism is totally on-point and insightful. And I agree that Renn was unfortunately non-specific in her talk about “transformation.” (I probably should have pressed her harder on that.) But, with respect, I think you may have misunderstood Renn’s actions — you seem to proceed from the assumption that what she was doing was definitely, 100%, in fact, performing in yellowface. Again, with respect — because obviously I value your writing highly — I think that you may have failed to consider the other explanations she gave, and some other dimensions of the use of face tape in the fashion industry.

    I mean, obviously taping a model’s eyes can be a component of yellowface (the example that comes to mind most readily for me, which I mentioned and linked in the interview, is a toe-curlingly awful video directed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel that featured a grab-bag of white models with taped eyes, impersonating Chinese historical figures). And there are other examples, too — I don’t mean to imply that only something that egregious can be “truly” racist. And Renn errs insofar as she implies that the only offensive thing about blackface and racial drag in fashion is that it takes a job from a model of color.

    But there are a lot of ways that tape can be used to change the shape of the eye area. What about what Renn said about the tape proving effective to flatten the arch of her brow? What about how face tape (and the braiding trick that Renn also mentions) lifts, smooths, and basically acts like an instant eye-lift, in an industry where youth and having a youthful appearance is obviously privileged? What about the long history of face tape in drag performance? Given the industry is a queer-friendly — hell, I’d even argue queer-dominated — space, I think that dimension has to be taken into account, too. I didn’t realize until I interviewed Renn that face tape was so common in fashion; I’d heard of it once, in Australia, from a makeup artist who mentioned face tape was the most effective way to make an “older” star (by which she probably meant a woman in her 40s) look young and “fresh” on a cover. I think that racial drag is awful. And stupid. In about a million different ways. That you articulate extremely well. I’m just not sure that was what was going on here, at this matador shoot.

    • Hey Jenna,
      Thanks so much for reading! While we don’t agree on this, I totally appreciate the honest and thoughtful way in which you’ve taken up the issues of race in fashion and also in the way you’ve responded to this post – it’s why I’m such a fan of your work!
      Am looking forward to that drink! xo

  15. Karina Eileraas

    Fascinating intervention into a lingering and troubling sartorial “trend”. Yellowface, blackface etc are alive and well in contemporary fashion: staging a resurgence. Deleuze would have interesting perspectives on “eating the other”, as well. Have had a feeling that something intriguing would be coming my way soon via Threadbared… thanks!

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  17. Clare

    A category of people not discussed here, but whose outlook and work would be invaluable to investigate, is the make-up artists. How do they reflect on, or discuss the actual work of creating these ‘transformations?’ And what is the state of diversity in make-up artist ranks in the film and fashion industries? Are the two related perhaps?

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  37. E

    I don’t know that “racial drag” need be any more problematic than gender drag is; I’ve worked in Asian countries before, and as a painfully white woman, entertained coworkers with impersonations of our mostly male and white bosses and coworkers, or famous people, and definitely have gotten more laughs because of the contrast and cognitive dissonance those impressions created than for my astute mimic powers. In addition, as a person who has lived in multiple places, I wear clothing and decorate my house with things from those places, and I don’t see any problem with doing so in an informed way. What I do think is problematic is, say, decorating your house with a piece of calligraphy or religious art that you lack the context to understand, respect, or display properly. On the flip side, I know a family in China that loves Gollywogs and blackface-themed decor…and has proudly filled their home with them to show how cultured they are. It’s…arresting.

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