Tag Archives: Vogue

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.

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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)

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What’s Missing in Vogue Italia’s “Tribute to Black Beauties”

Word in the blogosphere is that Vogue Italia has published yet another all-Black editorial in the current issue, titled “Tribute to Black Beauties.” This, following their February 2011 editorial called “The Black Allure.” Recall too that in the same month, American Vogue ran its own all-Black editorial called “Gangs of New York” featuring Joan Smalls, Ajak Deng, Arlenis Sosa, Chanel Iman, Anais Mali, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez in Rodarte. (Also, who could forget the much-hyped all-Black issue of Vogue Italia in July 2008?) I haven’t picked up a copy of the current issue yet but from what I’ve read about the issue, there’s some room for optimism.

For example, the feature article takes great care to recognize the heterogeneity and diversity of Blackness. Here’s a translation of the article, written by Claire Sulmers, (founder of The Fashion Bomb):

With bright eyes peering out under deliciously curled lashes, cheekbones and jawbones contoured as if chiseled from sharp stone, full noses, and sumptuously lush lips, black women are unquestionably beautiful.

A tribute is due to the woman whose skin tone ranges from alabaster to mahogany to smooth onyx, who can flawlessly carry any makeup look—from gold dusted lids to fuchsia blush to ripe purple and pink glosses. These pages pay homage to the versatile woman whose hair can oscillate from a tightly coiled and coifed Afro, to sleek layers, to a slicked back pixie cut in a matter of minutes. To the divine woman whose enviably full lips, strong, white teeth, and delightful smile have been known to electrify the hearts of many. To the siren whose smooth, velvety skin blocks the sun yet remains supple and unblemished with the passage of time.

Variable and diverse, black beauty escapes simple classification. But no matter the incarnation—whether the color of molasses, café au lait, bronze, tan, or tinged like desert sand—black beauties radiate with poise and multidimensional splendor.

It’s great that we’re seeing more non-white models in the representational landscape of fashion but clearly, traditional fashion media can do better. First, the separation and containment of non-white models in “special” editorials in mainstream rags ultimately reproduces and secures whiteness as racially normative.  Second, the bodies of the most popular Black and Asian models are also physically normative – thin, tall, young, and able-bodied. And finally it’s important to remember that despite all the hype surrounding all-Black editorials or “the rise of Asian models,” major fashion magazines and industry events continue to be glaringly white. That is to say, most of the modeling jobs continue to go to white models.

Despite Alexa Chung’s views on blogs, they are important sites of new fashion media because they introduce into the fashion imaginary a diversity of bodies that are still being shut out of traditional fashion media. In fact, a great many non-white, non-tall, non-model thin fashionable types featured in fashion magazines are bloggers like Susie Bubble, BryanBoy, Tamu McPherson (my new favorite!), Tavi Gevinson, and Lesley Kinzel – though they often appear in special feature stories about bloggers.

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What To Wear If You Are A Pictish Priestess in a ’70s Occult Film; And, Some Link Love

I haven’t much perused fashion blogs for some time now — in the last month at least I’ve reserved most of my allotted blog-reading for Days of Rage, the reinvigorated Wisconsin labor movement, Republican attacks on reproductive health and public education, and the spectacular fallout from the Sexual Nationalisms Conference in Amsterdam. But by chance I visited Fashion Toast, where photographs of the Pamela Love Fashion Week presentation at Milk caught my eye. These photographs and the models’ styling put me in mind of a ’70s occult film, the sort where a convent of devout nuns, uncannily situated atop a cliff in the wild British countrywide, is revealed to be the nefarious disguise for an ancient clan of Pictish priestesses! Awesome.

From Fashion Toast, of course!

Also, Fashion Toast.


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Some link love, in the meanwhile. Catherine Traywick penned this lovely review of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Beautiful Generation for Hyphen Magazine. These paragraphs in particular point to the importance of Tu’s theses for understanding the geopolitics and economics of much of the fashion criticism generated by 2011 New York Fashion Week:

Though [China and Korea’s] fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week — in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York Times Suzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo — notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese — even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

And Sami Khan writes for Stylecaster on Vogue‘s recent, head-in-sand profile of Asma al-Assad, the “glamorous, young, and very chic” wife of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Add this to the long list of stories about the sartorial semiotics of autocrats’ wives! (When I have a free moment –ha!– I may address this list.) Khan astutely observes,

Despite what we’d like to think, in much of the world, glamour, style and Western-appearance are not synonymous with democracy and freedom. Many of the most brutal regimes in the world are run by families who were educated at fancy universities in England and America, do their shopping in Paris and their vacationing in Saint-Tropez, while back home attack helicopters are gunning down peaceful protesters.

While it’s unlikely that Vogue consciously timed the piece now to coincide with the current wave of protests sweeping across the Arab World, the article’s publication does seem a little unfortunate – especially considering the al-Assad regime has recently gone out of its way to harshly crack down on any democratic stirrings in Syria.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic also writes about Vogue‘s misstep, helpfully annotating the flattering portrait’s blindspots:

The article’s fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its “axis of evil.” Bashar’s Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria’s borders, where a half-century-old “emergency law” outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.

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Fashion and Race: Running (from) the Numbers Game

Benetton is notorious for its multicultural windowdressing.

Thus far, I’ve read only a very small number of September issue fashion magazines: American Vogue (chock full of great or more precisely, useful, evidence for my research on the democratization of fashion), Teen Vogue, and New York Magazine. I have several others collecting dust next to my bed (including Bust, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire) – hopefully I’ll get to flip through these tomorrow on my way to Seattle.

So while I have little direct knowledge of this, it seems from the reports that two overwhelming trends emerge when we consider the September issues of the major fashion magazines: (1) an increase in advertising pages – 57% increase in Glamour and a 23% increase in Vogue – suggests the increasing strength of the national economy and (2)  that the fashion media and market is still constructed and organized in terms of middle class ideals of whiteness.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com and other blogs citing Stewart are criticizing the all-important September issues for featuring only the tiniest number of black models. Here’s the breakdown of some of Stewart’s findings:

  • While Halle Berry graces the cover of Vogue, she is as Stewart points out, not a model. In fact, no black models were featured in her own photo shoot whereas white models, Lara Stone and Karlie Kloss got 12 pages and Isabeli Fontana got 8 pages.
  • Harper’s Bazaar also featured no black models in her own photo shoot. Models Karmen Pedaru and Carmen Kass each have 12 pages to themselves while Dree Hemingway and Heidi Mount have multiple pages as well.

These numbers are instructive – to a point. They clearly demonstrate the continued bias toward whiteness as a beauty ideal (for starters) in the U.S. and more broadly, Western popular imaginary. However, what these numbers don’t tell us is how many Asian or Asian American models were featured, how many Latinas, how many Chicanas? How many mixed race models? How many African American models? How many Caribbean models? And, in those magazines that were lauded for having at least one major shoot featuring a black model (Elle, Allure, and Teen Vogue), how are such inclusions enabling diversity? In other words, the difference between diversity and inclusivity are not attended to in the numbers game.

Pluralist multiculturalism has been roundly dismissed by progressive academics and activists for being an ineffective way of securing anti-racist goals. In fact, racial inclusion without diversity (e.g., real transformations in the social, cultural, and economic structures of the fashion industry, for example) actually reifies the dominance of whiteness – and along with it, elitism, heterosexism, and patriarchal notions of femininity –  by incorporating racial difference in such a way that it makes no difference.

What’s more, the focus on the number of black models in fashion magazines – as my litany of questions above is intended to illuminate – subsumes more complex questions about racial diversity within the category of “people of color” as well as among “black” models. Finally, framing race analysis within the coordinates of “black” and “white” unwittingly erase the specific issues and experiences of non-black people of color.

I’m a little embarrassed to make these points to Threadbared readers who I’m pretty sure will find them to be almost stupid-obvious. And yet, there it is. Here’s to gentle reminders then . . .

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Anna Wintour Totally Gets Popular Culture

Given the surge of backlash against fashion bloggers in recent months by self-appointed gatekeepers like Anne Slowey, Joe Zee, Simon Doonan, among many others, I was gobsmacked by Anna Wintour’s rather positive comments on the subject at the Pratt Institute last night.

We love as much coverage of fashion as possible. We don’t care at all where it comes from, and we embrace bloggers and video and social networking, and anyone that’s talking about fashion is a good thing . . . what’s interesting to us with this new phenomenon that ‘everyone’s a fashion editor, everyone’s a fashion writer’ is that all of that actually helps Vogue.

To be sure, Wintour is not putting forth a populist perspective on bloggers nor is she really advocating the democratization of fashion writing. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. What I find fascinating (and frankly, impressive) is her clarity about the assimilative operations of popular culture within the context of consumer capitalism. While the gatekeepers continue to hand-wring and carp about the devaluation of professional fashion journalism by amateur bloggers, Wintour understands that, as with many marginal practices and bodies throughout the history of commercial culture,  fashion blogging is being absorbed and incorporated into the mainstream. Historically, this absorption and incorporation has been the process by which mainstream institutions of popular culture maintain, secure, and expand their dominance. The assimilation and commodification of fashion blogging (which unevenly benefits some bloggers) works to contain the threat of difference through a depoliticized mode of liberal tolerance and pluralism. As such, it is to the economic and cultural advantage of fashion stalwarts to be magnanimous about fashion bloggers.

And anyway, many bloggers blog not because they want to overthrow the powerhouses of the fashion industry – they want in.

from BryanBoy's post (30 Oct. 2009) "Anna Worshipper Part 3"

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PODCAST: Addicted to Race

If you missed hearing Minh-Ha co-hosting Racialicious.com’s weekly podcast called “Addicted to Race” with Tami Winfrey Harris (of Love Isn’t Enough) and Lisa Wade (of Sociological Images) last Sunday afternoon, click here to listen.

FYI: The discussion on the French Vogue blackfacing fiasco we posted on begins at around 39:30 on the time counter. Also, there were a few moments of technical difficulty so expect some dead air.

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Blackface, and the Violence of Revulsion

This post is supposed to be about the latest occurrences of blackface in fashion — specifically, the 14-page editorial featuring Lara Stone, a white Dutch model, painted black and shot by Steven Klein for the October 2009 issue of French Vogue and also Carlos Diez‘s show at Madrid Fashion Week (September 22, 2009) in which models walked in blackface and, at times, with bared breasts.

There is indeed quite a lot to say about both events. To begin, fashion’s seeming ineptness for dealing with race in ways that do not accommodate and/or supplement the already too long histories of racial objectification and commodification. We’ve discussed much of this history on Threadbared (see especially here, here, here, here, and here) already and will no doubt continue to, as there seems to be an inexhaustible amount of material. Second, these events (and others like it) are revealing of the ways in which multiculturalism and multiracialism –under the guise of postracialism, postmodernism, or just artistic edginess– enables the continuation of white supremacy. For example, some are defending French Vogue for its provocativeness (“creative images . . . can sometimes [be] off-putting”) and for its postracialism (arguing that it is “sort of beautiful in that having a person of one ethnic background look convincingly like she might be of another race shows the interconnectedness of us all”). But what is on display in French Vogue and on Diez’s runway is not beautiful black bodies, but what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point” that white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.'”

The “violence of revulsion” that women of color generally, and black women particularly in the cases of this issue of French Vogue and Diez’s show, experience is not mediated by these “edgy” acts of “postracialism”. In fact, the violence of revulsion is redoubled here. Blackface highlights the privileged universal empty point that white bodies continue to occupy even in this so-called postracial moment, and in so doing, it positions racial difference against whiteness, as the other to whiteness. Moreover, blackface and other performances of racial commodification produce a different kind of “violence of revulsion” — an everyday violence of revulsion like I experienced when I discovered Klein’s editorial and Diez’s fashion show.

By this second order of “violence of revulsion,” I mean the assault of racism and the assault of colonialism’s traces on what was for me, until that moment of violence, a relatively mundane workday at home. Violently interrupting this scene of banality is not simply these images of racial arrogance, but my own visceral response of anger, exasperation, disappointment, and a feeling I can only describe as racism fatigue. Such images and their inevitable postmodern, postracial, freedom-of-artistic-expression discourses and apologists are not only tired, today they are tiring.

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