kim kardashian blackface

Kim Kardashian has been accused of blackface in her contour makeup campaigns.

photo: KKW Beauty

From cultural appropriation to the utter lack of top Black models, the fashion industry has consistently slighted the Black community to the point where improvement seems hopeless. Using blackface in particular is a major way the fashion world offends Black people, despite the fact that it's the easiest thing to avoid.

Unfortunately, extreme tanning and applying heavy bronzer to mimic darker skin has been used as a way to draw in audiences for centuries, whether it's on stage or on social media, and its use shows how racism still lingers in fashion to this day. 

Unless you fell asleep in history class, you know that blackface in the US originated with minstrel shows in the early 1800s.

Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice was one of the most infamous faces in the minstrel world. According to American Heritage's "Behind the Blackface" by Robert C. Toll, Rice stole a dance and repackaged a song that a Black man named Jim Crow was doing one day. Next thing you know, Rice transformed into "Jim Crow" to "perform" in front of thousands. 

Using "burnt cork," he morphed into a stereotyped character that still influences American art today. Other minstrel performers at the time used shoe polish for the shows.

Minstrels were dependent on racial stereotypes (and stealing from Black people) in order to be successful. 

Rice and his contemporaries relied on stealing actual songs or performing exaggerated imitations of slaves in order to keep their shows on the road. Originality was definitely lacking, but they clearly didn't care — originality wasn't the appeal. Racism was. "It was a top-notch variety show performed in blackface and [B]lack dialect. Race was a central part of its initial and enduring appeal," Toll said.  "With their ludicrous dialects, grotesque makeup, bizarre behavior, and simplistic caricatures, minstrels portrayed blacks as totally inferior," he noted.

Following the Civil War, slaves entered the minstrel industry to play the white performers at their own game, even if that meant being stuck with the old stereotypes. 

In order for white performers to value Black talent, Black actors were restricted to performing stereotypes. "Because of minstrelsy, then, [B]lack people became part of American show business. Initially, they were limited to stereotyped roles and given little credit for their performing skills," Toll said. "But they had a foot in the door and could begin their long struggle to modify and break free of the patterns and images imposed on them by white minstrels."

Blackface didn't end all together with Black performers joining the shows. it simply moved into new mediums in the next century. 

Despite traditional minstrel shows losing popularity by the end of the 1800s, blackface still occurred in other art forms. "New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters," the NMAAHC page noted. 

Throughout the early 1900s, films featuring blackface such as "The Birth of a Nation" and "The Jazz Singer" popped up, with the latter even receiving an Honorary Oscar

Fast-forward to today, and yup, despite the obvious racism behind it, blackface is STILL around, but in a new — yet still disturbing — way. It's present in fashion magazines, on Instagram, and on the faces of the world's top influencers.

In plenty of fashion editorials, Black models have been substituted for an imitation of them. Whether or not the creator has the intent to insult, the result is still linked to hundreds of years of artistic abuse. Just consider the list BuzzFeed made of the countless fashion editorials that have used blackface, or the above Vogue Paris editorial, which seemed to think mimicking dark skin would be a way to show how fashion-forward or "edgy" a look was. According to Daily Mail UK, "French Vogue said it was unaware it had caused offence, but declined to make any further comment." Not exactly an apology.

Just like white performers in past centuries relied upon blackface to kickstart their careers, some creatives may cling unknowingly to those stereotypes for their own work. Noël Siqi Duan's essay, "Black women's bodies and blackface in fashion magazines," dived into this reoccurring theme. "Alongside the dearth of [B]lack bodies in fashion magazines, however, blackface has played a significant, even blatant role in creating 'edgy' images for the sake of selling fashion as an artistic art form," she said. 

Vogue Netherlands also painted a model in blackface for multiple confusing reasons.  

According to the Huffington Post UK, the magazine dressed a white model in blackface in order to reference Marc Jacobs' "tribal influences" while at Louis Vuitton. His collections referenced Black figures such as Josephine Baker and Grace Jones as well, which Vogue Netherlands allegedly attempted to interpret. There's likely some cultural disconnect there (consider the controversial Dutch holiday figure Black Pete), but ignorance isn't an excuse. It's unknown if the magazine ever apologized. 

For a Dom Perignon ad campaign where supermodel Claudia Schiffer wore blackface, the explanation made the shoot even more concerning. 

Not only did Schiffer portray a Black woman in an afro, she also attempted to portray an Asian woman in the campaign shot by Karl Lagerfeld. And no, the explanation didn't help at all. 

"The pictures have been taken out of context. The images were designed to reflect different men’s fantasies," Schiffer's representative told The Cut. "The pictures were not intended to offend, they were done very creatively and they are some of Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite images of Claudia. People should not jump to conclusions." 

So not only were the images racist, BUT they were racist in order to satisfy the male gaze. Lovely. 

With Numéro magazine, the accusations of blackface came from not just the excessive tanning, but the offensive labeling as well.

When photographer Sebastian Kim apologized for this Numéro "African Queen" shoot, he stated that they "wanted...tanned and golden skin to be showcased as part of the beauty aesthetic of [the] shoot," according to a statement to The Huffington Post

He also shared that he wasn't aware of the fact that the shoot would be dubbed "African Queen," and instead cited '60s icons and "[M]iddle [E]astern and Moroccan fashion inspiration." Kim insisted that tanning the model's fair skin wasn't an attempt to make her seem Black. "We at no point attempted to portray an African woman by painting her skin [B]lack." The publication released a long statement and apology to The Huffington Post as well. 

Regardless of the lack of communication, the indirect connections to the history of blackface in the shoot can't be overlooked. It's disturbing to think that by "tanning" a white model that somewhere down the pipeline someone thought that could be synonymous with being of African descent. Today, the paint may be lighter, but the disdain for actually hiring Black models persists all the same. 

Even influential Black women have been pressured into donning blackface, which is eerily reminiscent of the pressures Black minstrel actors faced in mostly-white industries centuries ago.

For an anniversary issue, Beyoncé wore blackface for an African-inspired shoot for L'Officiel Paris. In a statement, the publication said she "voluntarily darkened" her skin, which conveyed "a return to her African roots."

Many criticized her choice to wear blackface as a Black woman, with one writer from The Guardian pointing out her influence. "She is now a global, commercial brand; the look she has developed sells," the article said. "But blacking herself up in the image of an 'African Queen' as seen by French fashionistas? She really should know better."

There was also the time when Chanel Iman wore blackface for — wait for it — Vogue Italia's "Black Issue."

BuzzFeed noted how the issue only featured Black women, and yet Chanel Iman's shoot showed how fashion still unknowingly clings to old themes. It's unclear if the publication ever released a statement.

What's puzzling is why two public figures would still be stuck performing such tropes. Chanel Iman is multiracial, and both Iman and Beyoncé are fair-skinned Black women who are well-known faces in fashion. Why then, would two esteemed Black women need to paint their faces using a technique that Black performers were pressured to use in the minstrel community? 

Well, it's simply because those within fashion still have a limited perception to how Black women should be. Black models frequently fit two extremes: Either they're dark-skinned and perceived as  "exotic," or they're very fair-skinned and have more European features. "In the rare cases that [B]lack models are in fashion magazines, their appearances are either highly racialized or 'whitewashed," as Duan said. By putting Black models in blackface, it's making them fit the fashion industry's stereotype of Black beauty.

The problems persist in the beauty world, too, where blackface is treated as flattery.

As Revelist reported in 2017, makeup artist @notcatart created a Blackface look and captioned it, "F— MY WHITE SKIN! WHITE TO DARK...I love skin of all colors and this look is inspired from it[.] That we all are beautiful[.] And I wanna show you how it's beautiful...love it!" Yeah, it was bad. 

To make matters worse, he even used a racial slur when criticized by a follower (although he later deleted it). However, as of February 2018, his tutorial is still posted on his Instagram page

Makeup artists have imitated Black model Winnie Harlow's vitiligo as well.

Oddly enough, Harlow defended the imitators, according to Blavity. Harlow said on Instagram, "In a time when so much negative is happening, please don't accuse those who are showing love and appreciation, of being hateful. It is very clear to me when someone is showing love and I appreciate these people recreating, loving and broadcasting something to the world that once upon a time I cried myself to sleep over." 

But the thing is is, when fans who are neither Black nor have vitiligo imitate Harlow's face, it just shows how Black faces are viewed as a costume and dehumanized for likes by others. 

Modern-day techniques such as camera lighting, filters, tanning, and bronzer also complicate things.

Campaign images where stars have darkened their skin, not to directly imitate Blackness but for artistic purposes, have caused social media to view blackface in a new way.

Kim Kardashian was accused of blackface in 2017 due to her looking darker in some of her KKW Beauty images.  After the controversy, she "revised" the images so that she "appear[ed] to be closer to her natural skin tone," according to Insider

In an interview with the New York Times, Kardashian explained that she was "really tan" and that "it might be that the contrast was off." She also stated, "I would obviously never want to offend anyone." 

Although Kardashian clearly wasn't trying to be Black in the same way that Schiffer was with her drastically darker skin and afro, it was still off-putting considering that Kardashian has been accused of appropriating Black culture multiple times in the past. She has frequently used Black culture or styles to look "cooler," so it's easy to see why people think that influence carried into the KKW Beauty photos. 

With many brands, including KKW Beauty itself, getting heat for lacking a wide shade range for its products, it's ironic that some brands would take creative license and portray themselves in a "tanned" manner when they often lack products for dark-skinned consumers. 

Another infamous accusation of blackface in beauty occurred with the Jeffree Star Cosmetics Androgyny ad campaign.

When fans noticed how Dragun looked drastically darker in the images, many called it blackface. Dragun, who is a transgender woman of color, stated on Twitter that she "normally get[s] extremely tan" since she's "half Mexican [and] half [Southeast] Asian." She concluded her tweet by arguing, "[L]et's not trip over a spray tan."

But as Revelist noted at the time, photographer Marcelo Bantu has a tendency to darken models, including in his work with Kylie Jenner. That seems like a problematic trend.

Rather than dipping models in shoe polish like in the 19th century, bronzer, spray tanning, black lights, and the like have simply replaced traditional blackface, with creative freedom being the justification. 

Just like Thomas D. Rice, some creatives may momentarily adopt darker skin in order to draw in their audiences.

 "Because as long as white remains the 'default' race — the ethnicity that isn't — temporarily portraying them as [B]lack doesn't prove we live in a post-racial society: it just demonstrates that white people are permitted to play with racial categories in ways that people of color are generally not," Jezebel pointed out.

It's important to note that dressing up as another race isn't a form of flattery, but there is definitely a way to celebrate various races without copying them.

Models, creatives, and influencers need to use their status to celebrate and acknowledge their own cultures and skin tone, rather than imitating or excessively tanning in an attempt to recreate another. 

As Duan said in her essay, social media adds "an additional responsibility" to those with a platform. "Models are no longer anonymous faces," Duan said. "Suddenly, models, including non-white models, become complicit and responsible in the aesthetics of race." 

Those in the industry should be kept accountable, of course, but also shown how to utilize their status to highlight and celebrate their own culture, while simultaneously encouraging more Black and dark-skinned models to be cast.

Most importantly, people should remember that as long as someone's identity or career is reliant upon a filter or tan, then it could just as easily fade away. 

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