On Twitter, Tyra Banks previewed some images from her upcoming exhibition Tyra Banks Presents: 15, in which she transforms into “iconic images of her colleagues, competitors, and friends.” In the three images she posted, she’s emulating Cara Delevigne, Kate Moss, and Cindy Crawford. Because this is the Internet, people have accused her of “donning whiteface.” And so the circle of life continues.
The exhibition’s press release states that “the photography, styling, and transformative hair and make-up, along with Banks’ extraordinary ability to emulate each character, takes the notion of ‘black and white’ beyond the portrayed models’ varying ethnicity and a description of the photographs.” (Seriously, what does that even mean? Where did the notion end up?) Here are the images:
Some baffled White People have taken to Twitter and Facebook, asking questions like “Wait, so blackface is not cool but whiteface is?” and “I wonder if a white model did a ‘tribute’ to her fellow black models if she would get shunned for using ‘blackface.'” So here’s a friendly reminder that “whiteface” as an offense to white people is not a thing. Blackface was historically used to dehumanize and belittle black people; it originated as a racist form of entertainment in “whites only” establishments. Whiteface has no historical relevance. In a society that constantly affirms white privilege and power, painting one’s face white (in seriousness or in jest) doesn’t have the same negative connotations and fraught history as painting one’s face black. The power dynamics are not the same.
On the other hand, some argue that the racial offense lies in recirculating European standards of beauty. This is a far more salient point — at the very least, Tyra’s exhibition serves as a reflection of racism in the industry. Of the 15 icons chosen, only three are women of color (Iman, Grace Jones, and 15-year-old Tyra). It serves as a reification of fashion’s whitewashing and a reminder of the industry’s troubling tendency to lighten the skin of black women.
Personally, I think the concept of this exhibition would have benefited from less emphasis on race and ethnicity: it would be far more interesting — and maybe slightly subversive to industry norms — to see white fashion icons portrayed by a black woman without her skin painted light. Tellingly, though, this isn’t Tyra’s first time acting as though race is a rigid structure intrinsically linked to certain physical signifiers.