Tyra Banks Dresses as Other Supermodels, Raises Cries of ‘Whiteface’ (Participation)

Tyra Banks Dresses as Other Supermodels, Raises Cries of ‘Whiteface’

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.


4 thoughts on “Tyra Banks Dresses as Other Supermodels, Raises Cries of ‘Whiteface’ (Participation)

  1. Because she is paying ‘tribute’ to fellow models I think this can be taken more lightly, than if she was actually trying to offend white individuals. If she was deliberately mocking these models based on being white it would become offensive. Having watched her show on many occasion, I know she like to use this exercise with her models, dressing up girls to take on the role of different races, so this kind of modeling isn’t ‘new’ for her. I agree that if it were a white model paying tribute to black models, she would be scrutinized for using blackface. I think it is because of the historical background of blackface. Blackface has negative connotation tied to it and can be deemed as more offensive. Nowadays, both whiteface and blackface are usually done in good taste, however. There are so many examples of blackface and whiteface today, Fred Armisen, a comedian who acted as Barack Obama in some sketches for Saturday Night Live, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks, the list goes on. I honestly think it depends on the context in which someone is using black or whiteface to determine whether it is offensive or not.

  2. Deanna: Is the point of the article as well that the history of Blackface is tied to history of racism, history of minstrelsy, the history of lynchings and dehumanization. There is no parallel history when it comes to “whiteface.” So, given this history is there even a comparison? And can blackface (irrespective of intent) exist apart of from this history and its meaning?

  3. To me, both black face and white face are beautiful. However, in fact, many people believe that white face is nicer than black face. Actually, in my country, white models, singers, and actresses are more popular than black people. Also, we usually regard white women as pretty and cute while black women as cool. Moreover, white women are thought of innocent beauty. On the other hand, black women are considered as not innocent but tough and powerful. In my opinion, we have an image that white people are protected by nature. Meanwhile, we might think black people are offensive because of history. Black people rebelled against white people, so many of us may think that. In addition, as we watched the video in class, most of the models were whites and the number of black models was minority. It means that white faces are needed by audience in the fashion show because they think that white face is one of the icons of beauty. At the same time, I am Asian and proud of my face color. So, I wish yellow face would be popular in the world as well.

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