Um, Yeah, There's No Such Thing As Whiteface

Much like "reverse racism" or "reverse sexism," you can't just put your "thing down, flip it and reverse it."
Publish date:
September 12, 2013
tyra banks, whiteface, not

A few days ago when I told Emily that I'd "do white face," aka write about this whole hocus pocus over top model Tyra Banks doing what she does best -- that is model -- Emily's reaction was pretty awesome. "Are you gonna actually DO whiteface?"

I replied, "Ha! No."

"Thank God," wrote back Emily. Then we both breathed an e-sigh of relief and the world continued to turn.

But then just like when people say don't think of hamsters and then all you can think of all day long is hamsters, I got to thinking about what "whiteface" would actually look like-aside from, you know, pasty.

For those of you who don't follow the jerky roller coaster ride that is online "controversy," here's the low-down. Earlier this week Tyra Banks tweeted a sneak peak of a project she's doing called "Tyra Banks Presents: 15" in which Tyra Banks transforms Tyra Banks into models who are not Tyra Banks. The pictures released thus far are of Tyra reimagined as Kate Moss, Cara Delevigne, and Cindy Crawford.

Of course, some Internet people immediately began firing accusations of "whiteface," ala "Wait, so blackface is not cool but whiteface is?"

Obviously Tyra Banks is not the same "race" as Kate Moss (or Cara Delevigne or Cindy Crawford). So hair, makeup and lots of talent turned one of the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry into another one of the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry. Is the whole project which claims to take "the notion of 'black and white' beyond the portrayed models' varying ethnicity" a little bit odd, uncomfortable and maybe even off-putting? Certainly. But is it whiteface? Certainly not.

Much like "reverse racism" or "reverse sexism," you can't just put your "thing down, flip it and reverse it." There are levels to this shit. And I'm not talking about so-called "oppression Olympics," but historical context. Institutionalized injustice, whether it be for one's race, gender, sexual orientation or any immutable state of being, is based on generational brainwashing, biased laws on the books and, most recently, the mythology of equality.

Blackface is part of that canon, a staple of "minstrelsy," which in and of itself was a staple of racism. So when someone does "blackface," especially in some misguided attempt at art, it rightly incites criticism for being incredibly tone deaf and, in my view, just plain lazy.

It's pretty easy to dip a model in black paint and claim it's edgy. In Tyra's case she's actually trying to look like another real-live person. Not a stereotype, caricature or fantasy. Tyra isn't reducing her subjects to their lowest common denominator or solely pointing to the sheer novelty of the thing as in, "Hey look at me! I have on a bunch of makeup!"

For "whiteface" to actually be a thing, first there would have to be a solid history of villifying whiteness as ugly, disgusting, dirty and inherently sinful. Having straight blonde hair would get your daughter sent home from school -- in 2013. Being white on the right side of town would get your son stopped and frisked -- maybe even killed. And the illogical systematic seesaw would continue.

Then, in this same topsy turvy Sliders-style universe, when a famous black model, who, with scores of her black colleagues, dominates the runway, one day decides to play dress-up in the blonde hair you fought so hard to make "acceptable" and the white skin you can't wash off, then you can cry "whiteface."

But since that's not now, nor will it ever, be the scenario, let's find a better word to critique Tyra's vanity pet project. I'm going with "Whaaa" for now.