By Jillian Miller
If you are familiar with photography, then you know that pressing the button of a digital camera half-way causes the lens to auto focus, drawing in the most light possible. Makes sense, right? Photographs require light to be clear and focused. But how does the camera’s quest for more light impact our society’s perception of race and skin color?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Rosie Cima’s article for Priceonomics called “How Photography was Optimized for White Skin Color” outlines the development of film, done predominantly by wealthy white men in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The assumption of “whiteness” in the subjects to be photographed caused film processing to be chemically adjusted to photograph white skin well and dark skin poorly. Not only that, but until recent years, photographs were calibrated against a photo of a Caucasian model for color reference (Cima). Entering the 21st Century, digital photography has allowed dark skin to be photographed more efficiently, but even with these advances, we seem to be stuck in a world that’s been deeply influenced by racially charged portrayals of people of color.
In 2013, African-American supermodel Tyra Banks put together an exhibition featuring photographs of herself made up to resemble 15 different supermodels, including some white women such as Cindy Crawford. Despite Banks’ stated intention to honor models she admires, the photographs raised objections—why, as a woman of color, is Banks allowed to dress up in “whiteface” when a white woman in her position would most certainly be lambasted for engaging in “blackface”? In response to this, writer Callie Beusman penned a piece for Jezebel that stated “Blackface was historically used to dehumanize and belittle black people. 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…The power dynamics are not the same.” Not only have black people been parodied and mocked throughout the history of American entertainment through characters like Jim Crow or Sambo, but the affirmation of whiteness through selected marketing and images continues to negatively impact the way that black bodies are portrayed. It took until 1996 for Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition to feature a black woman on the cover—that model, by the way, was Tyra Banks.
So doesn’t Banks’ decision to lighten her skin to look like white models somehow undermine her own progress and success as an African-American supermodel? During Cycle 2 of Banks’ reality TV show America’s Next Top Model, one young black woman objected to being made over as Supermodel Grace Jones, because it required her skin to be painted several shades darker. Banks reacted strongly, saying, “I feel like…ethnic women never want to be darker. Never…Grace is like a fashion icon; gorgeous, beautiful, black woman…I was just a little insulted by that” (Banks). Again, we see tension between the choice to lighten or darken skin color and the implications of such an action. These situations certainly beg the question of how black bodies are regarded and treated in the mainstream media. Even with the success of models of color like Banks or Jones, I have to wonder if much positive progress has been made in the portrayal of black bodies in American popular culture. And at the heart of the issue remain questions of appropriation: whose representation of black bodies are we viewing? Does the color of the person behind the depiction of a black body really matter?
In 2010, white Southern writer Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, The Help, was rocketed into international success when the film adaptation was released. On one hand, both the novel and film were well received by the public. On the other hand, many critics railed against The Help, accusing Stockett of creating damaging depictions of black maids. A predominant storyline throughout The Help is the self-righteous, bigoted work of white society scion Hilly Holbrook, whose crusade for the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” would mean all white households with black staff would be required to have a separate bathroom for the help. Holbrook’s main selling points in the novel:
Ladies, did you know that:
Black bodies are seen from Holbrook’s white perspective as “other,” which is evidenced by her claim that immunities are carried in the “darker pigmentation,” as well as dirty and diseased. Is this fictionalized plotline a result of how black bodies have been portrayed in American popular culture? Does Kathryn Stockett’s status as a white woman, and therefore endowed with white privilege, negate her ability to write truthfully about the life and experience of black maids in the 1960s South? University of Pennsylvania’s Alfred Reed, Jr. answers this question with a resounding yes: The Help is guilty of stripping away historical context, centering on interpersonal relationships too closely. When the story “dehistoricizes” segregation, then the acts and behaviors of segregation become “more like bad manners than oppression” (Reed), as though correcting the personal viewpoint of a few ignorant and mean-spirited characters (like Holbrook) could really mean lasting and impactful change in race relations.
Perhaps we are not surprised by this reading of The Help because it was written by a white woman; a white woman who meant for this novel to honor her relationship with the black maid who worked for her family when Stockett was a child. Yet even so, Stockett’s portrayal of black bodies seems negatively skewed. So the question is: Do American viewers, white or black, understand the ways they view black bodies well enough to begin to change how black bodies are portrayed and viewed? We seem to be aware that our perception of black bodies has been shaped by many inherently racist representations, but have we gotten to the point where we can step back and deal objectively with it?
I suggest that we are still in a place of ambiguity in this sense. In the 19th Century, the white patriarchy spent much time, money, and energy trying to find the genetic basis for race, in order to justify enslavement and segregation. This lead to the “invisibility” of white bodies, contrasted with the hyper-awareness with which black bodies are viewed—the history of film development showcases this fact. Now in the 21st Century, we recognize the racial divide this hyper-awareness continues to perpetuate. But how does society accomplish this paradoxical task: eradicate the hyper-awareness of black bodies we see illustrated in contemporary culture, while at the same time facing campaigns like #blacklivesmatter, which seem to call for a heightened awareness of black bodies? I propose that perhaps these tasks are not as paradoxical as they first appear. If we can move past seeing black bodies as the “other” and accept their equality as part of our “normal,” then maybe we can finally make some real progress as a society with true racial equality.
Banks, Tyra, and Ken Mok, prods. "The Girl Who Needs Six Months of Modeling
School." America's Next Top Model. 3 Feb. 2004. Television.
Beusman, Callie. "Tyra Banks Dresses as Other Supermodels, Raises Cries of
'Whiteface'" Jezebel. N.p., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 23 July 2016.
Cima, Rosie. "How Photography Was Optimized for White Skin Color." Priceonomics. N.p.,
24 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 July 2016. <http://priceonomics.com/how-photography-was-optimized-for-white-skin/>.
Reed, Adolph, Jr. "Django Unchained, Or, The Help: How." Nonsite.org RSS. Emory College of
Arts and Sciences, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 23 July 2016.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Amy Einhorn, 2009. Print.