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Commentary: Color matters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2010 - Pictures of Claudia Schiffer taken in 2007 by Keith Lagerfeld have surfaced in a German publication and drawn criticism. The two pictures drawing the most attention are the ones of Schiffer in black face and another in yellow face.

The trend of Whites putting on color has a history in fashion and film . One of the main criticisms is that plenty of people of color are qualified to vie for such positions, and to assume that a White person can simply wear race or culture is, at the least, condescending.

Stuff happens. Most of us have pictures or words we would like to take back. In my opinion, that's not a shocker. Of course it would be easier simply not to offend, but no one is perfect (Note: I am speaking of the general population not those who intentionally seek to hurt others with insults). I believe it's what we do after we've offended that shows our true colors rather than whether we have transgressed or not.

In this case, what I find most problematic is the response in defense of Schiffer .

Her rep asserts that the pictures were "taken out of context," "not intended to offend" and were mean to "reflect different men's fantasies."

First, nothing exists in a vacuum or is void of history. Within the fashion world and larger society, the controversy of Black face and Yellow face is not a new concept. Therefore, Lagerfeld, Schiffer and her rep should acknowledge that the context of the photos includes a conversation and criticism of such an approach.

Second, even though the photos were not meant to offend does not exclude them from having a negative impact. Under the law , you may still be held accountable if you did not intend to harm someone else. To add insult to injury, Schiffer's rep adds that we should "not jump to conclusions," because "they are some of Karl Lagerfeld's favorite images of Claudia." Oh, that makes it all good then. Claiming blameless because of Lagerfeld's status does not relieve culpability. It even holds less weight than the "my best friend is _____ (fill in the blank) response.

Third, to use the rationale that these photos are excusable, because they represent men's fantasies is inherently weak. The damaging history of the hypersexualization of Black women and exoticism of Asian women should be high on the list of topics Schiffer's rep might want to avail himself of before using it as an basis for her defense. This knowledge would inform him that many fantasies are fueled by distorted and limited representations of women of color and should be questioned rather than reified through artistic expression.

To be fair, Schiffer is not alone in her faux pas within the fashion industry and beyond. However, it might behoove her to pause to learn from the criticism rather than rationalize her actions, which do not occur within a vacuum.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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