In Vogue Token Blackness?; as the Special "Black Issue Vogue" Hit the Newsstands amid Massive Excitement, Khadija Sharife Argues That What Italian Vogue Has Done "Is the Worst Form of Tokenism-An Instrument Used to Use Minorities, to Catalyze Controversy but Not Necessarily Change Anything"

Article excerpt

It's like icing on the cake. One had to page through almost 100 pages of the usual suspects (white models) in order to reach the 'exotica' of the day, in the much touted "Black Vogue" in the July issue of the Italian edition. (See New African Woman July 2008).

Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue magazine must not have been paying attention to the doublespeak that flowed from her lips when she commented on the scarcity of black models, in what I am presuming was the global industry vis-a-vis her recent decision to dedicate an "entire" edition to the 'specialness' of black models.

"I think this is a fault of the agencies and not the designers. The white girls sell more, so you only ever find blonde, blue-eyed girls. They don't dedicate enough time to scout black girls," she had said.

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This begged the glaring question: to whom are the white girls being 'sold' if not editors like Sozzani who determine what's hot (to use industry-speak) and what's not-and for that matter, who defines saleability concerning the concept, criteria and definitions of that which constitutes the face of beauty and how it is packaged and presented to the public, but Sozzani herself?

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Sozzani has deflected the historicity of 'blackness' in Italy, but maybe we can look past that; she did, after all, claim that (at least partially) her inspiration was drawn from Barack Obama.

"There were no black girls," she said, "but at the same time people were talking about Obama."

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Could Sozzani be ignorant enough to confuse the two issues? Obama stands a good chance of being the first black president, of what is arguably the most powerful country on earth, inscribing policies that affect global markets, especially those in developing countries. The issue here is not one of modelling or Sozzani but the culture itself; Gisele Bunchen, the world-famous Brazilian model with a $150 million personal fortune, looks nothing like most Brazilian women-and I don't speak of beauty here, but ethnicity and melanin.

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Brazil, a country which holds the largest black population outside of Africa, is also one of the most euro-centrically minded and racist countries on earth. The negative images and narratives of black Brazilians are derived from the historicity of slavery in the country; not only was Brazil the last country in the West to abolish 300 years of slavery but it was also the largest buyer of slaves. According to Patricia Pinho, a Brazilian sociologist, "The ideal of 'perfection' not only establishes white beauty as universal but even determines the election of beautiful people amongst non-whites, based on how close they come to the perfect white beauty."

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Sozzani's statement reflects the deliberate denialism so patently obvious and pervasive-a denialism that has proliferated the ethnic demography of the beauty myths and ideals that have, by default, resulted in the easy vilification of those who do not conform to the narrow standardised version of beauty that has discluded all but white blondes.

This specialness is the worst form of tokenism-an instrument used to use minorities, whether real of imagined, catalysing controversy but not necessarily change, and like icing on the cake, one had to page through 100 pages of the usual suspects (white models) in order to reach the 'exotica' of the day.

Not only does tokenism set apart black women from the mainstream by perpetuating the impression that they were and are an 'exotic' breed that could not appeal to the general public, except in doses, but it simultaneously emphasises the differences between the ethnicities-one the coloniser and the other, black women, as the colonised-by imposing skin colour as the dividing barrier, separating whiteness from blackness.

Reading between the lines, it seems that the new vogue is actually nothing more than the old vogue-redefining reality set against the power yardsticks, and by implication, beauty. …