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Gala Spa Awards 2015

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Hi Winnie,

It’s pretty wild you began your Instagram post with “my response to this is probably not what a lot of people want but here it goes.” I read that caveat, adjusted my expectation meter accordingly to a low setting, and yet I was still shocked at what I read. Miss. Ma’am. There are white (and other non-black) women painting their faces to look like you, which means they’re using makeup to darken their skin in imitation of a Black person, which is Blackface.

Blackface is wrong. Full stop. That’s the entire statement, and for most of us here in 2015, it needs no elaboration. If you sincerely don’t get the difference between appreciation and appropriation, let me assist: these people could have painted portraits of you in appreciation. They could have sung songs in your honor and written sonnets to your glory. There are Tumblrs and photosets and appreciation posts all over this here Internet. And there should be, you’re stunning, successful and your fans appreciate you.

What these people in question have done instead, or in addition to that, is wear painted re-creations of your actual skin as a costume, which is a different thing altogether.

If a privileged person wears the racial or cultural identity of a non-privileged person as a costume, which includes artificially darkening skin, we’re well out of simple appreciation nation and into appropriation territory.

You may not want to identify as “non-privileged,” because I saw from your  follow-up tweets that you admonished those calling you out and mentioning systemic racism that they should “stop living in the past,” “no one ‘positive’ is talking about Blackface,” “ur clearly worried about the wrong thing,” “ur the reason we’re still moving backward,” etc.

That makes you sound like the type of person who feels that racism would end if black people would just stop talking about it. Your image (along with other gorgeous black models) presently graces the cover of Ebony magazine, and as your star continues to rise, your platform is increasing exponentially.

I applaud you for that. But what we won’t do is use that growing platform to condone Blackface. We won’t be backed and cheered by much of the black community only to rise to a certain rank and shit on those who got you there.

Your vitiligo is a skin condition about which you’ve spoken publicly, to the education, support, and elucidation of many. You’ve talked of the childhood bullying, and even said in this tragic Instagram message that your vitiligo is something that “once upon a time [you] cried yourself to sleep over. Models with albinism and vitiligo have additional challenges in the already looks-based and traditionally narrow-minded industry, and though we’ve seen some rise above and break through, you’re poised to triumph where others have stumbled. You’ve literally broken down walls, only to break on through to the other side, turn around, and immediately put every brick back in place for the black women following you to run smack into.

You should feel like a queen! I want every single one of us to love the skin we’re in, but it would be foolish of me to say that the journey to loving our skin is exactly the same for all of us, right? That’s what we mean when we talk about systemic racism. In a different context, you would likely feel offended if I said that you and someone without vitiligo are “the same” when it comes to loving our beauty and our skin, right?

We know that you’re not defined by your condition, and I love that you’ve publicly made the distinction that you didn’t struggle with loving your skin as much as you struggled with others’ treatment of you because of it. You could be the most self-assured and powerful person around, and someone who doesn’t have vitiligo could have all manner of self-image issues that are not visible on their exterior, but that wouldn’t prevent certain people from treating you a certain way because of how you look.

Your individual disposition alone can’t overcome overall the world’s general treatment of you. This is at the crux of systemic racism as well, and when you talk about people being “the same” and insinuate that those of us who challenge you want “segregation” or are living in the past, it’s not unlike if I asked you to stop talking about your vitiligo. Your individual disposition, that positive attitude and winning worldview can overcome just about anything, just like I believe we can overcome the societal ills of the past, but not without taking an honest look at how we got to where we are, and acknowledging that maybe the odds are stacked higher against some of us. That’s how we will change perceptions, create real progress and move forward. Not by ignoring history and declaring that everyone is equal because we want it to be so.

But listen to me going on and on when you may not even want to think further about any of this. After all, being a successful model does not make you an ambassador for race relations. But, when confronted with a direct issue, you chose to loudly and publicly be on the wrong side of history, which is why you’re hearing from me.

Tributes to you are beautiful. Wearing your skin as a costume, this core part of your identity that you can’t wash off after you take your pictures like the fools in those pictures did, well…that’s just plain ugly.

And hey–calling out appropriation is so icky! Talking about race is sometimes uncomfortable! And on top of that, these people in Blackface thought they were doing something nice! Something wonderful, in your honor! How could you then reject that?!

With tact, grace, and intelligence, that’s how. There’s a wide spectrum between a “feeling of love” and a “hate crime.” I don’t think your painted fans were being deliberately racist at all! And yet, their lack of malicious intent does not automatically remove the painful connotations of Blackface. You could have found the words to thank those fans for the beautiful sentiment behind an ultimately offensive gesture that is inextricably linked to the denigration of black people. You could have emphasized the spirit with which it was intended, while very gently acknowledging the problem.

Little black girls with full lips and cornrows or box braids don’t see their features reflected and celebrated in mainstream media unless they’re on white women. You have stated that you reject this fact, but point me to a teenage celebrity with a full bottom and big lips, who repeatedly rocks cornrows with a larger platform than Kylie Jenner who’s actually Black. I’ll wait.

And just in case you’re still wondering why this is such a big deal to some of us, here’s at least one reason: when I search your name right now, those pictures of women in Blackface as you pop up, as well as your own. In 2015. Blackface is being celebrated and widely disseminated because praised it on your sizable platform. So when you lament going back to the past, you did that.


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