Feather Meets Dot in a Brown Faced Way

For Halloween this year, I had an Indian friend dress up like an Indian (feather, not dot). She thought it would be ironic (in a way that I’m sure this man would not have gotten). No painting of skin tone was involved. I was thinking about her as I watched this.

The blogs are a buzz with the latest from America’s Next Top Model, Season 13. The short girl season (all the girls are under 5’7), Tyra Banks takes them to Hawaii where she photographs them in a sugar cane field. The twist? She takes the pictures of the girls as “hapas.” Hapa is a Hawaiian term for people who are of mixed race. For the shoot, Tyra gives each of the girls two races that she wants them to embody in the photo. A race other than their own. She paints them all brown and gives them props to achieve it.

The racial mixes — Laura was Mexican and Greek, Erin was Tibetan and Egyptian, Sundai was Moroccan and Russian, Jennifer was Botswanan and Polynesian. and Nicole was Malagasy and Japanese. Who were we gifted with? The model named Brittany was given “East Indian” meets Native American i.e. feather and dot Indian. Fast forward to 6.29 to see Brittany get her face painted. Her picture after the jump. Indian Indian ANTM.jpgOh Tyra Banks. Always toeing that line. With the history of “black face” in this nation, I can’t help but feel irked that all the models had to put on face paint for this shoot. It was like she was trying to create the ultimate American melting pot in this shoot, which she herself was shooting in this episode. And frankly, by looking at the final products – I don’t see how she was able to get both ‘races’ to come through the pictures with a little face paint and international props.

Is this fashion fantasy? Can skin colour be worn like any other fashion costume? Maybe the reason the wannabe super-models appeared so uncomfortable is because they were truly uncomfortable at pretending to be exotified hapa mixes, or subconsciously knew how inappropriate it might be to pretend to “look like different racial identities.”[schema]

As for the “mixed race clothing,” Tyra says in the clip that the girls are wearing a “fashion interpretation of it” even if the outfits don’t really match what come from the particular race. But, seriously, if you were a hapa Desi and Native American, would you really go around wearing a poorly draped sari and a feathered headgear like that?

And to add to that, the sari is draped over the wrong shoulder. Come on…!

When I saw this ANTM Indian Indian picture, I couldn’t help but think of this Sapna magazine fashion spread from April ’09, entitled Desi Fashion Gone Wild West. The photos consist of langas and cholis with boots and cowboy hats. I frankly found it absurd. But what if the Desi cowboys photo shoot met the Desi Native American photo shoot? It would take cowboy and Indians to a whole different level.

Sadly, the shoot was Brittany’s last and she was let go at the end of this episode. Apparently it was not strong enough because she “went for something safe” and sometimes “you have to let the art enter and just relax.” Honestly, though, can you blame her?

And a question to the mutinous horde, especially in the post glow of Halloween costumes of geishas, bellydancers, and other oriental wares — is there ever a time where painting face black (or brown, or yellow, or white) is alright? Was Tyra inappropriate in her brown-facing the models, or is this just how the fashion industry works?

This entry was posted in Art, Photos, TV by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

39 thoughts on “Feather Meets Dot in a Brown Faced Way

  1. Can we talk about how bizarre it is to assign clothing to a particular race? I think what Tyra did here is conflate culture and race in a very bad way – she makes a common mistake and further, popularizes it. Far too many of my friends here in college (myself included) watch ANTM every week, and to reach out to such a large audience with such a ridiculously unaware attempt at multiculturalism… For example, Filipino culture and South Korean culture are very different, but most Filipinos and Koreans are both East Asians if you want to talk about outdated 19th century racial classifications. And within Filipino culture, there are Muslims, Christians, atheists, all sorts of people. Korea of course is more homogeneous (and in denial, ref. this week’s NYT article about South Asians on the subway in South Korea). So you can’t have a Filipino-Korean ‘race’-based clothing mix – that doesn’t make sense, but a culture-based clothing mix would have made sense. And it wouldn’t have required brown-face. Why must your skin color change in order to depict a different culture? Are there not different cultures whose ‘peoples’ (read: races) are the same ethnicity/skin tone? It’s pretty sickening.

  2. Yes, but when the sari goes over the right shoulder (Gujarati styles esp.), it goes designed-side front, not front-to-back like in the picture. In the picture it’s just retarded looking. And you can’t even see the pleats! Plus, lack of blouse, much? Also I wonder how heavy those feathers were.

  3. is there ever a time where painting face black (or brown, or yellow, or white) is alright?

    I’m so torn about this. I’m sure Taz that maybe you saw/read about the white model, I believe in French Vogue, who’s skin was darkened for a photo shoot. Lots of blogs wrote about this and they mostly criticized it as “black face”. In the US the history of our race relations makes it seem too dangerously offensive to darken to one’s skin to portray a “race”; What if I wanted to be Marilyn Monroe and powedered my face white and wore a blonde wig? Would that be allright…well with my dark skin I’d look ridiculous first of all, second the powder would fall off, but thirdly b/c of this country’s past racial conflicts I think it could, potentially offend some people.

    A white friend or a light skinned desi friend darkening her skin to look like say Diana Ross also I think would be offensive in American culture.

    I am leaning toward though artistic photos shoots, such as the French Vogue display, with the white model, with a darkened face as fine.

    Another thing your friend dressed up as a Native American? I think that can be controversial. Long ago in my freshman year of college I dressed as a Native American with a picketing sign that said “down with columbus day”; But these days I think it would offend people so I wouldn’t do it. But it’s funny I would dress up as a Native American character from history. So the delineation for me is – can’t dress up as a race, but can dress up as a particular person from said race, say Sitting Bull or Pocohontas.

    My most fun costume to date to dress up – Ru Paul – so much fun!

  4. Tyra is an example of how a little bit of knowledge can make you look like an idiot.

    Everything she does is based on a paragraph of information she read and then she does a show about it.

  5. There are many ways to drapa a sari. Unfortunately, some of them are slowly dying out. And people think the nivi style is the “correct” way to drape it. It is not. The drape is not over the wrong shoulder.

    Also, saris were once worn without blouses.

    See Ravi Varma paintings for some various sari examples. This does not mean that certain sari drapes are incorrect. They are, if they are stupid, clumsy, etc etc. But there is no one correct way.

    All that being said, I agree that the whole idiocy of the theme. The first being that Tyra and the show mixes up race with ethnicity and culture.

  6. Am i the only one offended when terms like “feather” and “red dot” are used to differentiate native americans from Indians?? If you are black i’m sure you wouldnt appreciate someone saying “spear throwing or fried chicken eating” or something else equally retarded.

  7. this entire photo-shoot full of brilliant colors and costumes could have been construed in a much better way. For example Tyra could have done an episode about misconceptions between color/race/ethnicity and how race/ethnicity are cultural constructs that we impose of variations in genetic pigmentation. Obviously genetically “race” can’t possible exist because how do you define white, indian/south asian, asian, south east asian, black, latin american, etc? There is obviously cultural group but no definitive race- but for the sake of simplicity many use racial group/ethnicity to identify some loosely bound cultural group or those who identify within that group. Like why we have a race/ethnicity section on census surveys and pretty much any administrative form You could still get the great costumes/image play and distortion that the artist/photographer would love if only Tyra chose a different form of presentation. A whole episode on cultural/racial signifiers/ the power of image and ideology and stereotype would have brilliant and insightful. (or at least hinted at insight.)

  8. is there ever a time where painting face black (or brown, or yellow, or white) is alright?

    It’s only about blackface, but I still love this flow chart :)

    It’s not my place to speak on any other color, but as for brownface, when I see it, I think Gunga Din. So, uh, no. It’s not alright.

  9. “And to add to that, the sari is draped over the wrong shoulder.”

    Whoops, I never got that memo. But now that I think about it, you’re totally right. Good eye.

    I stopped trying to make sense of Tyra-isms long ago. I’m thinking she just throws darts at photos.

    This whole East Indian/Native American mashup dealie? I totally did that when I was six, had the feathers and everything. I told everyone I was Indian. Took me a while to get it right.

  10. regarding PS’s comment #5: It isn’t ever appropriate to use blackface, not even in “art.” If they wanted a model who looked dark, they should have hired a dark-skinned model. What blackface does is allow the media to present a front, that they appreciate diversity and love all skin colors equally and don’t exclude anyone, while still hiring only light-skinned employees/models/actors. So they look like they are equal-opportunity, but they are really rather anti-diversity.

  11. Seriously, guys, what do you expect. It’s American’s Next Top Model!! Can we expect anything from the “fashion” world besides silly overdone costumes no one would wear on overly skinny coathangers, er, models? I mean, since when does the fashion industry care about it’s greater impact on society?

  12. The fashion industry isn’t really a problem for people who have self-confidence from other areas. But looking stylish is a major part of many people’s self-esteem, and when brown-skinned people are turned into some kind of weird photo-shoot face-pant abstraction, that does nothing for those brown-skinned budding fashonistas. I think that’s basically the issue here. Tyra’s setting a really bad precedent.

  13. What bothers me most about the ANTM episode is not the use of blackface. It’s the random comments about lack of knowledge about various countries (or directions from Tyra to interpret different countries, e.g. “Egyptian – think of what they’ve been through!”) as well as the use of the word “exotic” to describe those other cultures. And the clothes – what the hell? “Fashion interpretation”, my foot. This episode perpetuates so many stereotypes, it’s not even funny.

    The French Vogue spread with blackface disturbs me in reference to that trend. So rather than getting an actual dark-skinned model, the magazine/photographer would rather paint a light-skinned model?

  14. Off-topic (and I may not know this because I haven’t seen the show in a while) but since when did Tyra become a fashion photographer? Does having an expensive SLR camera mean I too can be a fashion photographer?

  15. Who cares, yea technically speaking race and clothing are not related but the word ‘race’ doesnt really have any solid definition either. Especially not todays definitions. Those “outdated 19th century” definitions were probably more accurate for their purposes than the latest and greatest version of Race v2.0. Todays definitions will change as well, when version 3.0 comes out 2.0 will probably be laughed at by your future version. In any case, if you cant deal with a woman like Tyra Banks (i.e. airhead) having “technically inaccurate” costume parties then you need to stop watching so much pop-tv.

    MTV != Real World

    Pass it on.

  16. subconsciously knew how inappropriate it might be to pretend to “look like different racial identities
    • wtf why is this “inappropriate”? Sounds fun to me. It not like they are walking around everyday like this and living their lives in another identity. That itchy-trigger-finger-response to anything involving race, gender, sexuality, etc.. is what happens when a generation is raised by MTV and do not live in the Real World.
  17. “The fashion industry isn’t really a problem for people who have self-confidence from other areas. But looking stylish is a major part of many people’s self-esteem, and when brown-skinned people are turned into some kind of weird photo-shoot face-pant abstraction, that does nothing for those brown-skinned budding fashonistas. I think that’s basically the issue here. Tyra’s setting a really bad precedent.”

    Well if we take an industry that exists with one and only purpose– to make money– and then ask why they aren’t setting a good societal precedent, what answer can we come up with? It’s pretty clear to me, they don’t CARE about their larger social impact, they care about making as much profit as possible, and the entire fashion industry exists purely to make money. Why do we have revolving ‘styles’ which are in, and then 20 years later seem oddly familiar? Because if they don’t keep changing what’s “in” we will be happy with our old clothes, until, gasp they wear out. which good clothes, can btw, last 10+ years sometimes). That’s a lot of wasted money for the fashion industry. The best response? Make as many people as possible feel insecure and inadequate, and make them think the solution to this problem is buying more clothes/accessories, make-up etc.

    So why do we expect an Industry that kicks out a model (for being “too fat” (Filippa Hamilton) at 5’10″ and 120 lbs to care about embracing and loving “brown-skinned budding fashonistas”. The more they embrace and love someone, the less inadequate they feel, the less likely they are to buy outlandishly overpriced products which will go ‘out of style’ in 15 minutes.

    It’s like asking why the oil industries down support developing renewable fuel sources.

  18. One last point… even the “dove campaign for real beauty” is spearheaded by the same company (unilever) that is currently marketing fairness creams in India. Why do they have a campaign for real beauty here in the U.S.? PR. People have been starting to question how these advertising schemes are affecting people’s lives, so the campaign makes people in the U.S. ‘feel good’ and that dove is ‘ok’, not like the other companies, while they continue to convince people their skin-tone is all wrong in India

  19. “It’s like asking why the oil industries down support developing renewable fuel sources.” down= to (don’t ask me where these typos come from, my fingers have a mind of their own, apparently)

  20. I agree with both Anon’s posts:

    Who cares, yea technically speaking race and clothing are not related but the word ‘race’ doesnt really have any solid definition either.

    and

    subconsciously knew how inappropriate it might be to pretend to “look like different racial identities - wtf why is this “inappropriate”? Sounds fun to me. It not like they are walking around everyday like this and living their lives in another identity. That itchy-trigger-finger-response to anything involving race, gender, sexuality, etc.. is what happens when a generation is raised by MTV and do not live in the Real World.

    Although I don’t know if it has anything to do with being “raised by MTV”, I definitely think people are oversensitive about this whole “race vs ethnicity” issue, especially when race is a meaningless concept as it is. To me, saying “I’m of the Black/White/Asian/whathaveyou race” is racist in itself, because why make that distinction at all, why not say we are all human? Society hasn’t progressed quite that far yet, but in the mean time, to “conflate” race with ethnicity is as much of a crime as conflating the colour red with the shade of crimson – even if it’s inaccurate by today’s current definitions, I don’t see it as something to get offended about.

    In fact, I would say that colouring white models’ faces dark to emulate a darker-skinned “race” is a step in the positive direction, it’s definitely preferable to dark-skinned girls being ashamed of their dark skin. Yes, you could say it’s stereotyping to say that “Indianness” means “dark skin”, but it’s no more stereotyping than any of the other photo shoots where models dress a certain way to represent a certain job or anything else. When we are all able to hear “yeah, Indians tend to have darker skin than do ‘white’ people”, “Scandinavians tend to be on the pale end of the spectrum” or “East Asians tend to have straight hair” and not gasp in horror, that will be the sign that we truly see such physical differences as trivialities. Getting offended only goes to show that we give these things more importance than they deserve.

    As for the inaccuracy of the costumes – come on. That really is taking offence too far, in my opinion. She clearly said it would be a “fashion interpretation”, and while I don’t claim to be a fashion expert, I am a regular watcher of ANTM and I haven’t seen reality or accuracy being a big part of any of their other costumes, so why single out “ethnic” costumes? Again, jumping too quickly to the offence bandwagon. Why not accept that we are different, and be comfortable enough in our own skin to be able to take lightly any good-humoured distortions? Are ethnic costumes a religion now? (And don’t get me started on the protection that religion gets from “offence”)

  21. Honestly, if it wasn’t for this picture being associated with ANTM I would probably enjoy looking at it. It’s just that the show is incredibly dumb, Tyra is insufferable, and I don’t think she had a clear understanding of how to handle the very interesting idea of race being ‘made up.’ I think the picture itself could be an ironic look at two ethnic identities that are often incorrectly interchangeable.

  22. One last point… even the “dove campaign for real beauty” is spearheaded by the same company (unilever) that is currently marketing fairness creams in India. Why do they have a campaign for real beauty here in the U.S.? PR. People have been starting to question how these advertising schemes are affecting people’s lives, so the campaign makes people in the U.S. ‘feel good’ and that dove is ‘ok’, not like the other companies, while they continue to convince people their skin-tone is all wrong in India

    Linzi, on the subject of Dove, there was an interesting scene in the documentary America the Beautiful where they stop women in Times Square (back when the big billboard was from their launch of the “Real” women in their underwear campaign), and they asked the women what they thought about the whole thing, and one woman said “Wait, isn’t this cream of their supposed to take care of cellulite? Then they’re really telling us we’re not ok as we are, but that there’s something wrong we have to fix.”

  23. “Egyptian – think of what they’ve been through!”

    I’m sorry, I’m not really that familiar with Tyra and just could not watch past this comment. Is she always this inane?

  24. I’m sorry, I’m not really that familiar with Tyra and just could not watch past this comment. Is she always this inane?

    Usually she’s a lot worse. This was tame. Trust me.

  25. Is she always this inane?

    Always. You should watch the Tyra show where she dresses up like a homeless person and pan handles for a few hours.

  26. The Soup does a great job of ripping into her narcissism and over all delusional activities and statements.

    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=tyra+the+soup&search_type=&aq=0&oq=tyra+the+

    more clips:

    http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/tyra_banks/index.html?franchise=the_soup

    She’s missed many moments to make meaningful statements on race or ignorance ie, when Heidi and Spencer commented on her show that they wanted to adopt an African child and name him Dunk – cuz, you know – all black people are good at basketball, right ?

  27. As a biracial person, I find it tiresome when the media (inluding you, Tyra) portray being biracial as some sort of cliche buffet. As though we all dance around our little multi-culti worlds plucking out the trendiest pieces of our respective cultures, throw them together haphazardly and then stand around looking board. Plus, a head-dress with a weird sort-of-a-sari is just sad and strange. What’s particularly disappointing for me is that this fashion spread ignores one very important thing: for someone like me, clothing is a lovely way for me to enjoy, embrace and express my two sides. This ANTM project cheapens the whole process. If I put on a sari now, will the world see my light skin and imagine that I am a wannabe model trying to jump on a trend? I really hope not.

  28. I once took a friend from Jamaica to the “Fascinating India” exhibit and festival at the science center here where they showed that movie put out by the Swami Narain Folk (BAPS) about the life of said Swami (fully circular huge screen so you feel like you’re there – what are those theatres called again? you know, when the roller coster scene comes on you feel exactly like you are on it…??…)

    And after we left he said, “wow. I didn’t know the natives of America had such a rich culture”…..

    The ENTIRE TIME we were there he thought the whole thing was about feathers, not dots.

    Can you believe it?

  29. @ heather (#26): Ok, so I’m sorry I said retarded instead of F***ed up. Probably not the best choice. However: The tyra-fails-at-homelessness segment was funny, but just because Tyra is asinine doesn’t mean she can do disrespectful things and get away with them because “she’s too dumb to know any better”. It paves the way for people who do know better to do asinine things on purpose, and that’s a slippery slope.

    It’s probably going to take a couple generations for people to begin identifying people with culture but not race, as the number of biracial/multiethnic people increases. So hopefully in the future someone like SemiDesiMasala can acknowledge part of her culture without feeling like someone will judge her as unauthentic by her looks – basically we need to get away from people identifying looks with culture. Globalization is good sometimes.

  30. I think we are over-thinking this in racial terms. It’s a fashion show, that’s all. Most of high-fashion is unwearable (and unbearable) anyway, so… She seems to have made it amply clear that this is not necessarily what people wear in their daily lives. The other fashion episodes on ANTM are not that “realistic” either.

    As an east Indian, I wasn’t offended, seriously… Take is easy. It’s a substandard episode but nothing offensive.

    P.S. About the sari — it’s simply six yards of cloth. Drape it any which way you want, no one’s coming gunning for you. Enjoy!

  31. Why doesn’t ANTM have a more diverse pool of models? Then they wouldn’t have to put them in brown face.

  32. I’ve lived in Hawaii on and off, most recently for about the past two years. I would still be there were it not for getting signals mixed up with an Indian girl and moving back to the west coast. It wasn’t just for her. It was for getting back into the rut of ‘real’ work and convincing the family that the money spent on my college tuition wasn’t wasted. Still, I wasn’t rich or headed anywhere in life, but I was content. I really don’t see the point to life in the mainland. Everyone is so busy and you can’t tell if people are coming or going.

    My ex-gf was a hapa. She and I differed on the definition of hapa. For her, it’s a term for those with at least one white parent (and we all know it’s the father). For me, it’s anyone of mixed descent. The population in Hawaii idealizes a creole standard of beauty. If you ask anyone what their ethnic/racial make-up is the response will surely be at least 3-4 from the following list: Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Haole, Samoan, Puerto Rican, Chinese, etc. Claiming racial purity is seen as going against accepting the creole standard and definitely a violation of the aloha spirit.

    It was odd seeing brown paint being put on to create the hapa look. Even if you accept my definition over my gf’s, hapas are generally seen to be lighter-skinned than the rest of the population.

    I worked on the set of Lost out there and I once saw the Director become totally fascinated with this little kid who was an extra. He was a mix of Black and something, producing seriously curly blonde hair. Anyways, Hollywood is always on the lookout for the new ‘look’ and let’s face it racial ambiguity has a certain cache these days. The lead singer of the Pussy Cat Dolls is also a hapa from Hawaii.

  33. In America, “East Indian” refers to people of South Asian descent.

    In America, Indians are confused for being Middle Eastern or “Arab.”

    In Britain, they are dubbed “Asian” while Asian in this country refers to people of East Asian descent (Chinese, Japanese, Korean).

    I found nothing offensive about the photo shoot, after all, in fashion, regardless if it is in New York or Mumbai, stereotypes are going to be played out.

    In Bollywood, “white women” are in. This has been the case since the Hindi film industry came into existence. Pakistan’s Lollywood is no different, the leading actors and actresses are all fair skin.

    I consider myself a non-Desi South Asian since I’m of Afghan (Pushtun) ancestry but I am also 1/8 Mississippi Choctaw. The traditional dress of the Choctaw did not include full feather regalia, that is more representative of the Plains people. My people wear traditional garb that is reminiscent of the French Creole and the dress of the Province region of southern France. Obviously, what is deemed “traditional Choctaw dress” was introduced to my people by European missionaries and French fur trappers.

    Pushtuns are fair skin and can pass for being “white” in this country or “Mediterranean.” The majority of the Pushtun community lives in Pakistan’s NWT. My mother is a natural dirty blonde, divorced, and gets the attention of Desi men all the time, married or not.

    When I have been to gay Desi events, I notice men tend to gravitate around me. I’m average in height and built, but it seems my fair skin has a premium assigned to it.

    Just the thoughts from a South Asian “hapa” with roots in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.

  34. It is ANTM we are watching not National Geograhpic…I think it is a stretch to require them to meet the expectations of everyone when it comes to cross cultural and multi-race mixes. I’m sure Tyra felt qualified doing this, just given her background and amount of travel she has done. And you see the result, its a fashion model’s interpretation/stereotype. And I can’t say that it is bad but simply a reflection of the truth of what goes into marketing and advertising. In one respect it reflects the dumbing down of our nation but we’ve never been the strongest in geographic terms, as a nation we’re very centralist in thinking. Unfortunately that is not where our economy is headed…how will you know where to outsource to next? Where in the world will you find your next feather/dot Indian to answer and do customer service for your banking needs? And I’m sure they reviewed the potential for controversy but in the end was probably viewed as a good thing for the show. Look at all the chatter its created…and in the end seems like most of us get that it is not a reflection of reality.