Vogue Italia has caused a bit of controversy on American shores: its latest photo shoot, shot by acclaimed fashion photographer Stephen Meisel, is being tagged as "racist" because the model appears in what some outlets call "blackface." But is that really the case?
Let's get the following statements out of the way: the high fashion world -- indeed, the fashion world in general -- is notoriously exclusionary. There is no shortage of stories of women of color who encounter virulent racism at the hands of makeup artists, casting directors, and other people of note in the fashion industry. In fact, despite all of its current and inherent flaws, the reason the urban modeling industry came to exist in the first place is because it provided legitimate modeling opportunities to black, Hispanic, Asian, and other non-white models -- opportunities that did not, and still do not, exist in the "mainstream" fashion world. (The urban modeling industry has, today, become a code word for prostitution and stripping, but that's another story for another day...) Some statistics suggest that the average Fashion Week contains only one or two models of color, and many models today are looking to change that.
And certainly, several publications have spoken out against this latest racist gaffe by Vogue Italia (because no, it isn't the first) -- most notably, Hip-Hop Wired and E! News.
Is this spread offensive? Yes. There's something deeply offensive about the cultural appropriation of a "tribal" Africa, especially by a former colonial imperialist power, and the depiction of black people -- Africans -- as "savages," especially since many parts of Africa are not only cosmopolitan, but quite progressive in their value system. (Here's 10 reasons why the depiction of Africans as "bush dwellers" is completely off-base...)
But let's also bear one thing in mind: Italy doesn't have the same cultural history as the United States. Racial sensibilities that exist in the United States don't exist in Italy (and I speak on this from personal experience). This doesn't excuse the ignorance, to be sure... but it certainly explains it.
In other words: yes, this spread is offensive and racist...but not for the reasons Americans think it is.