The Un-Reality of “Whiteness”

The latest cover of Vanity Fair  features nine actresses as the faces of the “new Hollywood.” The women have many things in common: they are obviously female, they are also pretty, thin and white.

Absent from the VF cover — and obviously from the minds of the editors of the magazine–are outstanding actors of colour. (For example Will Smith’s kid, Jaden Smith (The Pursuit Of Happiness, The Karate Kid) Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionare), Zoe Saldana (Avatar) and of course Gabourey Sidibe, from the Oscar-nominated film Precious).  Aren’t they the face of the “new Hollywood?”

The Vanity Fair cover has drawn many critics – and accusations of being out of date, out of tune, and even racist. This brouhaha over a magazine cover could be dismissed as an over-reaction or “political correctness” gone askew. Yet, it would be a mistake to do so. This is a teachable moment for the media and culture industries.

VF and other media have tremendous influence on how white society views and interacts with people of colour — the “other.” The interaction extends to how people of colour are educated, policed or served by other institutions, agencies or companies.

In her book “Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide” Barbara Trepagnier talks about the notion of “whiteness.”  Whiteness, she says is having a white perspective, a white bias and white value judgments.

In the past, Hollywood (and the media in general) presented this “whiteness” as normal.  In today’s modern world, however, this idea is both outdated and unreal.

This white perspective extends beyond movie screens and magazine covers; it is present on fashion runways and even in store windows. Toronto, a city of 2.6 million people, is considered one of the most culturally and racially diverse cities on the planet. However, that reality is not evident when window shopping in downtown Toronto. Here mannequins are either faceless or headless, but they are white.

On a recent visit to the Netherlands, however, I was struck by the presence of black mannequins in store windows in Amsterdam and Utrecht, a university city with a multicultural population. The mannequins – representing children, young adults, and even a pregnant woman – are quite realistic:  from kinky hair, to the broad nose, to the full lips — blackness on full display. One Dutch person I spoke with about this put it more to the point:  “The Dutch are traders. We know how to sell and who are buying our goods. Just look at the people around you.”

Mannequin in Utrecht Store Window
Mannequins in Toronto Store Window

Perhaps there is a message here; and one that all organizations that serve the public or want to attract more customers may want to heed. Mannequins, like magazine covers, are used to entice consumers to buy goods and to encourage people to imagine themselves wearing particular clothes, shoes or jewelry.

The implicit messages being sent by media that continue to reflect this unreal whiteness are: This is what you should aspire to be. This is what’s considered acceptable. This is the way things should be.

Organizations that espouse diversity and inclusion need to examine the messages they send to workers and potential customers. If not, they could inadvertently perpetuate the racial divide Barbara Trepagnier talks about in her book. Perhaps, more importantly, from a business perspective, it could have a negative impact on the bottom line.

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