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Explained: The practice of ‘whitewashing’, and why some are criticising Kamala Harris’ Vogue photoshoot

Vogue is facing criticism on social media for featuring Kamala Harris on its cover. What's the problem Kamala Harris on the Vogue cover? What exactly is whitewashing?

New Delhi |
Updated: January 13, 2021 10:40:05 am
Kamala Harris, Vogue, Kamala Harris Vogue photoshoot, Kamala Harris Vogue cover picture, Kamala Harris Vogue backlash, Kamala Harris Vogue twitters reactions, Vogue Cover shoot, Vogue Cover shoot controversy, Vogue magazine, Kamala Harris Vogue controversy, Trending news, Indian Express newsThe Vice President-elect’s team has not said anything on the debate. (Twitter/@voguemagazine)

Written by Ishani Patil

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will appear on the cover of the February issue of Vogue, and the magazine shared two photos on Twitter on Sunday (January 10). In one, Harris is seen wearing Converse sneakers and a black Donald Deal jacket, and standing in front of a pink-and-green drape. In the other, she is in a powder blue Michael Kors suit, standing in front of a gold background with her arms crossed.

Vogue has since faced criticism on social media by people accusing it of “whitewashing” the woman who on January 20 will become America’s first black woman Vice-President.

What’s the problem Kamala Harris on the Vogue cover?

People have said the pictures are like “homework finished the morning it’s due”, “amateurish”, and a “mess”, and have wondered if her skin tone had been “whitewashed”. “Every photo editor at Vogue should know the basics of editing photos of people of colour,” said one social media user.

The Vice President-elect’s team has not said anything on the debate. But some reports have suggested the image of Harris in the blue suit was mutually selected by both sides for the cover, and that Vogue added the pink-green one, which was supposed to used on an inside page.

The tabloid New York Post claimed both covers were selected by Harris and her team, and that Harris personally picked the green-and-pink background as they were the colours of her college sorority.

Has Vogue itself said anything?

Dame Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, denied to the New York Post that the images were “whitewashed”. Vogue says the less official-looking pictures speak to her “authentic, approachable nature, which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden-Harris administration”.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Wintour took responsibility for the magazine’s insensitive portrayal of minorities in previous years, saying that “recognizing and doing something about the hate, violence and injustice for people of colour is long overdue”.

But what exactly is whitewashing?

‘Whitewashing’ in the fashion industry refers to the digital modifying or altering of the skin of a non-white person to make it appear “whiter”. Whitewashing is usually employed to make people of colour seem to conform more to what are thought to be “Eurocentric beauty standards” — an older, colonialist mindset of “lighter is better” in which whiter skin was automatically correlated to higher social standing, wealth, and status.

Today, whitewashing refers to the idea that in order to be noticed in the fashion industry, or featured in fashion publications, digital modification of skin tones is required so that people of colour appear to have whiter skins that fit into the older standards of beauty.

So does this happen a lot in fashion magazines?

Fashion and lifestyle magazines have indeed been called out for whitewashing people of colour on several occasions.

In 2011, it was alleged that the skin tone of singer-businesswoman Rihanna’s photo — in an Armani dress and blonde wig — on the cover of the British Vogue had been whitened. The editor of the magazine, however, insisted there had been “absolutely no skin lightening”.

Elle was accused of whitewashing Oscar-nominated actor Gabourey Sidibe in a 2016 cover; the magazine said the seemingly lighter tone was in fact the result of bright studio lights.

In 2018, Naomi Campbell accused celebrity magazine Hello! of presenting a “completely whitewashed” version of London, meaning the city was made to appear far less racially diverse than it actually is.

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So is this a problem essentially of the fashion industry?

Advertisements too, have also been accused of whitewashing. In 2008, a L’Oreal ad featuring singer Beyoncé Knowles appeared both in Elle and Essence magazines, and her skin appeared to be lighter in Elle than in Essence, which is targeted at women of colour.

In another incident, L’Oréal Paris was accused of whitewashing actor Frieda Pinto in a 2011 photoshoot, although the company denied the allegations.

In 2017, Dove released an advertisement of a black woman transitioning into a white-skinned one after using a lotion, which caused social media users to boycott the company. Dove released an apology via Twitter and said that the advertisement “missed the mark”.

In 2019, Nissin was called out by Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka for whitewashing her tan skin in an animated advertisement. “It’s obvious, I’m tan. It’s pretty obvious,” Osaka said.

And have there been many allegations against the film industry as well?

Critics point out that whitewashing here takes the form of casting white actors for non-white characters, such as Angelina Jolie playing the role of a mixed-race girl in ‘A Mighty Heart’, and Ben Affleck casting himself for the lead role of Tony Mendez, who was Hispanic, in ‘Argo’.

In 2015 there was criticism of Emma Stone playing a woman of Hawaiian and Asian descent in ‘Aloha’.

In 2017, Rupert Sanders’s Hollywood rendition of the 1995 Japanese manga film ‘Ghost In the Shell’ was criticised for having cast Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese protagonist.

(Ishani Patil is an intern with The Indian Express)

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