Gucci recently got into trouble because of its black balaclava jumper. This jumper could be pulled up to cover the lower half of the face and featured big, red lips that created, in the eyes of many, the appearance of blackface. The designer of the clothing claimed that he was inspired by the works of a performance artist Leigh Bowery.
Katy Perry, no stranger to accusations of cultural appropriation, was accused of having blackface shoes in her shoe line. Her defenders point out that the shoe comes in a variety of colors and all feature the same face (attached eyes, nose and lips).
Unlike cases in which a person wears blackface, the Gucci and Perry incidents admit of ambiguity. After all, a white person putting on blackface and posing with another person in a KKK costume is a clear statement of racism. Clothing and shoes that can be interpreted as blackface objects still allow room for plausible denial. It is to this matter that I now turn.
One approach to determining whether an aesthetic object like Gucci’s clothing or Perry’s shoe is to consider the intent of the creator. If the clothing designer and shoe designer had no intention to create a blackface object, then it could be contended that the objects are not blackface. This is because being a blackface object is more than merely looking like such an object, it must be created (or used) for that purpose.
In support of this view, it can be argued that since an object of blackface is racist, it requires racist intent to create it. A person who creates an object that looks like a blackface object without racist intent (that is, they are not trying to create a blackface object) cannot be justly accused of racism for that act. To use an analogy, suppose a designer created a design in which some people claim to see pornographic images. If the designer did not intend to create those images, then they should not be considered as pornographers and the work should not be considered a work of pornography.
As a practical matter, the challenge would be determining the intent of the creator. While this can be difficult, the sensible approach would be to consider the person’s history and their explanation of their inspiration and goals. If they have no history of racism and deny that they intended to create a blackface object, then it would be reasonable to accept their assertion of innocence. Naturally, if a person were to persist in creating objects that seem to be blackface objects, then this would tend to indicate that they are creating such objects with intent.
It could be objected that the creators of objects such as the clothing and the shoes cannot plead ignorance. While they might not have intended the works to be blackface objects, they should have recognized how the objects would be seen. After all, anyone familiar with American culture and history should recognize when something would be seen as blackface and they should be aware of the consequences of putting it out for sale. To use an analogy, a designer who accidentally creates a work which most people see as containing pornographic images should be aware of what the work looks like. If they elect to put it on sale while denying they are aware of what the images look like, then they could be justly considered to be selling pornographic images.
It could be replied that the creators might simply be unaware of the history of blackface in the United States or that they simply do not see the objects as blackface objects. Using the pornographic image analogy, the designer might simply be unable to see what other people think they are seeing. If the designers of the clothing and shoes honestly have no idea of the history of blackface or honestly cannot see that their work would be seen as blackface, then they can perhaps be excused. Some might, of course, insist that they should be aware of the history and that they cannot honestly say that they did not see a problem with the objects before it was pointed out by others. In the next essay, I will move beyond the intent of the creator to the perception of the audience.
The missing part in this analysis is the idea of “meeting in the middle”. In other words, if I make an article of clothing that some people decide to be offended about because they view it as racist – and I am able to successfully defend my intent as being non-racist, why should I have to stop making it? Cannot the offended parties relax a little, and meet me in the middle on this one? Why is the burden of proof so lopsided?
That’s a rhetorical question. It’s lopsided because this entire issue, as I have said many times before, is not about racism, it’s not about being hurt or offended, it’s not about growing as a society – it’s about power. Those who find racism behind every rock have no intention of eliminating it – they don’t want it to go away – because it gives them power.