As much as we have traced the way that people have historically tried to link race definitively to culture or socioeconomic status, or any number of other origins and signifiers, the reality remains that you instantaneously decide what racial category you will put someone in by categorizing their skin color, and as such what category you use to describe all of their other behaviors as typical/atypical (even in people who try with all their might not to stereotype) or acceptable/cultural appropriation. This fact sets blackface apart in the world of mimicry that is usually reserved for claims of cultural appropriation as a much more overt form of racism. As much as there are any number of modes of cultural appropriation, whether through hairstyle, fashion, or music, they alone do not act as signifiers of race. Even a white person sporting the most stereotypically African or African-American style, musical tastes, or even cultural background (in countries where race is less a defining feature than it is in the United States) will not be subject to the same kind of treatment as they would be with the same qualities if they had dark skin. This is why the photo that Kylie Jenner posted to Instagram earlier this year of her wearing dark, sparkly makeup for a photo shoot, shown below, caused such an uproar.
Kylie added to the fire by captioning the photo “what I wish I looked like all the time, thank you”. While using other design and photography choices, such a comment seems relatively innocuous, in the way that some people might say upon wearing a beautiful ball gown that they wished that they could dress like that everyday. But even this is problematic, making it seem as if to Jenner either she in fact wishes she had dark skin, or that, like a gown, her makeup is merely a cool costume, which could be interpreted as using skin color as a fashion accessory without acknowledging the history of hardship that comes with it. Jenner’s reaction to the social media explosion following the posting of her photo described in this article, was to say simply that the effect was result of black lights and neon lights and that critics should “all calm down”.
One question that the outcry over Jenner’s photos raises is the issue of intentionality. Unlike many instances of appropriation, which, however tactlessly, do in fact mean to imitate or draw inspiration form a certain style or culture, Kylie clearly did not mean to mimic a dark skin color that would ever be seen on another human being. She clearly knows (despite other notable instances of cultural insensitivity) that blackface is unacceptable and defends her actions by simply saying that that is not what the photo was. If it is not an attempt to mimic any style or attribute that would be found on another human, can it really be considered racism? According to the aforementioned article, clearly some critics say yes. In my opinion, it is more a question of sensitivity to a painful history and the implications of certain style choices that would mean much less in another context. Even though Jenner does not, in my opinion, appear to be participating in blackface, that does not make her photo shoot an advisable move or one that is immediately unassailable by any accusation of insensitivity.