Weighing In: Racism, Balmain and the case of Ajak Deng.
For the time being, we’re (or at least I am) not exactly sure what went down yesterday but South Sudanese top model AJAK DENG went off on twitter a few hours ago, accusing fashion label Balmain of being racist for them allegedly deeming her “too black” for their runway in one way or another.
Though she’s deleted her twitter account, it looks like her tweets were fed to her facebook page which is still up. Additionally, a few people were quick enough in screengrabbing her heated tweets for those of us who weren’t awake to see her full twitter tirade.
Whatever the case, whether you want to believe Ajak or not, one thing anyone cannot deny is the fashion’s industry’s racism and their often slick way of dealing with the casting of black models. One or three tokens, black models that look a particular way, or better yet, making all the models black because it’s so ‘fashion forward’ (pun intended). Citing the fact that Balmain opened up with Jourdan Dunn is also step in that direction. It completely negates Deng’s experience. Perhaps I’m naive but, aside from the fact that the fashion industry is racist, I highly doubt a top model like Deng would ‘risk’ her career by going out against a huge label like Balmain. Whether I’m wrong about this doesn’t matter to me. As a black woman who’s is also dark skinned and African, I’d rather give her the benefit of the doubt in this situation - especially knowing that even when not much is said and done, through our very existence as black people we are incredibly well fine tuned to understand when we are victims of racism, even when we can’t exactly ‘prove’ it. When racism is so embedded in a system, when it’s part of a culture, those who have the upper-hand are often blind to, or do not question, their participation in these structures. For starters, just google ‘Balmain’ and let me know when you see a dark-skinned model with a bald head and features that resemble Ajak Deng’s walking their runway.
Now I’m not trying to say that women like Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Senait Gidey or Riley Montana (they all walked for Balmain’s Fall 2014 RTW collection, Dunn opened) aren’t black, but rather that there’s often a certain kind of acceptable blackness that matter in situations such as these where everything from skin tone, to hair and even one’s facial features are all evaluated on a scale of beauty in accordance to white standards.
I’ve always maintained that the Alek Wek looks might often be more of a case of exotification than a sincere approach , as their kind of blackness stands in such stark contrast to white supremacist standards of beauty that they don’t pose a threat to these racist values. Something promoted through German photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘The Last of the Nuba’ book.
Regardless of the true intentions of the fashion industry, I’m incredibly happy that models like Ajak Deng, Ataui Deng, Nykhor Paul and Grace Bol get as much as work as they do. Their presence goes a heck of a long way in the case for why representation matters, and in scenarios like this, thanks to social media, we’re able to understand that the age old rhetoric of ‘at least there’s a black person in x’ doesn’t mean that racism is no longer present.
I only wonder what black models of previous decades would’ve tweeted had they had twitter at their disposal.
All Africa, All the time.