Blackface is not a good look for French Elle beauty editor

December 2, 2013

French Elle beauty editor Jeanne Deroo has stirred up racial controversy in France and worldwide by posting a photo of herself on Instagram in blackface and wearing a huge Afro wig.

Outrageous, especially when you consider that black skin is hardly celebrated or featured in the fashion world, but we’ll get to that.

First, is it so hard to understand that blackface is never, ever acceptable? (It was only a few weeks ago that American actress Julianne Hough reminded us of that fact.)

I am a black woman, and I have a huge Afro. Not only do I hate the blackface, but I take offense to Deroo’s fake Afro as well. Why must our skin, our hair be made into Halloween costumes?

Deroo’s timing in posting this picture of herself in blackface is especially ridiculous when you consider that Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was recently attacked by a political opponent who compared her to a chimpanzee, is on the Nov 22  cover of French Elle as Woman of the Year.

Of course Deroo has come out with a tweeted apology:

“I realize how much the fact of painting oneself brown is an offensive act. I didn’t realize the seriousness of my action when I went to a private party last Saturday evening, which the theme was “Icons”, and where I chose to embody Solange Knowles, of whom I am a fan. During this private party, I posted a picture of myself on my Instagram without intention of hurting anyone. I deeply regret and would like to present all my apologies. I would also like to indicate that this picture published in a private context does not involve in any way the French ELLE magazine I work for, and I am sorry for the prejudice it has caused.”

I am not moved by the standard “I didn’t know, I’m so sorry” apology. And I don’t buy her argument that this is no reflection on Elle magazine.

Elle has already faced several accusations of racism. We might never forget (nor should we) the “black fashion power” article by journalist Nathalie Dolivo, which lit up social networks from Paris to Atlanta back in January 2012. In the online article, which has since been removed from Elle’s site, Dolivo wrote, “In 2012, the ‘black-geoisie’ has integrated all the white codes … but with a twist, bourgeois with an ethnic reference that recalls their roots.” She further argues that President Obama’s ascent to the White House gave the black community the impetus to dress chicly rather than in street clothes. Because, of course, before the arrival of the Obamas, black people simply didn’t know how to dress. Nevermind the fact that whenever my grandparents stepped outside their front door, especially when they were on their way to church, they were always incredibly well-dressed: my grandfather in his suit, tie and suspenders, always wearing a hat and well-shined shoes, and my grandmother in a beautiful dress, with a matching hat, gloves, shoes and purse. They were sheer elegance.

Elle really needs to take a good look at Elle.

And it’s not alone. If Deroo is so caught up in looking like her black idols, how about insisting they be abundantly represented in the magazines? On the catwalks? On the editorial teams?

In September, Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue and Elle International, spoke out about diversity in the fashion industry. She asked: “Where are all the black models?”

Former supermodel Naomi Campbell also recently called out the fashion industry, adding that in the mid-1980s “there was a great balance of models and color.”

Campbell and fellow former models of color Iman and Bethann Hardison want to hold the fashion industry accountable. They have started a campaign called Balance Diversity. The Web site states their purpose as follows:

“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use of one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond ‘aesthetic’ when it is consistent with the designer’s brand. Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models  reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.”

Hardison also writes on Vogue Italia’s “The Black Blog” that “this is the beginning, of a planned campaign, to educate those who feel no remorse about having an all white or a vast ratio of white to colored models. It’s an unhealthy approach to modern society and affects everyone negatively, whether it’s realized or not.”

The majority of women in the world are not white and skinny with blond hair and blue eyes. It’s ludicrous that we must continue to point out the most obvious of facts, which is that women come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and that these women also buy the latest clothes, makeup, bags and shoes.

Instead of playing around in blackface and Afros on Instagram, why not embrace real black women? If you truly want to celebrate your idols, such as Solange Knowles, put her and others like her on the cover of your magazines. Let us walk the runways during fashion week.

In other words, represent. But represent in the correct way.

Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen is the editor and founder of Prissy Mag, an Anglophone Webzine about life in Paris as an expat, and the author of “Stockdale” and “Next of Kin.” Find her page on Facebook.

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Mary C. Curtis · December 2, 2013