The question of Blackface

High-fashion models in blackface, that is.Well, it's one model, actually, and it's causing quite a stir. Kate Moss was recast as a Black woman for the cover of the Independent in Britain. The paper was doing a special issue on the struggle of African woman. Here's how it starts:

It was still dark, not yet 4am. But outside Letenk'iel was moving already, rekindling the fire from the overnight embers. Inside the mud-walled hut, her husband Gebremariam coughed. Then as the first birds were heard, he swung his legs over the side of a bed made from rough rope strung across a wooden frame. He stood in the doorway and stretched. His wife was already at her morning chores.As the cold dawn light suffused the sky she sprinkled water from a squat earthenware jar across the mud floor and began to sweep the dampened earth with a brush of long grasses bound tightly together. The day had begun.

Later, after the narrative, which reveals the life of African women (not Kate Moss) as laborious, deprived, and unsanitary, come the numbers. Here's a selection:

Women: A world apartLife expectancyAfrica: 46UK: 80Chance of a girl going to primary schoolAfrica: 60 %UK: 100 %Minutes worked per dayAfrica: 590*UK: 413Female literacyAfrica: 53.2%UK: 99.9%

As usual, Africa is undifferentiated; west, north, south, central, east — all nations are lumped together as one. The numbers citing the plight of the continent are equally sloppy: they are presented as "Africa", and compared with a single country — "U.K." I imagine that if they were recalculated to include all of Europe, including the former Iron Curtain countries, they would tell a different story; but no one is talking about that. We're all focussed on the blackface.At least one paper (The Guardian) reacted with the kind of outrage that is appropriate: here's what Hannah Pool & Tomi Ajayi of that paper had to say.

What exactly is this picture of Moss-as-African-woman supposed to portray? I suppose it is meant to be subversive, but what does it say about race today when a quality newspaper decides that its readers will only relate to Africa through a blacked-up white model rather than a real-life black woman? What does it say about the fight against HIV/Aids if that is the only way to make us care? And, as a black woman (born that way), what does this trick say about me?...Blacking up has become acceptable in the same way that pole dancing is now sold to women as an empowering thing to do. Both assume that the thing they are poking fun at no longer exists - ie discrimination, racism and sexism. But of course they are wrong. If blacking up existed in a society where racism was not an issue, then it would not be such a problem. But then it would also lose its power to shock. After all, what is so shocking about a white person being made to look black if black and white are equal?And is it really so hard to relate to those who are different from us? I'm not from Iraq, but I don't have to dress up as an Iraqi war widow to care about what goes on there. As Robert Bianco wrote of the American TV show Black. White, in which two families did a "race-swap" for six weeks: "Black. White is based on two false premises, one more pernicious than the other: that you can understand someone of a different race simply by putting on makeup, and that you need that kind of understanding in order to treat people as the law and morality."And you know, there really are black women who could have done this job. Next time a photograph of an African woman is needed, they should call on Iman. Call on Alek Wek. Call on one of any number of black girls you can see on the street. Call on me.

What concerns me, however, is a little different. The dressing of Kate Moss in blackface and placing her on the cover is not the issue; it is a symptom of the problem, and not the problem itself. Global racism is institutional, and it is far deeper and more immutable than the aesthetic choices made for a magazine cover suggest. Its roots lie in science itself, in the misinterpretation and misapplication of nineteenth century speculation about evolution, in the wholesale adoption of those theories in the construction of a global power structure. The empires of Europe may have been dismantled, but the ideas that undergirded them still remain. The concept of social Darwinism may have been debunked, but its effects continue to shape what we understand as "civilization", particularly in Europe, which perfected these ideas. Africa is still a lump, a "dark" continent, an outline in a sea, a source of raw material for others' riches, and all the complexities and challenges of its daily life are smudged by that very charcoal.The thing is, the world is interconnected. Western wealth, politics and social advancement have deep roots in the exploitation of the third world, and especially in Africa, whose continent continues to supply megacorporations with the most lucrative minerals — oil, gold, diamonds, and so on — to the detriment of its people. The fact that Letenk'iel is still living as her ancestors did — or probably worse than they did, and in more poverty, as the European occupation of that continent disrupted communities and economies with as much efficiency as a Nazi camp, but more silently — is not coincidental to the fact that a major British newspaper paid a white supermodel, a photographer, and a series of special-effects staff megamoney to make a European woman look African. It is connected by a series of old and powerful inequalities that continue today.