On September 3, Kanye West posted the casting call for his Yeezy Season 4 show, presented yesterday, September 7, at the very beginning of New York Fashion Week. The rapper, who returned to collaborating with controversial artist, Vanessa Beecroft, kept details close to the vest up until the very last moment, but he did have some very specific requests regarding the physical appearance of models. “Multiracial women only. No makeup please, come as you are,” read the casting sheet in all capital letters.
Predictably, West’s parameters sparked immediate discussion. Twitter in particular became a hotbed for initial reactions, with many users left feeling equal parts outraged, befuddled, amused and troubled.
Some were confused about how a casting agent would be able to verify someone’s multiracial background by appearance alone…
Others felt West had engaged in a little crafty wordplay to side-step the fact he did not want to cast models with darker skin tones…
Still more felt West was actually attempting to exclude white people specifically…
Traditionally, West had diversified his shows to a much higher degree than average industry standards. This March, The Fashion Spot published its annual review with research pulled from over 300 shows and 8,000-plus model appearances. The survey, which looks at racial diversity, age spectrum and the representation of minority sexual orientations in fashion weeks around the globe, did show a slight uptick in diversity. Still, over 75% of runway models remained white.
Despite the statistics, last season West’s show was one of the most inclusive of all the fashion week presentations. Zac Posen and Chromat trailed behind with 87% and 85% minority models, respectively. That said, West’s sudden desire for such a specific type of model probably came as a surprise. For some non-multiracial women, it also went a lot deeper than simply feeling snubbed.
As Simone C. Drake points out in her book, Critical Appropriation: African American Women and the Construction of Transnational Identity, women who represent Generation E.A. (ethnically ambiguous) have emerged as a hot commodity to advertising executives and fashion editors alike. Drake goes on to quote feminist scholar and cultural critic, Tracy Denean Sharply-Whiting, stating, “We’re seeing more of a desire for the exotic, left-of-center beauty. It represents the new reality of America which includes considerable mixing…It’s the changing face of American beauty.”
It’s of course wonderful that we are more culturally cognizant of the fact that beauty goes beyond the traditionally upheld Eurocentric standards. Yet Drake also points out another issue, one that was probably at the heart of the assumptions about the meaning of “multiracial,” and the backlash against West: Where does the fetishization of ethnically ambiguous beauty leave what the author refers to as, “Generation Non-E.A,” or those who visually represent one ethnicity alone?
It’s a fair question, and one that becomes more complicated when Kanye’s position as a hip-hop artist is considered, especially with respect to the divergent musings on the role hip-hop may or may not play in perpetuating misogynoir. The term, coined by Moya Bailey, describes a particular kind of anti-black, sexist behavior directed specifically toward melanated women. Scholars like Bailey and Sharply-Whiting have also extensively written about the fetishization of “exotic” features and fairer skin in hip-hop videos, and if there is one thing we can never forget, it’s that Kanye West is still a rapper. No doubt that was yet another factor that weighed heavily on the perceptions about his casting requirements.
Now that the show has come and gone it genuinely seems West was simply seeking skin tones that matched the hues that have comprised the lion’s share of past Yeezy apparel; though he did include some white, black and navy tones this season. Interestingly enough, those shades were often walked by models with complementing skin tones, many of whom were not obviously ethnically ambiguous.
Marla Molina, a model who participated in the show thinks social media users were too quick to jump to conclusions about the meaning of “multiracial.”
“Most of the models in the show were black and from various ethnic backgrounds. There was no racial verification process. I think that people who had an issue with the term “multiracial” erroneously assumed it was meant to exclude black models but the show proved that wasn’t the case. There was an abundance of models in all shades, from the darkest to lightest skin tones.”
Despite that, West’s casting parameters were still trigger to many, and in some ways that is understandable. Even with shifting mentalities regarding race and beauty, the past has a tendency to leave a lasting sting. The effects of discriminatory practices that encouraged skintone-based social stratification are still felt today. While the era of problematic customs like the brown paper bag test may have symbolically passed, colorism still exists. So it’s not exactly surprising that so many would jump to the conclusion that “multiracial” meant ethnically ambiguous, or more bluntly, anything but completely black.
And, as many Twitter users were quick to point out (because Twitter never forgets), in a 2006 interview with Essence, West did say, “If it wasn’t for race mixing there’d be no video girls. Me and most of our friends like mutts a lot. Yeah, in the hood they call ‘em mutts.” Is West wrong to have a preference? Not on the most basic level; we all do. However, the quote, coupled with the lack of context behind the casting, did draw questions about the mentality behind his preference, and what it meant for the Yeezy Season 4 show.
Another model, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, did hint that her casting involved questions about her ethnic background, stating,
Yeezy Season 4 Model
“I heard a lot of people on social media saying he was looking for Kim Kardashian clones but when I arrived I saw people of all races. I didn’t know what he was looking for other than mixed women. They did ask what my ethnic background was, though I don’t remember the exact words they used.”
Despite the questions about her ethnicity, she believes West intended to represent variations of the African diaspora. “For the most part, it seems like there were predominately African women, or they were African-American or African-American mixed with something else. There were a few girls who were one race, but you couldn’t really tell by their appearance. I think he just wanted to show people of African descent come in every shade.”
Molina echoes her sentiments, stating, “Many of us talked about what he meant by multiracial while we waited. Some feared he wanted black features in the show but not black models, which turned out to be completely untrue. Some of my own community believes that because I’m multiracial I can’t identify as black, and that I’m just a black-feature-bearer instead of a black woman who is multiracial. My other races in no way dilute my blackness. I think he’s created an important conversation about colorism. The show itself was a celebration of women of color and the extensive array of skin tones, hair textures and body shapes we have. Above all, it poses the question, how can you determine someone’s blackness?”
With all the assumptions around West’s usage of the word multiracial, and the precedents set by history, it’s certainly a question worth examining.
In a recently published Vogue piece West addressed the controversy stating, “The ten thousand people that showed up didn’t have a problem with it. How do you word the idea that you want all variations of black? How do you word that exactly?”
- Photography: Thomas Welch