Tonawanda News

March 25, 2013

HAYNES: Where to draw the line?

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A photo in the latest edition of “AnOther,” a high-fashion magazine published twice yearly, features “Brokeback Mountain” actress Michelle Williams sporting an American Indian-inspired look. 

Now I don’t typically read much about fash- ion so I was only made aware of this mag- azine photo shoot by a posting on Jezebel, a blog that I regularly follow for its sometimes feminist bent on current topics. 

The author of the post, Ruth Hopkins, blasts Williams for wearing “redface,” or mimicking an American Indian look even though she herself is of Norwegian descent. Hopkins asks the magazine to pull the photo — it’s one of a series of several featuring Williams in a variety of fashion — because it features “a 33-year-old white actress hyping her latest Hollywood project by wearing a cheap costume designed to make her look like she’s the member of another race.”

“I smell an attempt to portray reservation nobility,” Hopkins writes. 

In the photograph, Williams’ normally blonde, pixie-cut locks are covered by a long, dark wig plaited into two braids, she wears a feather in her hair and sports a beaded necklace. The rest of her clothing is a little more non-descript: slouchy jeans, a plaid button-down shirt and some sort of black open coat evoking a judge’s cloak or a graduation gown. 

Perhaps what this magazine considers high fashion is what offends me most about the cover.

I’m not trying to say Hopkins’ point of view is wrong, but I also can’t really align myself with her incensed reaction to the photo. (It must be noted that while Hopkins refers to herself as American Indian, I am, in fact, damn near transparent I’m so white, and I acknowledge some people may think I have no right to speak on such a topic.)

Be that as it may, the Jezebel article sparked a whole host of questions in my mind. Most of which I don’t expect anyone can truly answer.

I can’t be certain based on the photograph if Williams is literally wearing redface makeup — the image is in black and white, and while her skin seems to be mostly pale, there do appear to be darker shadows under her eyes and along her cheekbones. 

If her skin has been darkened to make her appear a different race, that — just like wearing blackface — is clearly an offensive gesture.

But where is the line drawn?

I can’t say if I find what Williams is wearing offensive or not. 

Does the wig bother me? How about the jewelry? I don’t know. 

I have some American Indian-inspired turquoise jewelry at home. Does that make me racist when I wear it? Was I being offensive when I had mendhi done on my hands along with my close friend in celebration of her wedding a few years back? Neither of these things represent (what I’m assuming is) my mostly white, European ethnic background.

What if a clearly non-Indian (as in, from India) woman wore a sari on the cover of the magazine? Is that woman embracing a different culture, or is she trying to cheaply portray a race that is not her own? 

I don’t know where to stand on Williams Redface-gate 2013, but in my gut, I feel like it can’t be a bad thing to show appreciation or reverence for another culture by adopting certain aspects of physical dress and appearance. 

Just hold the makeup. And probably the wig, too.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.