There is a mixed-race model in almost every hip ad campaign these days. Usually minimally made up and effortlessly cool, she has an Afro and a splash of freckles; or maybe she’s dark-skinned and light-eyed; or maybe she has that ‘could be from anywhere’ global look. This modern-day mixed-race ‘it’ girl seems like a big departure from the past. Is this a sign that we are on our way to a post-racial society? Or is the mixed-race image just being fetishised by the fashion industry?
Colonial Europeans invented the concept of race as a way to distance themselves from the colonised and enslaved. Whiteness was used as a ‘scientific’ validation of superiority that enabled the imperialistic and exploitative practices of colonialism. Under this taxonomy, mixed-race people – particularly those with some white ancestry – were put in a racial limbo: in many parts of the world they were categorised in semi-privileged racial groups, such as the ‘Anglo-Indians’ in India, ‘coloured’ people in South Africa, and ‘mestizos’ in South and Central America.
In the United States, mixed-race people weren’t seen as a distinct racial group, but were simply subsumed into the less privileged racial group and subjected to discrimination. The largest mixed-race group were ‘mulattos’, or people with black and white ancestry. By default ‘mulattos’ were understood to be black, but some ‘passed’ as white, the practice by which they hid their black ancestry in order to live with the full rights granted to white people. In stark contrast to present-day attitudes, it wasn’t just undesirable to look mixed race in this context – it was dangerous.
Social attitudes about people of colour began to flip during the Civil Rights Movement, but fashion and beauty – industries built on elitism – have been notoriously slow to embrace inclusion. The past few years, however, have seen tectonic shifts in representation. Instagram, which launched in 2010, altered the power structures of visual media; theoretically, anyone with a well-curated feed could hop the fence into prominence.
Fuelled by social justice movements, communities congealed around Insta-celebrities whose types had been excluded by traditional media. People like Sanam Sindhi, a plus-size South Asian fashionista, and Mariah Idrissi, a mixed-race hijab-wearing model, were democratically uplifted as icons and later tapped by the industry. (Sindhi was cast in Rihanna’s "Bitch Better Have My Money" video in 2015; Idrissi is signed with Select.)
As the aesthetics of cool decentralised and radicalised, the fashion and beauty industries transformed their casting strategies. Young, offbeat brands – including fashion labels like Hood By Air, Eckhaus Latta, and Vetements and makeup companies Milk and Glossier – ditched the whole ‘delicate waif’ motif and defined their brands through street casting, booking a diverse hodgepodge of friends, collaborators, and people scouted on Instagram.
The racially ambiguous model has become emblematic of this street-cast, cool kid trend. High-fashion brands don’t just want diversity; they want to cultivate a nonconforming, familiar-yet-inaccessible look. A certain type of mixed-race person – the type that wears their mixedness on their sleeve with an unexpected combination of features, like industry staples Adwoa Aboah and Angelica Erthal – has become the embodiment of nonconformity, a visual representation of the street-casting ethos and the principle of diversity in casting at large.
In March 2017, Vogue ran a cover story titled "The Beauty Revolution: No Norm Is The New Norm", featuring seven models of different backgrounds and sizes. Three of them were mixed-race: Adwoa Aboah, Imaan Hammam, and Gigi Hadid. However ironic it may be that Vogue claims to be hopping on the beauty revolution bandwagon, the publication serves as a litmus test for the fashion industry and society at large; in the historical context, this cover represents a radical transformation for mixed-race people. And for his first full edition in December 2017, editor Edward Enninful cast Aboah as cover star. In contrast to passing, in which mixedness was marginalised and hidden, visibly mixed-race models now feature prominently in affirmative sites of social norms. Mixed-race looks are normalised and by extension, mixed identity is validated. There’s no cohesive social movement behind it, but it’s a quiet sea change that’s come with broadened beauty standards and the slow dismantling of social hierarchies.
But when analysed in regard to the contemporary constructs around mixed identity, the transformation doesn’t look so utopian. In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement, mixed-race populations grew, and by the 1990s, new narratives around mixedness that were rooted in fetishisation started to sprout. Mixed-race people were examined with perverse fascination, a pseudo-scientific poking and prodding. An iconic 1993 TIME magazine cover featured a photo composite woman and the headline, "Take a good look at this woman. She was created by a computer from a mix of several different races. What you see is a remarkable preview of The New Face of America."
As objects of fetishisation, mixed-race people started to be seen as harbingers of a harmonious post-racial future. Their existence suggested that a racially egalitarian future wouldn’t require a radical dismantling of white supremacy, but instead could be the result of a gradual, passive blending of racial lines. In the media, mixed-race people with white ancestry served a form of diversity that was particularly palatable to audiences used to white dominance; they were different enough to stand for values of diversity and equality, but familiar enough to be recognisable and non-threatening. Their existence suggested that the future could be multicultural and still comfortably white.
While on first glance the rise of mixed-race models might look like progress in representation, upon closer inspection it’s clear that ultimately, the change is skin deep.
This fetishistic narrative still holds weight today, and the trend of casting mixed-race models can be seen as its capitalist corollary: a sexier, post-identity world is possible, only now it’s accessible via the brand. In January 2017, Nielsen, the data information company, published "Multicultural Millennials: The Multiplier Effect", in which they reported that multicultural millennials – those with African American, Asian American, or Hispanic backgrounds – are viewed with a halo effect, the phenomenon in which a person or group is seen in a positive light, so all their actions are too. Nielsen, naturally, urges marketers to view this as a business opportunity. "Multicultural Millennials’ evolving, ever-expanding tastes and consumption patterns are influencing those of their parents, their children, and mainstream culture and society," the report advised. "This multiplier effect should and can be harnessed by marketers and advertisers."
And so it has. Mainstream brands have revved up the multicultural millennial targeting in recent campaigns, crafting perfectly formulaic multicultural casts (see: Pepsi’s absurd Kendall Jenner ad). Mixed-race people are just a subset of the multicultural population, but for marketers trying to reach a broad audience, casting them is a safe bet. One racially ambiguous model can build connections with multiple demographic groups non-exclusively; someone could look Hispanic enough and Asian enough, for example, to appeal to both groups. And in an ironic perpetuation of racism, models with white ancestry can get the brand diversity points while still hedging close to Eurocentric beauty standards, a bitter echo of the racial limbo mixed-race people have inhabited historically.
So while on first glance the rise of mixed-race models might look like progress in representation, upon closer inspection it’s clear that ultimately, the change is skin deep. The movement for inclusion might have sincere, democratic origins, but once it’s tapped by big brands, diversity is nothing more than strategy deployed to support existing capitalist structures. The normalisation of different identities ends up being no more than a collateral consequence. We’re led to believe that a post-racial world is possible, but we’ll have to buy our way there.
Ladybeard magazine is a UK feminist print magazine. Taking the traditional ‘glossy’ as a point of departure, it is a space to play with gender, sexuality and identity, rather than dictate their terms. Their latest edition, the ‘Beauty Issue', looks at how we make and unmake ourselves in the image of what our culture finds beautiful. Shape-shifting through time and across continents, who sets the standard tells us something unnerving about who holds power. With this issue, they want to disrupt the ideal. This article, from the Beauty Issue, has been reprinted with permission of Ladybeard magazine, Copyright © 2018 . All rights reserved.