By Maleeha Coleburn
Kendall Jenner appeared on the cover of Vogue India’s 10th anniversary issue and people around the world are frustrated.
The anniversary of Vogue India was a time to celebrate the beauty of the country. Instead of choosing an Indian woman like Priyanka Chopra, Freida Pinto or Nandita Das, Vogue India chose Kendall Jenner. Kendall Jenner is not Indian, South Asian, desi or brown in any sense.
They chose Kendall Jenner to represent the fashion, lifestyle, culture and beauty of India. They chose a light skinned woman to represent what Vogue India is.
There are so many beautiful Indian women in the world who would authentically represent India, but the magazine did not harness that. While they have publications in other countries, they still use white models for their other international magazines. Vogue has received backlash before for misrepresentation and cultural erasure. They dressed a white woman as a geisha. They have put blackface on white models.
There are already few opportunities given to brown women because many of these opportunities go to white women. Colorism has been an issue in India. Society is built around the idea that the darker you are, the less human you are. This is true around the world: in India, Africa, Latin America and even the United States. There is a lot of self-hatred promoted by the media and society. Many Indians are obsessed with appearing “white” and skin lightening creams populate the beauty markets of India and their advertisements play constantly on TV.
Jenner’s appearance not only shows the problem India has with whitewashing, but also blackface and brownface. Bollywood, along with copying popular American plot devices, also copies racist tropes made popular in 20th century radio, film and television, including the idea of blackface. Indian cinema was primed to accept these images due to much deeper issues of race and colorism, due to the colonization of India by Britain.
Blackface has frequently been used to perpetuate demeaning stereotypes of people of color and symbolizes how non-white people have been represented as “the other.” It is widely seen as a form of racism. Regardless of intent, you can’t separate blackface from its colonial history – because the negative effects of this history still shape people’s lives today.
Although Vogue India has made great advances in decreasing whitewashing and included darker skinned models, there’s still progress to be made. Featuring Kendall Jenner on the 10th year anniversary of Vogue India was a step backward. While Kendall Jenner is a beautiful woman, she represents the Western idea of beauty. She is not a representation of the unique, diverse and truly Indian idea of beauty.
Misrepresentation and cultural erasure have become normalized. Representation in media is crucial. It has a ripple effect. It shows people the potential they have. It shows they matter. Everyone deserves to have characters or images they relate to; it is part of how we understand ourselves.
Diversity in media is a way for less understood and underrepresented groups to have a voice with which to discuss and present who they are. It makes society not only aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity. It can serves as a proxy for experiences shaping views on people of color and shaping the way those people view themselves.
The overrepresentation of white characters in international culture contributes to the systematic oppression of people of color. Negative stereotypes perpetuate discrimination, Eurocentric beauty standards provoke low self-esteem and whitewashing erases POC humanity. Young people of color carry the social and emotional burden resulting from this negative representation. Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is proof of this. How we are portrayed in the media does have an effect on how people treat us in our real lives. Visual media teaches us how the world works and our place in it.
Media representation matters because although entertainment is meant to be escapism, it still reflects who we are as a society. We live in a society where factors like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more influence our life experiences and the issues that affect us. To see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.
Hopefully Vogue and the world learned a lesson. They should work toward a positive and accurate representation of different cultures, without whitewashing or using harmful practices such as blackface and yellowface, and by actually hiring models who represent the culture of the area.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Flickr.com.
Maleeha Coleburn is a freshman journalism and government and politics double major and can be reached at email@example.com.