This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
There is a multiracial 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’ look. But is this a sign that we are on our way to a post-racial society, or is the racially ambiguous imagery just being fetishized by the fashion industry?
Colonial Europeans invented the concept of race as a way to distance themselves from the colonized and enslaved. Whiteness was used as a ‘scientific’ validation of superiority that enabled the imperialistic and exploitative practices of colonialism. Under this taxonomy, multiracial people — particularly those with some white ancestry — were put in a racial limbo: in many parts of the world they were categorized in semi-privileged racial groups, such as the ‘Anglo-Indians’ in India, ‘colored’ people in South Africa, and ‘mestizos’ in South and Central America.
In the United States, multiracial 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 multiracial 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 biracial in this context — it was dangerous.
Social attitudes about people of color began to slowly progress 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.
Fueled 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 influencer, and Mariah Idrissi, a multiracial 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 decentralized and radicalized, 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 labels 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 multiracial person — the type that wears their mixedness on their sleeve with an unexpected combination of features, like industry staples Adwoa Aboah, Jasmine Sanders, 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; only one model, Imaan Hammam, was Black. 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 multiracial 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 marginalized and hidden, visibly multiracial models now feature prominently in affirmative sites of social norms. Multiracial looks are normalized 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.
The inspiring @adwoaaboah on the cover of my first edition of @Britishvogue. The December 2017 issue is dedicated to Great Britain and the creatives who represent it at home and abroad. Welcome to the #NewVogue. Enjoy! Photography by #StevenMeisel. On newsstands November 9th xoxo
A post shared by Edward Enninful, OBE (@edward_enninful) on Nov 7, 2017 at 10:00am PST
But when analyzed in regard to the contemporary constructs around mixed identity, the transformation doesn’t look so utopian. In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement, multiracial populations grew, and by the 1990s, new narratives around mixedness that were rooted in fetishization started to sprout. Multiracial 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 fetishization, multiracial 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, multiracial 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 recognizable and non-threatening. Their existence suggested that the future could be multicultural and still comfortably white.
This fetishistic narrative still holds weight today, and the trend of casting multiracial 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). Multiracial 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 multiracial people have inhabited historically.
So while on first glance the rise of multiracial 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 normalization 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.
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