Fashion and Race
By Janis Prince Inniss
I'm amused when I see Sherri Shepherd and Elisabeth Hasselbeck of "The View" strut out onto their set in their neutral shoes. Indeed, Hasselbeck's legs do look lengthened. Shepherd? She looks like she stepped in a big vat of Pepto-Bismal. We share the same fate...neutral in the context of the U.S. looks like neither of us.
Let me explain: About a year or so ago, I started noticing that “neutral” shoes were in style for women. (I didn’t notice what was happening with men’s shoes.) As a woman with many brightly colored shoes I was struck by this trend; I liked the look though and was interested to hear that the look “elongates the leg.” (Why do we all want to look like we have longer legs?)
When I found a neutral shoe in a price and style that I liked, made by the only maker I now wear (looks are great, but comfort is imperative for me), I was quite excited. I was ready to be wowed. However, when I tried the shoes on and walked over to the floor-length store mirror, I found my reflection…umm, let’s say surprising. Instead of elongated legs, I found myself staring at feet that looked like they were stuck in Pepto-Bismol! My feet looked pink! On me, the shoes, looked pink—and since my skin color is more in the chocolate family....imagine the discrepancy by looking at the picture of the shoe here.
I had a similar experience with the “pretend camisole”; this is an oblong piece of lace trimmed fabric that is clipped to a bra, providing the appearance that a woman is wearing a camisole even when she's not. They're great to add some modesty to tops that are too revealing and when I want that camisole look, but it's too hot to wear one. I bought a packet with three basic colors: black, white, and beige. The beige colored one would look very natural worn by a white woman, but on me? Look at this picture of me wearing it and you’ll see that although it looks fine, it certainly does not blend into my skintone. I've had similar experiences with bandages that promise to blend right in and claim to be “flesh color”.
What is the implication if what is considered neutral does not look like me or millions of other people?
Whiteness, in the U.S., is the norm. All other races are "different." We notice difference based on what we consider what contrasts or even contradicts the norm. It's not just that there are differences in the way people look, but that one group—white-- is the one from which all others differ. It is with whiteness as the center that “fleshtone” or “skintone” means the color of white skin. That all white skin is not exactly the same color is beside the point; in the examples mentioned so far, variations of white skin color blend far more readily with the color of these products. This discussion is not meant to focus on the products mentioned. The larger issue is for us to examine some of the privileges automatically granted white skin.
As a student of sociology, you will read and may have already read, many articles and books regarding the role of race in U.S. society. Likely, they are about people of color--most of them can probably be conceptualized as being about the plight of minorities. This focus, while important, encourages us to see people of color as ”raced” and ignores that white people are also raced; it is because whiteness is “the center” that it typically remains unexamined even by sociologists who study race.
Think about it: When we read, write, or talk about “people” they are white. Everyone else then is “othered.” For example, there are “black films” but not “white films.” Does that mean there are no “white films?” No. Again, this is about what is centered. A film with an all white or predominantly white cast is just a film, while one with a black cast is a “black film.”
This norm—of ignoring that whites are also raced, encourages whites to ignore their race and be bewildered that people of color continue to find race to be relevant in their lives, failing to realize that the privilege of ignoring race is only afforded to those seen as the norm. It is important to note, however, that all white people are not similarly privileged by their skin. Other factors such as gender and social class mute or amplify those advantages. Can you think examples that illustrate this? What special privileges or penalties does your skin confer upon you? Do you experience both privilege and penalty, depending on context?