In the past five years, grassroots activism has defined citizen unrest and resistance towards government, politicians, and the police. The Trump presidency era adds a layer of political and activist urgency, ensuring that every part of culture become political. It seems that brands, Hollywood institutions, and other previously apolitical institutions are now part of a national dialogue about race, inequality, and marginalization.
One of the most visible advocates for visibility, particularly for girls and women in tech is Karlie Kloss, a supermodel and self-proclaimed techy with “nerdy passions.” Her brand as a liaison and entrepreneur who seamlessly lives and breathes the culture of tech and fashion has expanded to include partnerships that promote women who innovate with Elle UK, Flatiron School, and more.
To the shock of many (and not so much to others), Kloss recently came under fire for posing in Yellowface in Vogue’s Diversity issue. In the photo series, Kloss poses in traditional Japanese kimonos, bath houses, and scenery, while the few Asian actors in the shoot (in the form of a sumo wrestler and a server) serve as props to highlight and celebrate Kloss’s figure as a celebration of Japanese culture.
Cultural appropriation disguised under the clichéd catch-all phrase of “diversity” has a long standing history in this country. It is bigger than the Yellowface we see in the forthcoming Vogue issue. It is part of a greater conversation that needs to be had about white women and white culture taking wrongful ownership of women of color’s past and current sorrows, celebrations, and victories. Even Kloss’s personal brand push to be the face of the women and girls in tech movement and being the poster child for opportunity and accessibility is one that is not rightfully hers. By promoting herself as a champion of the girls in tech movement, she wrongfully capitalizes and owns the accomplishments of girls and women who faced insurmountable hurdles to achieve in a male-dominated field.
Kloss’s latest gaffe in Vogue’s issue highlights one of the biggest Catch-22s in cultural and civil rights movements, like the one our country is currently experiencing: white allies who take part of a movement that demands equal representation and respected existence of people of color and marginalized communities. Allies who demand space in discourse and dialogue, but are unwilling to be held accountable towards their own actions that fuel and stand with the same institutions and historical culture of repression. The series of Women’s Marches across the nation sparked dialogues on white feminism and speculations about the motivations behind a March that demanded marchers be “women first.”
It is critical that allies do a better job in understanding the differences between what it means to be an ally who understands the struggles and victories of minorities without robbing groups of their cultures, victories and struggles.
This type of pressure to unite as a singular identity echoes the same appropriative dialogue used during the Women’s Suffrage movement in both the USA and the UK. Philosophy Professor Elizabeth Spelman notes in her 1997 book Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering, that phrases such as “women and minorities” overshadow and remove the identity and experiences of minority women and take these experiences to work towards the motivations of white women. Spelman asks her readers, “Consider the talk about women being treated like slaves. Whenever we talk that way we are not only making clear that the ‘women’ we’re referring to aren’t themselves slaves; we’re making it impossible to talk about how the women who weren’t slaves treated those who were.” Spelman implores us to critically examine the politics of the words we use to describe our experiences. The wording and metaphors we use have the potential to not only silence the underrepresented and disenfranchised, but also removes accountability from the relationship that the “women” being referenced have with the oppressed and underrepresented.
It is critical that allies do a better job in understanding the differences between what it means to be an ally who understands the struggles and victories of minorities and people of color without overstepping and robbing groups of their cultures, victories, and struggles. The very fact that the Vogue and Kloss teams came to the conclusion that having a white woman representing Japanese culture in its diversity issue shows that mainstream media still struggles in its role as an ally. Within hours of the photos being released, Kloss issued an apology for participating in the Vogue photoshoot that appropriated Japanese culture.
However, as several days have passed since the controversy, Vogue has still yet to release an apology, making it clear that diversity, not inclusivity, is a priority simply in its potential to profit and erase centuries of oppression and silenced voices. Vogue’s silence further fuels a long standing history of fashion and its reluctance to open doors and make room for stories that demand conversations about its relationship to people of color, minority women, LGBTQ, immigrant, and all underrepresented communities. As the country continues to mobilize and people of all backgrounds stand up, resist, and define themselves as allies of marginalized communities, it will be all the more critical for everyone to critically examine what it means to be an ally without silencing the individuals that dared to demand more for their communities, children, and future.