Race Card: Beyonc

Nadra Kareem Nittle
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Beyonce for L'Officiel

I hate to overload you with Beyoncé news, but just after I critiqued the Daily Mail op-ed accusing her of looking too white, news broke that Beyoncé donned blackface and pseudo African garb for French glossy L'Officiel. Why did Bey make this enormous misstep? According to reports, she participated in the African-themed photo shoot to pay tribute to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

I have no idea what Beyoncé's politics are or if she's at all socially conscious, but blackface is terribly offensive—no matter if the person wearing it is white, black or from another racial group. Harry Connick Jr. knew as much when he hosted an Australian variety show in 2009 and a group called the Jackson Jive, some of whom were people of color, performed in blackface.

"I just want to say, on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously, but we've spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart," Connick told the group.

It's too bad Beyoncé couldn't have followed suit, making it clear that blackface in France may not have the same connotations it does in the U.S., but, nonetheless, as an American, she would have to take a stand against it. Blackface simply can't be separated from its ugly history. It was used to literally paint African Americans as cartoonish and sub-human. To boot, in recent years blackface has oddly experienced a resurgence in a fashion industry where dark-skinned models remain anomalies. Instead of painting the skin of fair-skinned models and entertainers darker, why not use people with actual dark skin for these photo shoots? Using blackface in this context reduces dark skin to an accessory, effectively stripping those "born that way" of agency and humanity.

Blackface's ugly history is not the only reason I object to Beyoncé's photo shoot. I also take issue with it because those behind the shoot obviously have an extremely limited view of sub-Saharan Africa. Not all such Africans have very dark skin. In fact, many of the Nigerians I've met have had yellowish brown skin. (My father's Nigerian, by the way, and I've visited the country as well.) So, why does the stereotype persist that all sub-Saharan Africans are coal-black in hue if not to play into preconceived notions about what Africa is and who Africans are? In truth, Africa is a continent of diversity. Nigeria alone, Africa's most populous country, is home to dozens of ethnic groups and languages. Perhaps the team at L'Officiel should've considered that before deciding the only way to present Beyoncé as an authentic Nigerian woman was to blacken her skin.

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25 Comments Have Been Posted


wow. at a loss? wtf?

I see beauty

Why can this not be seen as a 'Stealing it back' -moment? Insults won't disappear from the history, but one way of changing an attitude is by owning the insult, by using it empoweringly. This will eventually destroy the power of the insult. Hey, we all call eachother and ourselves sluts nowdays, in the good way.
I am with you on the issue about neglecting the various shades of dark skin in Africa. But then again, when I look at the picture I see Beyonce in make-up. Make-up is used to make a person look desirable. I see no wrong in dark skin being presented as desirable. Do you?

Blackface? I see ART.

If this were a white model, we would call this ART. Maybe the "blackface" was just the color needed to set off the accent colors which wouldn't show on light skin.

Before everyone starts getting upset - talk to the artist and the photographer to see what their vision was for this shoot

I have seen many more outrageously painted faces on "America's Next Top Model" - women of all skin colors - and in magazines. I think it's a great shot.

Stealing it Back, No

I don't see this as a stealing blackface moment, just as I don't believe the N-word can be detached from its ugly history and used as a term of endearment. When I see blackface, I immediately have a negative association with it, just as I immediately have a negative reaction to the N-word or to the word "slut," since you brought it up. I have no problem with dark skin being presented as desirable when a person who actually has dark skin is the focus of art. On the other hand, I think Beyonce looks pretty ridiculous here. And, no, I disagree with the point that makeup in this case was used to make Beyonce appear desirable. It was used to play into stereotypes about Africa.

Historical context is important

Dark skin can definitely be presented as desirable when the model in question *actually has* dark skin, not when they are a white or light-skinned person in blackface seeking to capitalize from the tokenization or othering of darker people of color. Would it be appropriate for a non-Asian person to tape the sides of their eyelids up in a photo shoot so that they could "show people the beauty of Asian women"? Or for an upper-class Chinese-American woman to model as a lower-class, working poor Chinese woman to "show people the nobility of the working poor"? No. Because only people from their own ethnic, racial, cultural, color, class, etc. group can accurately and sensitively represent their own people. And because when outsiders try to appropriate the images and experiences of marginalized groups of people, then you get problematic and/or racist results and the perpetuation of race/class/gender myths (in example 1, this myth might be the "exoticism" of Asian women, and in example 2, this myth would be about how "virtuous" it is to be poor).

In response to racism, many Black people in the U.S. internalized the idea that lighter skin is better skin. There's a historical context here. For Beyonce, who benefits from her privilege as a light-skinned Black person, to don the (inaccurate and racist) appearance of a dark-skinned African person is totally disrespectful to dark-skinned African people because it condescends to Nigerian and African people by making the statement that they should consider it a "tribute" to this great Nigerian artist, Fela Kuti, when a light-skinned, "First World" Black celebrity dresses up in stereotypical "African" clothing/prints and engages in a practice (blackface) that was historically used to mock and degrade African and African-American people. It's especially ironic considering the fact that Kuti's politics were very anti-imperialist and even socialist; he was very against the Europeanization of Africans, and this photo shoot depicts all kinds of stereotyped, Euro/American-based ideas about Africa and Africans. (Kuti was also reportedly sexist or misogynistic in some of his thinking, but this is another issue...) The ignorance of both Beyonce and the photographer(s)/designer(s) of this photo shoot stand in stark contrast to any authentic Nigerian cultural influence, or anything that seems to have to do with Fela Kuti (as far as I can tell - please correct me if I'm wrong). (It's debatable just how ignorant Beyonce and her coworkers are in this regard, so I will refrain from assigning full blame to her or anyone involved when I don't know whether or not she's/they are fully aware of the significance of her/their actions. That doesn't mean that this isn't racist, though.)

Blackface has and always will be intimately connected to the historical narratives surrounding racism in the United States. It cannot be dismissed as "art" when this medium was invented by racist White Americans, and internalized or despised by Black Americans since its conception. Again, there's a context here. There are lots of racist and/or sexist things that cannot and should not be taken out of context because, well, they *can't* be taken out of context even if we want to ignore the history behind them.

Being willfully ignorant of the impact that a racist act has on people of color, even when that racism is perpetrated by a person/people of color, does not erase the fact that racism and evaluations of cultural value are occurring. It just means that you don't want to see it because it mildly inconveniences you when you have to think about how to be respectful of other races, cultures, classes of people, and so forth. The privilege that you have to ignore the impact that this kind of image can have on women of color, especially dark-skinned Black or African women who may feel mocked and devalued by this photo, only serves to uphold White supremacy. When a light-skinned Black woman can be painted darker because evidently a real dark-skinned model would not be good enough or beautiful enough for the job, and when dark-skinned Black models lose out on the opportunity to work and make a living to a light-skinned Black woman due to these ideas that our society continues to embrace about how light skin is more desirable than dark skin, then White supremacy is being upheld because it means that light-skinned women are still favored over dark-skinned women because they better resemble White people and the ideals of White womanhood, and because women of color are still being judged as "less than" simply because they are women of color. There is a hierarchy of privilege here, and it's too bad that Beyonce is either unknowingly or knowingly buying into it.


Oh wow. Just...wow.

I also don't understand why some fashion industry people are into using blackface, especially since there are so many great black models. I guess it's to be provocative or shocking, but really it's just trite and ignorant.

Leave her alone!

You are excessively opinionated!! Parece que siempre le buscáis tres pies al gato. Why don't you leave people have fun without making a political reading of every single act?


The purpose of any social commentary blog is to share opinions. Moreover, my opinions are hardly stopping Beyonce from having fun.

Because everything, whether

Because everything, whether intended or not, has political repercussions.

You're reading the wrong

You're reading the wrong blog.

Yes, I am reading to wrong blog

There is a thin line separating the critical analysis of societal trends and petty-minded gossip. I was looking for some analysis but, you are right, it turned up that I was reading the wrong blog.

I know this isn't the point,

I know this isn't the point, but I find the fact that they didn't do her hands VERY distracting......

Yeah, they literally did just

Yeah, they literally did just do blackFACE. There are other photos that show her arms/chest without paint, so it's clear that they didn't just slip up and forget to do her hands, they intentionally only painted her face. It's added bizarreness.


Glad you addressed this, Nadra. I agree with you that this shoot was a huge mistake on Beyonce's part.

I actually think the photo is

I actually think the photo is beautiful...and is an artistic expression. However, I do think that the photo would have been just as beautiful had she worn the same clothing and NOT painted her face. The colorful makeup was enough to get the point across as to what and maybe who she was trying to portray.

I also think this is quite a bit different than the way other people have dont blackface. This was not meant to mock or portray someone in a light to make fun of. So I think everyone is gettin a little too enraged over this photo

"little too enraged"

So... we need to calm down about it? Not be so sensitive? I've heard that before.

I know that blackface was and

I know that blackface was and is offensive and I know why. But when any person puts dark make-up on their face for any reason, is that blackface? Is it really the same thing?

Beyonce black face shoot

If black paint was put on white actress, singer star, etc, would it be offensive? It would be considered blackface. All black face references are unacceptable because it disrespects af.am.ppl. Even if it is done by beyonce. It is wrong and done to be sensational and sell more magazines.

A little Blackface history 101: Yes, it still matters

Brenda, please see my comment below ("Everything has a context"). Yes, it is still offensive when a person of color dons Blackface. In fact, many Black people wore Blackface from the time that minstrelsy was invented up until the time of the production of early Hollywood films. Eventually, Black actors stopped wearing make-up that would identify them as being in Blackface because they were actually allowed to abandon the racist practice. However, they were still forced to keep the mannerisms that we associate with the offensive term "cooning", meaning that they were relegated to parts where they'd still have to act like stereotypes of Black people that were invented by White people even though they weren't in Blackface anymore. This meant that for a long time, Black actors could only play roles like the "happy slave", the maid or servant, the "mammy", the mentally slow Black person, the non-threatening "uncle"-type character, etc., both during and after the time when Blackface was popular.

The entertainment business has sometimes been a way to make a living when there were few or no other job options for Black people in the post-slavery days. With the invention of film, Black actors had to make similarly hard choices, like whether they would play stereotypical roles and possibly make more money than they would as a maid, service person, etc., or if they'd keep their dignity by doing a menial job (where they'd probably have to pander to White people, anyway). In response to criticism from the NAACP for agreeing to play in stereotypical roles, the Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel (she was active on the Hollywood scene in the 30's and 40's) once said, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7."

So, as you can see, even the Black community has been divided on the best way to better the living conditions and work for the rights of the Black community. However, it is universally recognized that Blackface is unacceptable today. We cannot judge the Black people who wore Blackface when they were desperate to make a living during an era when Black people and White people couldn't even attend school together. However, I think that we can be a little harsh on Beyonce, who is an international superstar, is very wealthy, and who really has no need to wear Blackface for the sake of her own advancement. This isn't to say that racism is over, or that Beyonce doesn't face discrimination (though, according to some the statements that she's made, she seems to think that no one sees her race). Maybe I shouldn't even be judging Beyonce since we don't live in a post-racial society and I don't know what it's like to work in the entertainment industry as a person of color. But times have changed, and Blackface is totally outdated. Everybody knows that Blackface is no longer considered okay because of it's racist history and the way it was used to keep Black actors and Black people down by ensuring that they could never be seen as three-dimensional, complex human beings, whether that was in the movies or in real life. Nobody tolerates Blackface anymore except for White-privileged, class-privileged models in the so-called "high fashion" industry and the designers/fashion industry personnel who are trying to create controversy in order to gain media attention and sell magazines.


Sorry, I meant "its racist history", not "it's...". Grammar police....

30 Rock

I may have missed it as I have only recently been reading Bitch commentary online, but what did you think of the two episodes of 30 Rock that had blackface?

As someone said, intended or

As someone said, intended or not EVERYTHING has reprecussions. I see this as an artistic photograph, and a very typical "French" way of expressing art (I do think some French people, culturally, have problematic racial views). Personally, I just see this as art, just as when my friend of color donned white face to do an interpretive dance.

I, too, am distracted by the un-blackened lower chest and hands.

Everything has a context

Yes, there is definitely a history of racism in France, too. Josephine Baker was prejudiced against in France despite being popular with many French audiences. Just look at the Islamophobia that pervades French society today and the discriminatory laws that they've been passing/trying to pass. Naturally, that doesn't mean that all French people are racist, but France is not post-racial or racism-free. Maybe if we lived in a completely post-racial world where absolutely everyone was treated equally all of the time, this could be okay. But there is a historical context here, and dark-skinned people, Africans, and people of African descent still face discrimination all over the world. No country or region of world is free from racism. In any case, the idea that Blackface could be part of a very "French" way to do art does not excuse the racism in it. It's pretty disturbing to think that any nation could get away with racism because doing racist things is just their way of "expressing art".

I don't know how your friend donned "Whiteface" - if they were literally painted the color white in an abstract way, or if they were actually trying to adopt the appearance, however stylized it may have been, of a White person. Everything has a context, and it's difficult to come to any conclusions about the significance of your friend's actions when we don't know what that context is.

Also, there's been some discussion in communities of color about how it's not necessarily the same when people of color dress up in Whiteface for the sake of social commentary. When an oppressed group of people make social commentary about their oppressors, it's not the same as when the oppressors dress up in a stereotypical way for the sake of mocking and devaluing the people they oppress. So, depending on how based in their own experiences it is and taking into consideration other factors like that, a person of color might actually be able to make commentary about discrimination that they've faced at the hands of White people by taking on the voice or other characteristics of a racist or discriminatory White person, and that would be fair. It's not about mocking and devaluing White people - it's about addressing, dismantling, and coping with racism and other accompanying forms of discrimination. However, when a White or light-skinned person of color dons the stereotyped image of a dark-or-darker-skinned person of color, they are taking part in a long tradition of minstrelsy and the dehumanization of dark-skinned people.

Racism is not "art". We cannot dismiss racism as "art" unless we want to risk fostering racism and perpetuating the idea that racist or discriminatory practices & policies are still okay. Stereotyped and/or discriminatory words and images are always the first tools of political oppression because they are agents of dehumanization. This may be only one instance of racist "art" (or propaganda), but it does not stand alone as the only misinformed, stereotyped image of a Black person in American society, French society, or any other society.

In addition to highlighting

In addition to highlighting the accessorizing of skin-color, dehumanization of Black people, and reverberations of historical use of blackface, this shoot and photo suggest that Beyonce was not "black enough" to be shot in psuedo-African garb in this style. Why not leave the colorful face paint and highlight Beyonce's "blackness"? She is Black, whether people believe that she "looks too white," and her categorization of herself and identification is more important than how people simplify or interpret her racial identity. I would have liked to hear a different story about Beyonce standing up for her own identity and responding to suggestions and implications that she should alter her race in either direction.


For those who haven't seen it, check out Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" (available on Netflix) which deals with this very subject. In my opinion, this movie was financially unsuccessful mainly because of the lack of cultural understanding about blackface (and other forms of disrespect).

There is a weird and widespread cultural belief that if a member of a group that is potentially disrespected by some act performs the act him/her/zir-self, then it's automatically A-OK. Sometimes the context is important, but it's certainly not "automatically" OK. What about closeted homosexuals (e.g., certain politicians) who promote hatred of homosexuality? Does the fact that they're later outed as homosexual themselves somehow "make OK" their outrageous gay-bashing?

In regards to this Beyonce-in-blackface situation, it doesn't seem far off from a minstrel show. If they really wanted to celebrate/promote sub-Saharan Africa, why not find a model from that region? Why take a light-skinned, relatively European-looking woman of color and darken only the skin on her face/neck?

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