This past Wednesday, Jorge Rivas reported on how Dolce and Gabbana’s lineup at Milan Fashion Week included several images of black women, but not a single black model. The images of black women used were particularly controversial because some felt they invoked the kinds of racist "mammy" iconography popularized during slavery.
From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. […] Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, […] obese […and] old, or at least middle-aged. […] Her wide grin, hearty laughter, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
One can imagine why black women might take offense at the re-emergence of mammy imagery on the catwalk at Fashion Week. Of course racism in fashion is nothing new, but were these parts of the D&B collection insult or homage? Here’s what you had to say.
Plantation life is not a life to be adorned, posted on earrings making billions of dollars while Mammy and Mammy’s offsprings still get no pay, residuals, no voice and no representation – no even on the catwalk.
Why do we still purchase Aunt Jemima products? This question came up for me as I explained to my daughter why I found the bag of rice she purchased from a corner store offensive. It’s called Mahatma and it has a goofy cartoon image of an Indian man as it’s logo. I explained that Mahatma is an endearing title meaning "Great Soul" usually reserved for great leaders. Why would they use the term and even more offensive the image to sell rice? Her response was "Oh, like Aunt Jemima? We still buy that!" I had no comeback! So why do we find these images offensive in the fashion show but not on the box of pancakes? Is it because Aunt Jemima has a perm now?
However, not all of our reader’s felt these images were insulting to Black women. Chinyere Osuji said:
Those don’t look like Mammy or Aunt Jemima to me. It looks like Afro-Brazilian iconography that’s prevalent all over Latin American and the Caribbean. I think our U.S. eyes interpret these images in a narrow way that doesn’t ring true in other societies. Some of them are beautiful images of black women. Some of them use black female bodies to sell products. I have an issue with the latter, but not the former.
What I do think is spot on is: "So Dolce and Gabbana liked black women enough to exoticise them on earrings but not to include them on their runway?" By not having black women as models, they just seem to subscribe to an exotification of us instead of a celebration of beautiful black imagery. We are people too, not just pretty ceramics.
If they want to have representations of black women, they should give them a job as models. Not just have us as beautiful images they wear.
Sheryl Campbell added:
I agree!! I love jewelry that is simply beautiful and exemplifies creativity. Black women, oftentimes, are looked upon a being exotic and an adornment, and not the beautiful human beings whom God created! And, yes, beautiful Black and Latina models should have definitely been strutting their stuff down the runway!!
Michon Boston agreed, saying:
They look more like European depictions of "Moors" and Caribbean "aunties" than Aunt Jemima (U.S.) to me. Still problematic, but not every black image with a head scarf is Aunt Jemima.
Hakim Bellamy rounded out the conversation by posting a great article from the Media Literacy Project on racism in Fashion. If you are interested in learning more about the history of mammy imagery, you may also want to check out the film "Ethnic Notions" by Marlon Riggs.