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Naomi Campbell Lashes Out at ELLE Germany: “We Are Not a Trend”

The magazine put out an ill-advised campaign that proclaimed "Black is back."

ELLE Germany has come under fire for a new editorial campaign called "Black Is Back," which was offensive from start to finish.

The first problem begins with the ill-advised title, which seems to imply that blackness is a new trend, something that can be put on and taken off.

That wasn't all. The editorial used a photo of a model named Naomi Chin Wing with a caption that referred to a model named Janaye Furman. To add insult to injury, an issue called "Back to Black" of course features a white model on the cover.

Daily Mail

Naomi Campbell lashed out at that, posting the caption, "This makes me so sad to see this, @bethannhardison @the_real_iman and I are here if you are not clear on the guidelines of diversity," Campbell writes. "Your mistake is highly insulting in every way ... I've said countless times we are not a TREND. We are here to STAY." She continues, "I too in my career have seen pictures of others models called me just because of the color of our skin, and recently seen many pictures of models of color being called being @adutakech... do you know what it feels like to do the job (@naomichinwing) and not even be given the right name credit?"

Adut Akech, a model who recently faced a similar issue—a photo of a different model was used in an interview with her—also commented, "SO SICKENING!! I'm over it honestly."

For her part, Janaye Furman posted herself sipping tea with the caption #blackisback.

The magazine's actions were first called out by the account Diet Prada on Instagram, which reports fashion industry missteps.

ELLE Germany responded with an Instagram post of their own. "This obviously was not our intention and we regret not being more sensitive to the possible misinterpretations. Misidentifying the model Naomi Chin Wing as Janaye Furman is a further error for which we apologize. We are aware of how problematic this is. This has definitely been a learning experience for us and, again, we deeply regret any harm or hurt we have unwittingly caused," it read.

Though this campaign is particularly riddled with missteps, this is far from an isolated incident. The fact that fashion magazines seem to have such poor sensitivity towards race reveals a chronic lack of diversity in higher-up editorial positions, and a lack of care and sensitivity in general. We can call-out publications for their mistakes all we want, but what we really should be calling for is an increase in diversity in all spheres of the media industry.

As one commenter wrote on ELLE Germany's Instagram post, "Perhaps if you had people of colour on your team (whose opinion you value), it may perhaps be an opportunity to make better executive decisions?"

Surface-level representation means nothing if it doesn't use input from the actual group that's being represented, and too often, diversity is used as a performance, something used to sell products. This is a problem that extends to the whole magazine and media industry. A 2018 study from The Guardian reveals that of the 214 bestselling magazine covers published in the UK last year, only 14 of them featured people of color on the front. The issue extends to children's magazines, meaning that so many kids still aren't seeing themselves represented in positions of power. While magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair have made efforts to prioritize diversity, it isn't enough.

"I feel as though this would not have happened to a white model," said Adut Akech.

The supermodel, who has appeared on the covers of Vogue UK and I-D Magazine, and who was voted Model of the Year on Models.com in 2018, was referring to her recent feature in the Australian publication Who Magazine. The publication featured an entire interview with Akech but matched it with a photo of an entirely different model.

In response, Akech posted a long Instagram caption that detailed her feelings about the incident. She also discussed prior experiences with being mistaken for other black models, calling for a larger conversation about the issue of race in the modeling industry.

Akech's statement was met with vitriol from the Internet's bottom-dwellers—namely, the comment sections on Twitter and Instagram—many of whom argued that this does happen with white models, and stated that Akech's comments were an overreaction and an unmerited use of the "race card."

As is typical, these commenters are missing the point. Akech's comments touch on a phenomenon that is much larger than this specific incident—a phenomenon that includes, but is not limited to, the media's tokenism of people of color and its overarching diversity problems.

The Science of Systemic Racism: "I Don't See Color" and Other Falsehoods

To these commenters' credit, members of specific races often group members of other races together, and not always because of conscious biases.

According to The New York Times, these kinds of mistakes are usually made by people who have not been exposed to many members of other races. Minority groups tend to be more able to recognize white faces simply because they're exposed to more white people in the media, whereas white people—especially when they're raised in homogeneous communities—can struggle to make distinctions, even when they're aware of their potential biases.

This is not to excuse racially based confusion, for these mistakes can have devastating consequences. They can result in unpleasant mishaps like the one that matched Akech's interview with a different model—or they can lead to false arrests and incorrect eyewitness testimonies that land innocent people in jail, or scapegoat minorities for problems they had nothing to do with.

This is why statements like "I don't see color" are so misguided. To not see color is to not see the entire history of racial construction in the globalized world or the ways that historical marginalization is still very present today.

Tokenism, Wokeness, and the Hypocrisy of the Modeling Industry

Even though "woke" culture has pressed magazines and the modeling industry to include more diverse bodies and demographics, not all representation is good representation. Too often, models of color have been pigeonholed into "exotic," "tribal," or otherwise stereotypical categories; and too often, they've been selected, styled, and choreographed by people who don't understand their specific experiences.

Adut Akech has faced fallout from this before. In 2014, the 19-year-old Sudanese model—who lived the first eight years of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya—confessed that she'd been bullied because of her appearance in the past, and she'd suffered from anxiety and depression during her time in the modeling industry.

She also mentioned that she'd struggled with stylists who weren't equipped to deal with her hair. "Last season, I let [hairstylists] do what they wanted to do, and my hair got so heat-damaged. This season I didn't let anyone touch my hair with heat, and a lot of people were offended, but if a model is not feeling OK, they should understand," she said. Though damaged hair isn't exactly a tragedy, the fact that she wasn't paired with people who knew how to work with her hair type is indicative of a larger current of disrespect and ignorance in the industry.

Then there's the fact that she's often compared to and confused with other black women. While some white models and celebrities have been mistaken for each other, that's relatively rare. (In some ways, this is surprising—have you seen Isla Fischer and Amy Adams?) On the other hand, many models and public figures of color have experienced this phenomenon. After seeing Akech's post, the Sudanese-American model Duckie Thot commented, "This has happened to me too with another Australian paper... it's really disrespectful and sad. I hope you're okay."

Things like this could be avoided either by mandating diversity trainings, or—ideally—by putting more people of color into influential positions. In 2018, the model Leomie Anderson called for more black makeup artists who are qualified to work on all skin tones, citing the fact that many white artists are only trained to work on white skin. This call could apply to all sectors of the industry, which has notoriously white-washed its runways.

In 2019, the modeling industry appears to be making strides in its diversity quotas, but this doesn't mean anything if this representation doesn't extend into the outer and upper echelons of the industry, from the backstage dressing rooms to the C suite offices.

These ideas stretch far beyond the modeling sphere. For a long time, mainstream movies and TV shows have been beleaguered by Eurocentrism and tired "black best friend" tropes, and even as they've become more diverse, this doesn't mean that they're automatically doing positive work. Just like media that features female characters but exclusively objectifies them doesn't help women, media that stereotypes people of color—or, say, put their interviews next to the wrong photos—is moving backwards, not forwards.

Of course, this phenomenon is not reserved for the media. Though colleges across America have pushed for more diverse student bodies, their admissions selection committees are still overwhelmingly white, as are their professors—which can leave students feeling like they've been pulled into universities that were never designed for them. It's also present in the workplace, in activist organizations, and almost every kind of white-dominated space.

A Systemic Issue: White Fragility, Racism, and Moving Forward

These phenomenons are all connected to one pervasive force: Systemic racism. This force exists in a subconscious and structural level and is largely responsible for upholding racial hierarchies. It's the reason why white people benefit from simply being white. It's the reason why black drivers are 30% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, or why black families have far less access to tax-advantaged forms of savings (largely due to a history of employment discrimination), or why the median wealth of African American households is around one tenth of the median wealth of white families.

As Robin DiAngelo writes in her book White Fragility, "The most effective adaption of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people." Instead of reacting vindictively when called out on their racism, white people have to "build our stamina to just be humble and bear witness to the pain we have caused," she adds. "Until white people understand that racism is embedded in everything, including our consciousness and socialisation, then we cannot go forward."

Actually, part of the way this form of racism sustains itself is by perpetuating the idea that racial integration or race itself is unimportant. It implies that additional recognition and care does not need to be paid to addressing racial disparities, and erases the narratives of people of color in the process.

All this is to say that yes, maybe the fact that an image of Flavia Lazarus was used in a story about Adut Akech was a genuine "misprint," as the magazine wrote. And maybe this particular incident wouldn't have been so bad if only Akech's name had been placed next to a different model. But the fact that this incorrect photo occupied a full-page spread, and accompanied an interview which Akech discussed her feelings about and experiences with race and representation, adds insult to injury, and is indicative of much larger problems.

At this point, the magazine should offer a public apology. Even better, they should diversify their staff instead of performing lazy, surface-level inclusion that signifies much deeper issues.