Earlier this week I was scrolling through Facebook when a BuzzFeed article about white model Karlie Kloss dressing as a geisha for Vogue caught my eye. I clicked on the article, saw the photos and, honestly, I had to stop myself from laughing about the incredible irony of the situation. Vogue chose, for their diversity issue, to feature a white woman appropriating Japanese culture. Whitewashing is so prevalent in the fashion industry that even in an issue of Vogue that is supposed to celebrate and represent models of different races and cultures, white models are still the preferred option. There’s a sense that Vogue wants to be diverse, but not too diverse. “Okay, we’ll have a shoot celebrating Japanese culture but no way is a Japanese model going to be used for it, that’s a step too far. Let’s get Karlie Kloss to put on a kimono and pretend to be Japanese, and just to be safe make sure she has a six-page spread, God forbid anyone non-white should take centre stage in our diversity issue.” It would be laughable if it weren’t so harmful.
Of course this isn’t the first time that this has happened, and every time I hear of another instance like this I just think, how? How did anyone think this was a good idea, how did anyone agree to this, how did no one see the shitstorm that would come their way if they cast a white person in a non-white role? I think what bothers me most is the white people who agree to be cast in these roles. As a white person, I cannot imagine myself in a situation where I agree to playing a character that is non-white (bearing in mind that I’m not an actor/model/performer so it’s quite difficult to imagine playing a character at all). It irritates me that Karlie Kloss didn’t understand that what she was doing was offensive until after people reacted negatively. Did she not see that this photo shoot could be problematic? Even if she thought it was fine for her to dress as a geisha, did she not think for one second, “huh, this is the diversity issue though, isn’t that a little ironic?” I can only assume that she didn’t see the problem, and that in itself is the problem.
This situation is reminiscent of the reaction to Emma Stone playing a character of Asian and Hawaiian descent in the 2015 film Aloha. Emma Stone, after receiving criticism, admitted that the casting of her in the role was problematic and taught her a lot about whitewashing in Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Stone has become more educated on this issue, but why did she ever accept the role in the first place? She seems, as much as one can tell from interviews, like an intelligent woman, and yet nothing about the idea of a white woman playing a part Asian and Hawaiian character tripped her up. Both Asian actors and Native American actors are hugely underrepresented in film, so when a character like that of Emma Stone’s in Aloha comes up it has the potential to offer an opportunity to actors who are too often overlooked. But once again a white actress was chosen in an already overwhelmingly white cast. Why bother including a character of colour at all if that character is not going to be played by an actor of colour? If the ethnicity of the character is important enough to be specified, then surely accurately casting that role is of equal importance.
Ultimately, it’s not good enough to apologise after the fact anymore. White performers throughout the entertainment and fashion industry have a responsibility to call out cultural appropriation and whitewashing when they see it, just as their counterparts of different races have been doing for years.