I’m just going to warn y’all right now that this is a post about reality TV. And also it might be a wee bit snarky. Just to be clear.
So I was watching the Season 2 premiere of The Fashion Show a few nights ago (why yes, I am a sucker for cheesy fashion reality shows). I was all set to enjoy some pretty clothes, laugh at some truly hideous clothes, and be entertained by overblown egos and petty bickering. Oh, and bask in the unmatched fabulosity of Iman, the co-host and more or less the star of the show. And all of that happened, but not without considerable irritation and swearing at the TV on my and my husband’s part.
Iman, as you might know, is from Somalia, and is one of the few black models to make it big in the fashion industry. The first challenge for the designers was to create a look for her, inspired by her career and life story. One of the designers, Mike, apparently decided that the only relevant fact about Iman’s life is that she’s “African” and decided to create a dress that would “honor her African heritage.” Well. Perhaps you see where this is going.
That was warning sign number one. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when Americans, and especially white Americans, start talking about the heritage and culture of the entire African continent as a monolith, odds are something deeply ignorant and possibly very offensive is about to come next. This case was not the exception. Mike went on to identify “safaris” and “wild animals” as part of Iman’s “heritage.” Because when you think of Africans, obviously wild animals and white tourist attractions would be the first thing to come to mind.
It got worse. He summarized Iman’s life story as “leaving a tribal background and coming into the modern world. Apparently, knowing someone is originally from “Africa” means that you can deduce their life story without having any shred of actual information about their history. Funny thing is, Iman is the daughter of a diplomat. She has a degree in political science – from, *gasp*, an African university (yes, we have those! amazing!). She speaks five languages fluently. But nevertheless, leaving “Africa” is what introduced her to the “modern world,” whatever that means. And “African” automatically means being of “tribal background” (of course there’s the huge issue that the standard Western narrative of “tribal” Africa is fundamentally racist, paternalist, and colonialist to begin with).
Then he went on about how he was designing with “African tribal motifs,” but making them into a “more sophisticated dress.” Because African = unsophisticated. And because he magically knows something about what “African tribal motifs” look like. Which part of Africa? Which tribes? Doesn’t matter! And the dress he designed, my goodness. It wasn’t a bad looking dress, but the concept behind it was breathtakingly arrogant and offensive. It was sleek and polished in the front – representing Western modernity and sophistication, you see – and the upper back was a halter made out of thick knotted rope – “representing the restrictions” of Iman’s native culture or some such rubbish.
It was kind of astounding to hear this dude who obviously doesn’t know the first darn thing about ANY part of Africa pontificate about how backwards and restrictive “African” society is. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve heard countless similar comments like this since I first moved to the States at 8. Many Americans are convinced they know something about “Africa” because they’ve seen huts and starving children and wild giraffes on TV (for the record, to the best of my recollection, I have never in my life seen a wild giraffe, or a wild anything that wasn’t a dog or cat. The only giraffes I saw in Nigeria were at the zoo.). They assume all Africans are from rural, tribal contexts (and assume quite a bit about what it means to come from such a background); they assume we all have little or no education or real “culture.” Because education, art, and cities are all things that Africans can’t have, at least, not without Western assistance. As Dodai put it over at Jezebel:
When using Iman as a muse for their collections, the contestants used words like “exotic,” “wild animal,” “jungle” and “tribal.” If only I were fucking kidding. Yes, she is from Somalia. But do you know what the city of . . . Mogadishu looks like? It looks like a city. The winning design was a leopard print dress, but Isaac Mizrahi made sure to point out that it won because it “celebrated her figure” and not because animal print is for black people, who are animals from Africa.