A couple of days ago, a post titled "Background Color" appeared on Racialicious. The jumping-off point is a photograph, by Alex Hoerner, from Nylon magazine (at left), in which Beth Ditto from The Gossip is playing cards with the housekeeper in a motel. And yeah, the housekeeper is a woman of color. The post's author, Mimi, writes: "In the story that coalesces for me, studying this photograph, she has just been forced to play cards with a guest - not because she wants to, but because she could lose her job if she doesn't. Nor does the game even feel like a break from her domestic labor; this sort of affective labor is no less taxing. In her mind (in the story I imagine about this editorial), she calculates how much longer she'll have to stay and clean in order to meet her day's quota."
Nylon positions itself as edgy and fashionable. Are we to assume that taking advantage of the help is all the rage? It's like, "OMG, I was so bored I played gin with the maid. "Mimi continues:
We are not meant to consider her story. (And I'm made uncomfortable by my own attempt to "give" her an interior life.) Instead, the woman of color in her drab housekeeper's uniform is simply another part of the furnishing in this bland motel room. She is banished as mere and muted background, the better to illuminate Ditto's extraordinary excess of shine and glamor.
The thing about using people of color as props or background is that it's not only offensive, it is so damn old. Colonialism, slavery, movies in which the maid, porter or chambermaid has no lines — we've seen it all a million times. The lady of leisure as compared to the hard-working woman. Haven't we made any progress? How come no one cares when a company like Free People shoots in India using a blonde as the star and relegating cows, camels, elephants and indigenous schoolchildren to props or background? By using a non-white person as a backdrop against which the white person is supposed to shine, a photographer creates a world in which one person has more value than another. Clearly, the paid model (or, in Nylon's case, the celebrity) is the "star," but if you can only see her light by diminishing those around her, how bright can it be?