After Illamasqua posted this clearly blackface-inspired holiday makeup ad to the company's Australian Facebook page it promptly attracted dozens upon dozens of critical comments. After we blogged about the image, the U.K.-based company first took the Facebook post down. Then it put it back up. Because why not! It's only a makeup ad. That refers to centuries of hateful racist imagery. To sell makeup.
The company added this sorry-you-were-offended "apology":
We thank and acknowledge your comments regarding the above image. Obviously it was never our intention to cause offence; Illamasqua has always celebrated the right to self-expression and we continually push creative and artistic boundaries, priding ourselves on working with models of many ethnic backgrounds to reinforce this point. Alex Box, Illamasqua's Creative Director, has emphasised that this campaign is about colour ON the skin, not colour OF the skin, depicting polarity between the two images (both images are the same model) not race.
You see, there's another ad, in which the same model has white skin. That obviously totally changes everything.
The cosmetics company's response hinges on the notion that racism, in order to exist, has to be intentional. This is not so. An act — or in this case, an image — can be racist or refer to a painful, racist past without those responsible for it specifically intending that meaning. (Although I would argue that taking blackface imagery as an aesthetic reference — as the styling of this image, with the model in dark makeup with pink lips, wearing a top hat and bow tie like the minstrel show performers of old, obviously demonstrates — is so irresponsible that it is at best naïve and at worst cynical for the image-makers to now claim ignorance of the meaning of blackface, something they clearly researched and appropriated.) Racist acts do not require intent. As Minh-Ha T. Pham has written at Threadbared, claiming you didn't "mean" something to be racist is a poor way to get yourself off the hook after you've done something insensitive:
[D]o racist acts require intentionality? The obvious answer is no...Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it's an act of conscience.
What is always intentional is anti-racism. That's a nice thing to keep in mind.
Illamasqua Australia [Facebook]