On Wednesday morning, Racked published an article by Lisa Wong Macabasco about the prominence of Asian style bloggers and the purported lack of prominence of their race.
“Wait,” you might be wondering. “How can an Asian style blogger who posts photos of his or her Asian face all the time somehow not be prominent enough about their race, which they are automatically representing simply by dint of being alive and photographing themselves constantly for a very large audience?”
The answer, I thought, reading the piece, sits somewhere between truth and projection—and probably closer to the latter than the first. But no one would’ve had much time to think about it, because just an hour later, Racked had deleted the story (and the tweets associated), replacing it with a terse note.
The story is still cached, and I revisited it this morning. Macabasco gives plenty of background for her conclusion before she gets to it. She writes about the relatively swift transition between 2000, when the association between Asian people and fashion was limited to sweatshop protests and offensive Abercrombie tees, and the 2007-2010 period, when Derek Lam, Phillip Lim, and Thakoon Panichgul rose to prominence, along with fashion bloggers like Susie Bubble and Rumi Neely.
The change was a welcome one to Macabasco, she writes, though it also came with an early piece of identity-politics discomfort:
I have a tiny bit of history with [Susie Bubble]. I interviewed her for Audrey, a now-defunct Asian American women’s magazine, in 2007. I had pitched a story in which I would get her thoughts on race and fashion, but when I got in touch with her through email, she admitted to being uncomfortable with the idea of analyzing what she did from an Asian perspective. “I don’t really label myself as this ‘Chinese’ blogger,” she told me. “I’m just a blogger who happens to be Chinese.”
Macabasco cites Minh-Ha T. Pham, a media studies professor at Pratt, who points out that Susie Bubble sometimes obscures her features in her photos and in 2011 once wrote that she wouldn’t wear chinoiserie. All of this amounts to what Macabasco calls “racial distancing and ambivalence.”
Well, not so fast, shall we? The stuff about face-obscuring and style choices aside—it seems to me that two main tenets of style blogging are posing oddly and aiming for aesthetic unexpectedness—Susie Bubble was born in the UK. She is ethnically Chinese. She does not “really” consider herself to be a “Chinese blogger,” presumably because she doesn’t blog extensively about race or the country where her parents came from. Is this bad? Is it “racial distancing”? Does Susie Bubble have the automatic obligation to blog about race—a task that is, like fashion blogging, intriguing to amateurs but quite difficult to actually do well—just because she’s Chinese?
Let’s swerve to another example, one I can speak on with authority, which is me. I am ethnically Filipina, born in Canada and raised in Texas, within an all-white community that I would not have chosen for myself but was fated for anyway, by parents who spoke almost exclusively English at home. If someone emailed me asking to “analyze what I did from an Asian perspective,” and I said “I don’t really label myself as this Asian blogger,” would I be distancing myself from my background or accurately representing the role that my Asian background has played in my life?
I’d probably word my reply differently, but “I don’t really label myself as this Asian blogger” is in spirit fairly close to what I would say—even though my critical consciousness has been shaped by a deep personal understanding of white supremacy, and even though I write about race from a minority perspective all the goddamn time.
There are a lot of straightforwardly non-traitorous reasons why a person would want to say “I don’t really label myself as this [X] [something],” anyway. For me, I describe myself as a “writer,” not a “feminist writer” or an “intersectional feminist writer” or an “Asian writer” or a “woman of color writer,” because I find life more palatable when I insist, even privately, that any of those things could be folded into the default.
“Distancing” is the first point in the Racked essay at which I found myself making the Halpert. But Macabasco continues by pointing out that Asian-Americans are currently well-represented in fashion schools and on magazine mastheads, as well as on the runway:
I’m excited to see models like Liu Wen, who has been featured in Gap and J.Crew campaigns, Fei Fei Sun, the first Asian model to grace the cover of Italian Vogue solo (and what a stunner it was!), and Xiao Wen Ju, the newest face of L’Oréal Paris. Being of Filipino heritage as well, I’m also super into up-and-coming Filipino models like Paolo Roldan and Marga Esquivel. Filipino fashion models! What a world.
(The link to Marga Esquivel, and her cool hair that I would like to cop as soon as I have lots of extra money and eight spare hours to spend at the salon, is actually why I looked up the piece this morning and subsequently saw that it’d been deleted.)
But the Asian models aren’t doing enough, writes Macabasco:
These days, we see stars like Amandla Stenberg taking a stand against cultural appropriation. We see models of color addressing racial bias backstage, from Brandee Brown speaking out about stylists who don’t know how to work with black hair like hers, to Nykhor Paul, who is Sudanese, posting on Instagram about needing to bring her own makeup to shows.
“Our interest in [models and style stars] has gotten deeper,” she writes. “We’re not just interested in style, we also want to see them wade into issues of visual and racial identity.” Later, she adds: “What I really want is for more Asian style luminaries to speak out about the often thorny issues of race in fashion, criticizing rampant cultural appropriation in fashion or people of color being used as multicultural scenery, window dressing, or spectacle.”
In other words, if they are non-white, models and fashion bloggers can’t just be pretty and stylish; now, they have to be woke.
This is an idea that might as well be stopped in its tracks unless the obligation is equal-opportunity: we should stay suspicious of tasks supposedly aimed at promoting equity that fall on non-white people alone. There are also many reasons why Asian-Americans in particular—whose history of severe struggle comes in uncomfortable tandem with a position of relative privilege in respect to other minority groups in the States—don’t go full “Formation” within their fields. Karan Mahajan wrote, at the conclusion of this excellent piece at the New Yorker:
If Asians sometimes remain silent in the face of racism, and if some seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a “model minority” but because they have often had no other choice.
It’s possible that the Racked editors had similar (if retrospective) qualms with this piece’s argumentation, because the piece was pulled just an hour after publication on Wednesday at 11 a.m.—before there was time for any sort of backlash or even critical conversation, but not before their PR people sent it to our inbox, with the note “We’d love it if you included it in a future article or link round-up. Let me know if you need any other info!”
Macabasco’s essay now reads: “Editor’s Note: This story has been removed.” It’s cached here, if you’re interested. Macabasco politely declined to comment, and Racked’s EIC Britt Aboutaleb wrote in an email: “The piece didn’t live up to our editorial standards. It unfairly targeted a single individual in a spirit that does not reflect Racked’s values, which is why I chose to remove it from the site.”
Racked is a Vox Media property, just like SB Nation, which deleted a piece yesterday too.
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