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Race is Sexy. Sex is Racy. Now "Get Lost"

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Race is sexy. And sex is racy. Is it any wonder that our society seems fascinated, obsessed even, with their combination? Consider the latest photo shoot by Mikael Jansson titled Let's Get Lost, in the current issue of Interview Magazine.

The photos are edgy. They're sexually charged, literally (and symbolically) hot and wet. They're also undeniably racially provocative. The white model (Daria Werbowy) is apparently "Lost", at least that's what the title of the spread implies.

But lost in what?

In the heat of the moment?

Perhaps, but the racial composition is designed to draw attention to itself. Not only is it not coincidental that Daria is surrounded by Black models, it is the central point:

White Daria is lost in a sea of Blackness.

Are such images racist? Refinery29 writer Connie Wang thinks so.

From the differences in their dress (Daria's in ethereal, angel-like gowns, the others are in knits and leathers) to their body language (A limp yet super-sexual Daria is the main focus, the others feel almost like props), the whole spread has a rather racist vibe that we can't get down with despite the gorgeous art direction of the spread. Don't you agree? After all, regardless of what some say, fashion is at its core a political and social product--how power relationships are set up in editorials can speak volumes. So while the super-sexy, ethno-traditional thing is very of the moment, it all seems to be setting up a 21st century colonial construct that makes us very uncomfortable.

Wang's point about fashion being a political and social product is well taken, but I'm having a hard time resonating with the rest. Sure, everyone surrounding Daria seems like a prop, arranged "just so" in order to make a statement about the (white) featured model. But then (and I say this without any disrespect), aren't all models essentially "props" -- placed, posed, dressed, and later digitally altered in order to make a statement about a product? Is it really the "propping" that makes these shots "racist"?

More to the point, is "Is it racist?" really the best question to ask in this particular case?

Admittedly, I've asked this same question more than once myself (here, here, and here). As thought experiments, these blog posts were fun to write, and they are not without redeeming qualities. Yet, I'm becoming increasingly determined to stop framing the discussion in this particular way, because the question itself is off-putting to many and the answer is almost always unsatisfying. How can it be otherwise, when the question presents a dichotomous response choice and demands that we pick one of those responses?

It's better, I think, to ask: what is the racial impact?

The answer, I think, depends on the individual involved.

To begin with, the sea of Blackness is supposed to be desirable, seductive, inclusive even. "Let's get lost," the title says, inviting the audience to join the party and get lost with Daria. The explicit connotations are entirely positive. Blackness here is not something to fear or avoid. It's something to, well, get lost in, as we might with a good book, or a hypnotic song. Indeed, Let's Get Lost is also the name of a 1988 documentary film about jazz trumpet player of Chet Baker. It somehow seems worth mentioning that Baker was white.

The inclusivity is not irrelevant, not as long as we continue to live in a society in which the segregation, exclusion, and "othering" of Blackness is commonplace. To dismiss this photo spread as "racist" is to deny that it not only rejects but actively counters the still all-too-prevalent association of Blackness with physical threat and danger.

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http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~lyubansk/

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)
 
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After I posted this piece on my Psychology Today b... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 10:16:23 PM
A clear case involves our 44th president. Would we... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 2:17:49 AM
All you need to add to the black people on those p... by Mark Sashine on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 7:49:39 AM
I agree with Mark's interpretation of hard core ha... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 8:17:46 AM
click here... by Mark Sashine on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 9:14:31 AM
Let's face facts, Mikhail, if it were your body in... by thomas unger on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 10:32:51 AM
I am sorry to be blunt, but I found no significant... by Sherry Mann on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 10:38:39 AM
What's "erotic" to some may seem banal to others. ... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 2:01:20 PM
And being in the publishing "biz" I would be the l... by Sherry Mann on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 2:51:29 PM
It is my nature to try to reach out to everyone an... by Oh on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 9:30:24 PM
Hi Sherry,The author of this piece also happens to... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 5:09:22 PM
I'm just (probably) a bit too serious right now co... by Sherry Mann on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 7:19:14 PM
Thanks, Sherry. I hear ya (about the gulf), sister... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, May 17, 2010 at 8:53:53 PM
and I enjoyed your article, too. Thank you for wri... by Oh on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 9:31:41 PM