What is Whiteface?




      This is an image on a t-shirt I purchased at a Walmart store.  It is supposed to be a picture of Frida Kahlo.

     Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in 1907 to a German Father and a Mexican mother, Kahlo was a Mexican painter known for her surreal and biographical self-portraits, her intense and tumultuous marriage to Mexican artist Diego Rivera, her contribution to the creation of a Mexicanidad nationalism, and her active role in the Mexican Communist Party.  In 1954, on July 12th, ten days after she demonstrated in Mexico City against the U.S. invasion of Guatemala, Frida Kahlo died.

     Kahlo has attracted modern and popular interest to the extent that the term Fridamania has been coined to describe the phenomenon. She is considered one of the most instantly recognizable artists.  Her face is re-created with the same regularity as the images of Che Guevara and Mona Lisa.  Her life and art have inspired a variety of merchandise, and her distinctive look has been appropriated by the fashion world and Hollywood.

     What is most reprehensible about this t-shirt, is not the commercialization of her image.*  Rather it is the gross negligence that is done to her — making her look white, or as I call it: Whiteface.

Will the real Frida Kahlo please stand up?

Why couldn’t they use a real or accurate image?

     Whiteface (my def): the process of removing innate or natural facial characteristics: skin color; nose, lip, and eye shape; and/or hair color and texture, to change the appearance of a person who is not-white to make that person look as if they have Western European ancestry. The purpose of Whiteface is to make that person more desirable and palatable to a white viewer or market. The value of Whiteface is being perceived as being white.

      Whiteface is not is opposition to Blackface. Whiteface is dependent upon Blackface. 

     Blackface (def). is the displaying of a caricature of Blackness or of being Black using racial stereotypes that diminish, demean, and devalue their humanity for the enjoyment of white viewers.  

Historical Examples of Blackface:


      In 1926, the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine launched a symposium called “The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?”  As editor of the magazine, W.E.B. DuBois’ primary concern was the representation of Black Americans. DuBois had reason to be concerned.  Historical memory was being constructed, documented and preserved by images of enslavement and colonial conquest.

     These past constructions of racial identities continue to control modern constructions of racial identities.

Modern Day Examples of Blackface:

     Whiteface is dependent on Blackface because whiteness does not exist without Blackness.  White features and white bodies have been juxtaposed against Black features and Black bodies since the founding of this nation.  Whether in the name of science via anthropological studies or the displaying of Black bodies in cages at world fairs.  What has always been consistent is that because there is nothing biological about whiteness, it ends up being defined in contrast to Blackness.  Whiteness and Blackness are defined and thus perceived as contrasts, and more importantly, as difference.

     Relationships of difference are dichotomous, either/or categorizations, in which terms gain meaning only in relation to one and at the exclusion of one another. Difference is often defined in uneven, hierarchical, and oppositional terms with the first being being seen as superior to the second: white/Black; male/female; culture/nature; fact/fiction. Race theorist bell hooks argues that such thinking is the “central ideological component of all systems of domination in Western society.”

     Historically, Whiteface can be understood as “racial passing”.

     Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is accepted or “passes” as a member of another racial group. The purpose of racial passing is to gain access to that group’s political, social, religious, or economic power.  During enslavement and Jim Crow, racial passing often occurred when a person of color presented themselves as white to escape the legal and social conventions of racial violence, segregation and discrimination.  

     Passing in the 21st controversial.  It is often seen as a rejection of one’s racial identity, culture, history, and/or family.  However, modern-day Whiteface is a different animal.

     Whiteface is not about rejecting a racial identity.  Whiteface is about erasing parts of a racial identity to be seen as more desirable, more attractive, and more accepting to a white viewer, audience, or market.  Some famous examples include: Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Sammy Sosa, Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj.

     The desire to Whiteface is not just a phenomenon of Hollywood.  The desire to be seen as white or close to being white is a way of being marketable and being desirable. Colonial history is present day experience.  Dissociating, assimilating, etc., allow for Black and Brown people to enter into public and private spaces that are not welcoming. Social and economic mobility are dependent upon one’s appearance. What is considered professional dress, hair, and clothing are not impartial or natural.  Professional dress, hair, and clothing are defined by corporate, capitalist, and white-Western European standards.  

     “It’s all for African Americans to fit into the workplace. Today, an African American trying to get a job is faced with the dilemma of do I straighten my hair for the interview to get the job? Why is my natural hair not considered professional?”     

Wisconsin state Rep. LaKeshia Myers

    The desire to Whiteface created a market for products that erase one’s natural or biological physical characteristics.  Products and procedures which are still popular in the 21st Century include hair straighteners, skin-bleaching creams, and cosmetic dentistry to “repair” the natural gap between two front teeth.

     The danger of Whiteface is that it is the mirrored and yet, oppositional reflection of Blackface.  Blackface is Whiteface’s shadow.  Blackface created the myth that Black bodies/African-Americans are not intelligent or civilized, and thus undesirable and even dangerous.  It is a historical fiction that still carries weight. Whiteface sits on that history.  Whiteface relies on that history.  Whiteface duplicates that historically constructed message. 

     The power of Whiteface is real.  This is not just about an aesthetic. There are economic, political, social, and cultural benefits to looking white or close to white.  Would Obama Barack have won the presidency had he been a dark-skinned Black man sporting an Afro and wearing a dashiki?  That is not a statement that questions Obama’s Blackness.  It is a statement of what kind of Blackness white-American’s accept.

     Which leads me back to the alleged Frida Kahlo t-shirt. Kahlo was a Mexican, a Marxist, a revolutionary, and an artist.  To separate her image from her politics is what capitalist and corporate white-America does best: ignore history and reduce revolutionary images into products to sell. Ultimately, diminishing, and minimizing any revolution.



     What is most offensive about this t-shirt is that instead of celebrating Frida Kahlo’s signature looks: her fierce hair part; her uni-eyebrow, and her square jaw; they eliminated those exact same features. They made her look white. Whiteface.


     * I will leave it to Kahlo’s biographers to determine if her Marxist ideology would leave her disgusted by the creation of the Frida Kahlo Corporation which owns the trademark rights to her name to make profits or; if her desire for artistic and critical acclaim would leave her amused by all the attention.

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