Birds of a feather… Tyra Banks is a fashion industry pioneer and icon. Scratch that. Tyra Banks is an industry. Beyond the endorsements, book deals, speaking engagements and the lot, she reigns supreme as the creator of the Next Top Model reality television competition. Currently in 24th season in the United States, its syndication and franchises reach an astounding 120 international markets. There are 195 countries in the world. In 120 of them, the vision of Tyra Banks is on a mission to find the next top model. Globally, Tyra Banks defines modeling as a phenomenon, an occupation and a business practice. This work has generated an estimated $90 million in personal fortune for Tyra Banks. She is as much a fashion industry institution as any apparel corporation. As H&M, for example. (Except with twice the reach. The vision of H&M is available in 62 countries.) So it should come as no surprise that Tyra Banks has rushed to defend H&M top brass in several TV appearances since the coolest-monkey-in-the-jungle fallout.
Tyra Banks is a successful African-American woman. I am an admittedly faaaaaar less successful white man about to make evaluative pronouncements on her actions. I’d like to acknowledge these racial and gender distinctions upfront, because for once they do not matter in this particular line of discourse. Why? Because economic greed transcends race. Because (access to) power transcends race. Because Tyra Banks is a corporation defending a fellow corporation through corporate media.
In brief (but do watch both short clips, please) … Tyra Banks wants everyone to keep in mind that the blame for a racist display of cultural incompetency lies on the shoulders of a stylist, a production assistant, a passerby, a who knows… It’s definitely absolutely NOT the responsibility of the CEO or the company at large. Let’s get to the bottom of this, she says. Let’s not go for the top of this, she says. She makes corresponding top vs. bottom gestures. Her insistence on absolution for corporate executives is a brash affront to the values of self-determination she professes to champion in her life’s work… “I’ve got to sell a TV show.” Nevermind, Tyra Banks is on point. That’s her in Forbes a decade ago, smize-ing to the bank.
Coming from Tyra Banks, such corporate absolution inspires action with consequences, both conceptual and economic. Note how the young African-American co-host thanks Tyra for making it OK for him to go back to shopping at H&M! (Mind, blown). Because he doesn’t have the money! (Heart, broken). Meanwhile, H&M dynasty is of the third generation billionaire kind. Tyra Banks then rallies the audience to band together to fight the ugly in people. Just not the CEOs. They stay living pretty as is. This brave display of corporate solidarity over shared humanity deserves to enter the textbooks on corporate personhood debate, which humanity is consistently loosing. By fronting for H&M, Tyra Banks didn’t sell out, she bought in.
Let me zoom out the newsfeed. “EPA drops rule requiring mining companies to have money to clean up pollution.” Hazardous spills are fault of a technician, a nightshift manager, anyone, but not the company nor its CEO. “A child abuse scandal is coming for Pope Francis.” Vatican continues to “struggle” with assigning responsibility for ongoing (!) pedophilic abuse within its ranks. It’s just one, dozens, thousands individual priests. The problem is not systemic. The Church is good (and tax-free). Absolution is the new sin.
At this point, I do want to circle back to institutional racism. In my op-ed piece “The Elephant Behind the Monkey: H&M and Decolonization of Fashion” I make a case for this incident in the context of whiteness as an ideology. Tyra Banks’ willful and skillful defense of H&M benefits this socio-economic and cultural power structure. Let’s not get distracted. Whiteness is a master of distraction. Did President Trump say shithole or shithouse in reference to Haiti and African countries? That’s the spin-story. Whiteness is so good at distractions it can even confuse white people. United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen during questioning about the aforementioned President Trump’s comments confessed to being “not sure” if the population of Norway is predominantly white. Never mind that Nielsen (and derivatives) is the most common Scandinavian last name so Kirstjen Nielsen could be expected to be familiar with her direct ancestry. Never mind anything. Because (access to) power transcends race. Because economic greed transcends race. I would like everyone to keep that in mind next time you listen to Tyra Banks or other corporate entities.