“How we look — though it is superficial and immutable — has a huge impact on our lives.” ~~ Cameron Russell, Tedx/Jan 2013.
You might have heard Victoria Secret model Cameron Russell’s TEDx talk, in which she discussed winning the “genetic lottery” and the privileges afforded to her purely because of her looks. The media were so caught up in her model narrative that it seems her larger point was missed.
Her message about models being insecure and the final images being constructions was
too enticing exactly what the media could handle discussing and knew they could sell. If you don’t know it yet, it’s true, the final images of models are not realistic depictions of human beings. But Russell also used the power of image to reveal many kinds of inherited, innate privilege, including white privilege.
Cameron Russell started off demonstrating the power of image by putting a long skirt and sweater over a short black dress, and changing out of her high heels. “I’d also note that I’m quite privileged to be able to transform what you think of me in a very brief 10 seconds. Not everybody gets to do that.”
She personified the power of image by transforming from model to woman we would expect at a TED talk, and yes, I realize that it’s endemic of our cultural biases that we see things this way. But there you have it.
Russell continued, “So today, for me, being fearless means being honest. And I am on this stage because I am a model. I am on this stage because I am a pretty, white woman, and in my industry we call that a sexy girl. And I’m going to answer the questions that people always ask me, but with an honest twist.”
Right. She never would have been on stage at TED with her resume unless she was a “sexy girl”. There’s nothing wrong with that, she’s just admitting that truth because it says something about us. Writing an op-ed for CNN, she elaborated, “Usually TED only invites the most accomplished and famous people in the world to give talks. I hoped telling a simple story — where my only qualification was life experience (not a degree, award, successful business or book) — could encourage those of us who make media to elevate other personal narratives: the stories of someone like Trayvon Martin, the undocumented worker, the candidate without money for press.”
This tidbit got ignored as well. Cameron wants to elevate the stories of Trayvon Martin, the undocumented worker and the candidate without money. Hello, freedom. This is getting good.
Later in her 9 minute talk, she tackled the question, Do you get free stuff? Yes she does, but she gets more than free “stuff”. She enjoys great privilege due to her looks.
“Okay, so the next question people always ask me is, “Do you get free stuff?” I do have too many 8-inch heels which I never get to wear, except for earlier, but the free stuff that I get is the free stuff that I get in real life, and that’s what we don’t like to talk about. I grew up in Cambridge, and one time I went into a store and I forgot my money and they gave me the dress for free. When I was a teenager, I was driving with my friend who was an awful driver and she ran a red and of course, we got pulled over, and all it took was a “Sorry, officer,” and we were on our way. And I got these free things because of how I look, not who I am, and there are people paying a cost for how they look and not who they are.”
Cameron tied the idea of white privilege to the idea of body image per the values of our culture, succinctly unwrapping white privilege for anyone who doesn’t think it exists, “I live in New York, and last year, of the 140,000 teenagers that were stopped and frisked, 86 percent of them were black and Latino, and most of them were young men. And there are only 177,000 young black and Latino men in New York, so for them, it’s not a question of, “Will I get stopped?” but “How many times will I get stopped? When will I get stopped?” When I was researching this talk, I found out that of the 13-year-old girls in the United States, 53 percent don’t like their bodies, and that number goes to 78 percent by the time that they’re 17.”
Russell gets the irony that her video went viral precisely because she enjoys the privileges of being a pretty white girl in our culture. She pointed out that while her video went viral, Colin Powell’s video did not. On CNN she wrote, “But what was shocking to me is that when I spoke, the way I look catapulted what I had to say on to the front page. Even if I did give a good talk, is what I have to say more important and interesting than what Colin Powell said? (He spoke at the same event and his talk has about a quarter of the view count.)”
How perfect of her to point this out, because it’s Black History Month and I just spent days reading the Slave Narratives published by the Library of Congress (1936-1938) — a collection of memories as told to writers/historians by slaves. These stories tie into her deeper point about white privilege and her desire to amplify certain stories.
Here’s just one excerpt from John W. Fields, Age 89:
“In most of us colored folks was the great desire to [be] able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and wiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then? An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishment.”
Reading first hand accounts of slaves sold as chattel and forced by the law to remain uneducated and therefore out of options will color the way we see policy today; e.g., policies that take aim at public education and voting rights.
We like to pretend that white privilege doesn’t exist, which is close to pretending that slavery never happened or was “good” for the people enslaved (thanks, Republicans). Way down the scale from that is the fact that few in the media got Carmen’s message about white privilege, or they got it but it wasn’t sexy.
Buying into image hurts everyone, from young girls with distorted body images to young black and Latino men being stopped for no reason, from older people whose wisdom is dismissed to models whose points about privilege get distilled into Dixneyseque beauty isn’t everything soundbites.
Follow Cameron Russell’s advice about amplifying certain voices. Read a few first hand account from slaves. Education is freedom, and a culture that knows its history has a better chance of not repeating its mistakes. As you’re reading them, remember this, “How we look — though it is superficial and immutable — has a huge impact on our lives.”
Because were it not for our construction (interprepation) of their skin color, none of those people would have been deemed property.
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.