Tom Sutcliffe: Isn't mere beauty enough?

Social Studies: You might say that high fashion isn't ready to take its Aborigines neat
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The Independent Online

What did you think when you saw that story about the Aboriginal model in the newspaper yesterday? I'll confess to what I thought, though I do so with some trepidation since I've been picking away ever since at the tangled snarl of prejudices and assumptions the story represented – and I still can't quite work out where some of the threads lead. And given that some of them are undoubtedly tied back to racist assumptions – intentional or not – that's a bit unnerving. Anyway ... not to procrastinate any longer, what I thought was: "She doesn't look particularly aboriginal to me."

That was, of course, a thought with prejudices embedded in it – even if they have no discriminatory intent. The word "Aboriginal" summoned a kind of mental encyclopedia picture of a representative type, just as the word "Slav" or "Indian" might, and Samantha Harris didn't exactly fit the template. And that brought with it anxiety No 1.

Those templates, after all, carry with them the stains of an old and discredited classification, in which the muddled diversity of humankind is sorted into implausibly neat boxes, many of which, in the past, have had locks put on them. Was I unconsciously endorsing an artificially narrow stereotype (of what "Aboriginal" can mean in terms of facial characteristics) or was something else going on?

It got more complicated. "I'm proud that a girl with my looks might make it," Harris had said in an interview. Her looks, though, are those of a striking and beautiful woman, so the idea that she might be beating a track for aboriginal women in general has to be seriously qualified. It's true, of course, that there have been lots of women of colour for whom striking beauty wasn't enough – and that the representation of different races is far more diverse in fashion than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But the designers and editors who hired Harris weren't really taking a huge risk.

As the daughter of a German father and an Aboriginal mother, her looks were a highly mediated version of ethnic identity. You might say – if you wanted to be provocative – that high fashion doesn't yet appear to be ready to take its Aborigines neat. The conventions of commercial beauty remained almost unchanged.

I did wonder too why we don't find it peculiar that Harris is described as Aboriginal at all – or why the same report would never have been headlined "Australian fashionistas embrace the new German face of Vogue", even though that would have been just as factual. The simple answer, of course, is that it isn't a novelty to have German models and novelty is what sells both newspapers and fashion. But that still doesn't account for the fact that half of her parentage has effectively been eclipsed by the other.

There might be benign explanations for this – a political desire, either on Harris's part or those who have hired her, to wave a flag for an excluded minority. It might simply be a desire to look good in the eyes of the world. But might there not also be a shadow here of a far more discreditable idea; that old prejudice that off-white is always black – but that the reverse is never true?

It would take a book to unravel this knot – and to pick apart the extent to which what we think of as a natural quality (beauty) is actually affected by commercial and cultural factors. With less space at hand I would just say this. Sam Harris represents a privileged minority – beautiful humans – just as much as she represents a historically deprived one. Her "aboriginality" may not be quite as great as Australian fashionistas would like to think. It's possible, I think, that it masks the industry's continuing conservatism about what counts as beauty rather than radically rewriting it.