The ever-controversial Kanye West unleashed a torrent of backlash Saturday after he posted an open casting call for his Yeezy Season 4 fashion show to Twitter. The notice requested “Multiracial women only.” What exactly constitutes a “multiracial” woman, and how would Kanye and company decide? Twitter had questions and complaints. But where others saw an affront, I saw a challenge.
Instead of just tweeting West, I twisted my lips into a Joanne the Scammer-like grin and decided to go on a mission: I went undercover as a "multiracial" woman to see how far I, a woman who identifies as a black Nigerian, could get in the casting process. My goal was to see whom the casting directors would accept, whom they’d reject, and what grounds they would use to determine who fits the "multiracial" aesthetic.
I walked for several blocks until I finally found myself at the back of the line for the open call. There, on Sunday afternoon, I found a crowd of what looked like a thousand women stretching for three New York City blocks. I saw some sprinkles of dark skin throughout the line, and there were even a handful of white women, but the overwhelming majority the attendees had light-brown skin, curly hair, and light eyes.
In an interview with Vogue published Wednesday, West claims he did not intend to exclude anyone from the casting call. “How do you word the idea that you want all variations of black?” he asked. And in defense of his use of, “multiracial” he responded, “The ten thousand people that showed up didn’t have a problem with it.” Maybe that’s true for the women who met with West, but it certainly wasn’t for the women I met outside in line.
Merriam-Webster defines “multiracial” broadly as “relating to or including more than one race of people.” It is perhaps on this simple definition that Kanye’s casting call confounded. I spoke to as many people as I could, and eavesdropped on even more. A good portion of attendees was generally confused by the word "multiracial." Others had their own definitions. Either way, the result was a chaotic scene where skin, hair, eyes and other features were policed and multiracial identity arbitrarily assigned.
Though my plan was to tell people I was Nigerian and Japanese when asked, there was no need to. After talking to the others, someone just said to me, “black and Asian, right?” And I just nodded. My racial identity was assumed by appearance, and suddenly I was straddling the line between what it means to be multiracial and what it means to look multiracial. There were many more moments like that during the wait — times when expectations around race suddenly mattered or did not at all, and the call for a “multiracial” woman was proved meaningless.
A brown-skinned woman with thick box braids next to me became frustrated at one point. She told me she was in the front of the line before directors shut everything down. Her friend, who she described as “black but very, very fair-skinned” was chosen by a director to enter the studio, but she wasn’t. A slim, light-skinned black woman wielding a Wilhelmina model portfolio spent 30 minutes trying to explain to security that her agency booked her to be at the Yeezy casting, but they refused to let her in. Moments later, the gatekeepers let in three other models, two white and one Asian.
The reality is that “multiracial” isn’t a useful physical descriptor because it can look like any and everything. In fact, the vast majority of Americans are mixed race—black Americans in particular. According to historian Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, the average black American is 65 percent sub-Saharan African, 29 percent European and two percent Native American. Still, what’s clear from the long line at the casting call and some of the decisions made by gatekeepers there is that what most people hear and mean when they say “multiracial women” is women of color who look nearly white.
The next few hours were marked by waning excitement. Early on, one woman walked down the line complimenting people individually. “I love your sunglasses!” “Love your hair!” “Gosh, you’re all so beautiful!” she gleamed. Despite the positive vibes, the assembled women struggled to find comfort in what became a six-hour wait; by 4 p.m. the communal anxiety was palpable. About 40 minutes later, someone came out from the building where the casting was being held and yelled,“We’re all done for the day! Casting closed!” A somber lull was followed by shouts, and then bedlam.
A crowd of attendees bum-rushed the entrance. People crowded into the street, obstructing traffic. Some found a way to finagle their way inside the studio. Others, like myself, were stuck outside waiting to see who exited it. Every now and then, models would meander in and around the crowd, trying to find a way into the studio. At one point, security let three of those models — tall, slim blondes — walk into the building before one black woman yelled, “I thought Kanye said multiracial! What’s that?!”
I waited outside the building for another hour-and-a-half but never made it up to the studio. Eventually, a director walked up to where I was standing to reiterate that the casting was done but offered to collect my headshots. I didn’t have one on me, so she gave me her phone and told me to enter in my Instagram profile before screenshotting it.
After the crowd finally dispersed, a few of us lingered and found ourselves in an impromptu dialog on racism, colorism, and Kanye.
Of course, the rapper’s history of colorism is a long one — from his statements emphasizing his love for multiracial women to his focus on Eurocentric fashion aesthetics, to his relationships with light-skinned multiracial women like Amber Rose, to his self-prophesying lyrics, such as “when you get on, he leave your ass for a white girl.” Despite this track record, no two women at the casting call seemed to agree on Kanye’s motives in looking for “multiracial” models.
“Kanye wants to cast everyone except white women,” one woman said. “He wants mixed light-skinned girls,” said another. “He’s trying to cast a show that looks like his family, watch,” a third offered.
A topless protester stood silently among us, with "They want black features not black girls" written across her chest and abdomen; she held up a sign that read, "Multiracial= lightskin only….You ain’t slick, Ye” and “‘We call them mutts.’ —Kanye West." The latter is a quote from a 2006 Essence magazine interview in which West states, “If it wasn’t for race mixing there’d be no video girls. Me and most of our friends like mutts a lot. Yeah, in the hood they call ‘em mutts.”
That protester later released a statement via Instagram indicting Kanye West’s brand and the entire fashion industry for upholding European standards of beauty. "Regardless of whether Yeezy does choose to include darkskinned women in the end, the coded language of the casting call was clear and a part of a broader problem of colorism in the fashion industry," she wrote. "It's not just about fashion, it's about understanding how racism, and white supremacy dictates our understanding of reality."
Ultimately, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 4 show was filled with models of all shades, causing me to wonder about the purpose of the “multiracial” casting call in the first place. Perhaps West was playing an elaborate prank on us all — on Twitter, the models, the fashion world at large. Maybe, before all the backlash, he intended to show us a world in which everyone is “multiracial” or in which race doesn’t matter. It’s not so farfetched. West is, after all, a visionary. But if what I witnessed standing in line — chaos, colorism, confusion — offers any insight into Kanye’s original vision, I’m not sure it was worth seeing.