Are Donna Karan’s ‘Haiti’ Ads Racist?

There has been no shortage of people calling Donna Karan‘s spring ad campaign either racist or racially tinged or racially insensitive, primarily because it was shot in Haiti and features an image of (white Brazilian) model Adriana Lima sitting with with two young (dark skinned) Haitian guys. Not whipping them or smizing them into submission, just sitting, which is about the least racist thing you can do.

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Karan shot the ads in the southern Haiti town of Jacmel to bring attention to Haiti’s ongoing recovery from the earthquake that tore its fragile infrastructure asunder in January 2010. Since then, Karan has been one of the most visible members of the fashion community leading the charge to help the country get back on its feet, and we applaud her for using her ad campaign as an opportunity to remind people that the country still needs as much help as it can get.

Is there a better way to do that than to juxtapose the expensive glamour of her clothing with the abject poverty of the Haitian people? Probably, but Karan isn’t racist if that didn’t occur to her (or to her photographer, Russell James). It’s not like she’s using the two young Haitian men as props, the way Vogue Australia did in a shoot featuring (white Australian) model Isabel Lucas and (dark skinned) members of the Bushmen tribe. Karan put Haitians in her ad because she cares about Haiti, not because they look good next to her olive green jumpsuits.

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Of course, everything is open to interpretation — and ours is that Karan’s thoughtfulness is being eclipsed by the fashion community’s desire not to be seen as racist. But automatically assuming that an ad is racially motivated just because there are people of different races and circumstances in it is shortsighted. We think these ads are great, and we hope they and Karan’s other work in the country can help make a difference in the lives of the Haitian people who need it the most.

Take a look at the ads below and tell us what you think about them in the comments. You can read more about what Karan’s Urban Zen foundation is doing to help the Haitian recovery effort here.

[Images via Women’s Wear Daily]

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