It is no question that the media can serve as a major catalyst for change and cultural understanding. We must be conscious of the ways in which the media operates and presents certain people, places and things, especially in these turbulent times. Now more than ever, there is a need for diverse representation in all forms of media—including advertising.
Rightly so, fans were ecstatic when long-time lifestyle blogger and champion of Muslims in the beauty industry, Amena Khan, was shown front and center in a L’Oréal ad: the first hijabi to appear in a hair-care campaign. It is always a nice surprise when a minority is represented in an unconventional role.
Khan, despite choosing to cover her hair, modeled in an ad for a shampoo. This act in itself is not necessarily radical, but is interesting considering hijabis are often met with confusion and judgement when talking about their hair. It is refreshing to see representation that is on the obscure side and that is not lazily thrown together.
Of course, when any person of color achieves anything, there is not only going to be backlash, but also many attempts to defame and slander them by those who seem to thrive off of the misfortune of minorities. A few days after Khan’s debut, U.S. right-wing media outlet, “The Daily Caller,” dug up some of Khan’s tweets that they knew would disrupt her image.
In 2014, Amena Khan exercised her right to free speech and posted tweets condemning Israel’s war on Gaza, which took the lives of countless Palestinian civilians. Khan was tweeting about children and criticizing a state that continuously breaks international law, and whose very existence breaks international law, which, to any rational person, seems like a fair thing to do.
However, we were quickly reminded that the moment anyone in the West utters the word “Israel” they become controversial and subject to scrutiny—anyone except Gal Gadot of course.
Additionally, what Khan was faced with was part of the effort for the political debilitation of brown and black women. Both in the pathetic actions of “The Daily Caller” and in the idea that even if Khan had not tweeted those things—even if she tried her best not to express her political opinions—the mere fact of her being brown, wearing a hijab, and being proud of it, is a political statement all in of itself. Khan does not get to be just a blogger (or a person), she must accept the status and lack of privileges that come with being brown and hijab-wearing before anything else.
This phenomenon of preventing people like Amena Khan from being both political and apolitical is, in essence, an attempt at dehumanizing them. So, it was definitely a bit strange to see Khan so complaisant in response.
On Jan. 22, Khan announced she was leaving the L’Oréal campaign, saying that she regretted and deleted her tweets, as they “[did] not represent the message of harmony that [she stands] for.” She also suggested that her tweets have caused “upset and hurt” and that by posting them, she was being discriminatory and exclusive.
Yes, the racist right was able to push Khan out of her position and force her to apologize through intimidation and exploitation, but it also seemed like she had just taken the easy way out and caved.
This remains true even after Khan posted a follow-up tweet on Jan. 24 because she continues to reiterate, through painfully general language, that she unintentionally “blanket labell[ed] a community” and even adds that she is not the type of person to argue, which is amusing because there was no arguing in her initial tweets—she was stating hard truths. She also was not blanket-labelling a community—Israel is an illegal state and that is a fact. Her attempt to dance around specifics by rewording what she tweeted in 2014—that she “can never be ok with innocent beings dying”—is just a cop-out and also something that does not really need to be said.
What’s ironic is that Khan repeatedly speaks of inclusivity, anti-discrimination, and “peace and unity” but clearly fails at applying that rhetoric to conversations about Israel. If your “positivity” is masking reality, we do not want it.
Supplementing this hypocrisy, we can remember that Khan also made an agreement with a company that, according to BDS, has had “deep and extensive involvement in business relations with Israel.” In 2014, Garnier – one of several brands owned by L’Oréal – very publicly sent women in the Israeli army “care packages,” as Palestinians, a few steps away, were suffering without electricity or clean water.
This is very much a conversation about Israel, but it is also a conversation about unfair power dynamics and women of color, not only being set-up for failure, but also deliberately targeted once achieving success, and then forcing them to be apologetic about it.
I don’t know about you, but no amount of good conditioner could make me be okay with living in that kind of world.