Interpretation vs. Intention – Which is more important?

I was listening the the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” earlier this year, and they were discussing  a new ad campaign by Australian makeup company, Illamasqua. This image landed with the tagline, “I am not dreaming of a White Christmas.”

“I’m Not Dreaming of a White Christmas”

A company representative on the program insisted that their concept was one of juxtaposition, yin and yang. They make high pigment makeup and they wanted to showcase the intensity of their colors.

Others have taken offense to, what is to them, a blatant reference to the horrendous Blackface practice which began in the  minstrel era of 1830-1890, and mimicked degrading stereotypes of black people at the time.

“Blackface is more than just burnt cork applied as makeup. It is a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes that began in minstrel shows and continues to this day.” – black-face.com

Based on this definition, the ad could be seen as not representing Blackface since the racist, stereotyped entertainment is not present. Others again disagree, saying the large, red lips are a direct reference to the blackface style.

Throughout the program it became clear that no one wanted to agree to disagree. They wanted admission of guilt, and wanted to be right.

So what is more important, Intention or Interpretation?

According to Illamasqua, the idea that this ad could be viewed as racist never even crossed their mind. They were trying to creatively show the deep pigmentation of their make-up which ranges from deep black to shocking white. They went on to say they have a long history of supporting and promoting all types of women, young, old, black, white and everything in between. They stand by their history of promoting the beauty of all women, and don’t think their ad should be viewed as racist at all.

But some do view it as racist.

If they have a long history of supporting all skin colors, is it possible that the interpretation of racism is simply wrong? Or does interpretation trump intention – making this ad a hideous representation of racism and one that should be pulled and apologized for?

And around and around and around we go.

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