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Vogue Magazine Has a Race Problem, And It’s Getting Tired
It isn’t surprising that Vogue is trying to keep white readers happy, but it ignores how much inspiration, talent, beauty and style is blatantly co-opted and stolen.
by Lara Witt
You know what is exceedingly exhausting but never surprising? White people being racist. More specifically: magazines using non-white cultural staples on white models in numerous and offensive ways. One particular example jumps to mind because it is quite recent, Vogue magazine did a photoshoot with Karlie Kloss in Japan where they dressed her like a Geisha and slapped on some white paint and used soft filters.
The kicker? They were calling this their “WOMEN RULE: Fashion’s Fearless Females” issue. White women rule, I guess.
Beyond the offensiveness of yellow face is the concept of systemic racism. Instead of hiring a Japanese model, and paying her with a Vogue contract and the benefits of being featured in such an established magazine, they hired Karlie Kloss (who has been their cover girl four times and is estimated to have earned $10 million in 2016.)
The photoshoot with Kloss in yellow face clearly shows how white-owned magazines continuously toy with Orientalism. This colonialist perspective is a contrast engineered by white people who disseminate images of East Asian and South Asian cultures as monolithic, mysterious and exotic. Orientalism contributes to the erasure of Asian cultures and identities and that is exactly what the editors of Vogue did with this photoshoot.
Karlie Kloss has since issued an apology, but this isn’t the first time she has been called out for racism and erasure and it certainly won’t be the last. Editorial features for Vogue are expensive, time-consuming and laborious. Did any editor, photographer, makeup artist, location scout, publisher or model(s) pause to question the ethics of a shoot like this? Probably not, which is why this racist feature is even more insulting. It’s not just a tweet or a statement, it’s an entire effort and production.
It is exhausting to have to keep pointing out how white people are being racist and why catering to a white supremacist perspective is damaging on multiple levels. It isn’t surprising that magazines like Vogue are trying to keep their white readers happy, but it’s a regressive stance to take when so much inspiration, talent, beauty and style is blatantly co-opted and stolen from Black women and black trans women.
On Tuesday, Vogue published a short piece “We Need to Talk About Kendall Jenner’s Gold Teeth” where, rather than actually discussing the problematic nature of Jenner’s accessorizing, the writer wrote the following: “The flashing teeth felt like a playful wink to the city’s free-spirited aesthetic — or perhaps a proverbial kiss to her rumored boyfriend, A$AP Rocky.”
I swear. If I come across another piece like this, my eyes will never stop rolling until they fall out of my head. When black people create styles, white people call them ghetto, tacky or classless, but when a white woman does it, it’s “free-spirited.” It’s exhausting.
Magazines like Vogue seem ready, willing and able to promote white mediocrity every single time Kendall Jenner breathes. It’s almost astonishing to see an actor like Blake Lively (who got married on a slave plantation to Ryan Reynolds in 2012), with four Vogue US covers under her belt, when multi-award winning Viola Davis has none.
It seems counterintuitive to have fashion magazines be extensions of rich cishet white women when there are more profitable, exciting ideas. It’s delightful that Teen Vogue provides us with a contrasting and refreshing alternative.
Elaine Welteroth, the editor of Teen Vogue, was the first black woman to join the magazine as their health and beauty editor. After the founding editor in chief stepped down, Welteroth was named as her successor. Since then, Teen Vogue has been flourishing, with content which respects the idea that teen readers care about politics, civil rights, mental health as well as fashion and beauty.
Rather than participating in the blatant erasure of people of color and our cultures, Vogue’s younger sibling has included features celebrating indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, black and Muslim teens. Thanks to their radical push to be unafraid to represent more than just white, heterosexual, cisgender women, Teen Vogue is providing more readers with representation.
The blatant racism of magazines like Vogue are an indication that white supremacy remains insidious and snakes its way onto glossy pages as a way to remind us that those worth being represented have to adhere to the strict confines of whiteness, able-bodiedness, thinness and cisgender identity.
Hopefully, magazine leaders will come to understand how debilitating and antiquated their publications are. Fashion should be boundary pushing, not racist.
Lara Witt is a Desi-Kenyan writer who writes about pop culture through an intersectional feminist lens. Follow her on Twitter.