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Diversity In Media Has A Long Way To Go

As Vogue's latest cover highlights

BY Rufaro Samanga

Jan 14, 2021, 11:24 AM

Last year's Vogue challenge and this month's Kamala Harris cover for US Vogue revealed just how far the media space has to go in terms of fully embracing Black creatives and paying them their dues. 

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns this year, social media became (and still is) a source of entertainment and escapism from our collective current reality. Numerous viral challenges have kept all of us thoroughly engaged but none have been as impactful as the Vogue Challenge.

This challenge saw individuals using their favorite and most striking shots and superimposing them on a Vogue magazine template to create truly exquisite cover star images. What soon emerged were works of art from talented Black creatives who have, for years, been noticeably sidelined by Vogue magazine as a publication. This then sparked a conversation about diversity and more so race within Vogue’s organisational culture particularly under the leadership of chief editor, Anna Wintour.
The Vogue Challenge by Cedric Nzaka
While the exclusion of Black creatives at Vogue has since been dubbed a “diversity” issue, it is, in fact, a race issue. In order to understand why exactly that is, it’s important to reflect on the socio-political movement that preceded it: Black Lives Matter. 

Founded in 2013 by three African-American women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the movement has fought against the continued police violence and brutality targeted at Black people in America. Last year saw the largest demonstrations by Black Lives Matter protesters after George Floyd was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for an extended period despite Floyd communicating that could not breathe. Thousands took to the streets across the globe and the protests lasted for several consecutive weeks with one unifying message: Black people demand change. 

Black Lives Matter sets the precedent that if Black Lives Matter, then Black livelihoods and the invaluable contributions of the Black community also matter. And this is the crux of the race issue at Vogue. Black lives aren’t seen to be valuable in general society and thus the contributions of Black writers, editors, stylists, photographers and a host of several other creatives are immaterial to a publication that is interested in the white gaze. 

The White Gaze

Andre Leon Talley, Vogue’s former editor-at-large and creative director described Wintour in a recent interview saying, “She’s a colonial dame. I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.” 

While that may seem like a harsh sentiment, firstly, Talley worked under Wintour for three decades - that’s a long time. Secondly, Wintour has been at the helm of Vogue for three decades as well which reveals just how lackluster and uninterested she has been in her efforts to fully embrace Black creatives and give them the recognition they so deserve.

In fact, Vogue didn't use a Black photographer for a cover shoot until Tyler Mitchell shot Beyonce in 2018.

It was Mitchell who shot the Kamala Harris cover, which has divided public opinion like no other. Is the chosen shot disrespectful given the office Ms Harris has been elected into or is it reflective of her personality and the type of attitude we've come to expect from the Biden/Harris administration? Ms Harris is the first elected official to appear on the cover of the magazine and critics argue that that status alone is enough to render this image disrespectful before we start speaking about the fact that Ms Harris is the first female vice president, the first Black female vice president and the first female vice president of South Indian descent.
The February 2021 issue of Vogue
Black people have always been pushing the culture forward be it in the way of commentary, literature, music, film and fashion but yet are left scrambling for the crumbs thrown down to them by the privileged white people in positions of power who occupy the proverbial seat at the table. And while Wintour has expressed how the publication will be actively attempting to celebrate and endorse Black creatives and their work, after three decades, it’s too little too late. Now is no longer the time for tokenism but genuine change. Honestly, the only way for this to happen is for Wintour to leave. Vogue needs a fresh voice and perspective and neither can or will come from Wintour. 

It’s also incredibly important to note that the Vogue challenge, while interrogating the race issue at the namesake publication, also interrogated the race issue which is still prevalent in the general media. Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, a media reckoning occurred among a number of seemingly progressive publications who have always purported to support Black people in theory but certainly not in practice. The likes of Complex, OkayAfrica, Okayplayer, Refinery29, Bon Appétit, The New York Times and even Essence were all exposed with regards to their longstanding exclusion and mistreatment of Black employees as well as the cultivation of toxic work cultures. 

The media space has a long way to go in terms of racial inclusion which is, admittedly, a much better description of the challenge at hand as opposed to “diversity”. It requires an active and concerted effort by those in power to uplift, acknowledge and honour the work of Black creatives without whom the culture, as we know it, would not exist. However, should the resistance towards giving Black people in media their dues continue, as it likely will, the Vogue challenge has taught all of us an important lesson: If you won’t put us on the cover of magazines, we’ll find a way to put ourselves there.

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