Controversy over Kamala Harris’ Vogue Cover

Courtesy of CNN.

Couldn’t Vogue do better by our first African American and South Asian Vice President-elect?

Vogue’s February 2021 issue features its cover photo of Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, with her hands clasped wearing a dark suit along with her trademark Converse sneakers in front of a pink and green backdrop — an ode to Harris’ sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. However, the cover photo, which began circulating on social media late Saturday, has many stunned at Vogue for publishing the Vice-President’s choice of clothing, accessories, footwear. Perhaps more importantly, outraged at the ‘washed out’ result as one Twitter user points out, which diminishes her complexion as a woman of color. 

The magazine later released an additional photo, a portrait of Harris wearing a powder blue suit in front of a gold backdrop, where a source familiar with the photo shoot said that this version was the agreed-upon image between Vogue and the Harris team to be featured as the cover.

 

Tyler Mitchell, 26, and the magazine’s first African American photographer, captured the images of the two covers, but tweeted and posted to instagram Harris wearing the powder blue suit as his chosen cover photo.

 

 

He declined to comment about the controversy over Vogue’s choices to highlight the strange clothing arrangement or the Vice President’s lightened skin in both photos. 

I can’t seem to wrap my mind around the fact that a black photographer would let a multi-ethnic, woman of color, and soon-to-be fellow leader of this country, be disrespected by not portraying her authentically and with dignity. 

I don’t think this is Tyler Mitchell’s fault. I believe that this has to do with Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, and her white team spearheading a shoot without understanding how to present the power that is tied to a successful woman of color, shattering boundaries for others who look like her. 

During the summer of 2020, Wintour stated in a company-wide internal memo that, “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

This is hardly the way to right those wrongs. After coming across the cover on my iPhone screen, I was shocked and confused at how visibly white Kamala Harris looks on the cover. Despite the fact that Harris is a light-skinned woman of color, the lighting and editing of the image distorts her actual skin tone. 

Interestingly enough, a source close to Harris said that she wanted her Vogue cover to inspire young men and women of color. 

“There are not many Black women, let alone Black and South Asian women, that grace the covers of these high-end magazines,” a source familiar told CBS News. “[For Harris], it was important for young men and women, people of color, to see that this is possible.”

Colorism or privileging of light skin over dark remains stronger than ever in the eyes of the white media. Vogue’s editorial staff clearly made Harris’s features acceptable within the white gaze or white media. For Harris to look pale is an insult to the Vice President-elect and women of color. 

We are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present and are physically represented. In the Time article, “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism,” people in the mainstream media attach “race-based prejudices to certain skin colors where skin color becomes a loaded signifier of identity and value.”

Harris being presented as “white” is a way for the white media to control her narrative, ethnicity, identity and the history of discrimination she has had to endure as a woman of color. The white washing of Harris is also a form of erasure. It shows that non-white women or women of darker complexions are not attractive or worthy of recognition.

If the editorial staff of high-end fashion and culture magazines do not address oppressive behaviors wracked in these institutions, then they will surely lose credibility and fans from communities of color. Many have already taken to Twitter to address their grievances with the cover shoot. 

After the egregious terrorist attack on the Capitol from white supremacists, our nation and our media have a lot to digest before any mass media magazine attempts to illustrate a “progressive” cover. 

To start, present our Vice President-elect with the respect she deserves.