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Vogue’s cover photo of Vice President Kamala Harris is an attempt to swipe Black women’s narratives and keep us “accessible”

The Feb. 2021 print issue of Vogue (right) and the picture that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wanted to feature (left) (Tyler Mitchell/Vogue)

Featuring America’s first Black woman to ever be elected to the second-highest position in the country on the cover of one of the world’s most influential fashion magazines, with 25 million monthly readers, should be a momentous event for both Vogue Magazine as well as for Kamala Harris. Right? Unfortunately, but sadly, and not surprisingly to those of us Black women watching on the sidelines, Vogue stole that moment from Kamala Harris in an attempt, whether consciously or not, to reduce her to what it could accept, relegating her to the space of “accessibility” carved out specifically for Black women.

Here’s the background: Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris and her team for her Vogue photoshoot picked the shot they wanted to be featured on the cover of the February 2021 edition of Vogue. Harris’ team made it clear which picture Harris wanted on the cover. Instead of respecting Harris, Vogue, who had been in constant communication with Harris’ team, unilaterally and without including her in the decision, chose a picture of her in her campaign clothes with her Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, standing on some wrinkled backdrop. The originally agreed-upon photo featured Harris in a commanding pose wearing a powder blue Michael Kors suit with a much more finished appearance all around. There are a lot of people who won’t understand the problem with this, including Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue who has attempted to justify the decision. That, in itself, is a problem and so exhausting.

In an attempt to defend the decision, Wintour made a statement to The New York Times:

“There was no formal agreement about what the choice of the cover would be…(a)nd when the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the vice president-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in which we are all in the midst — as we still are — of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute. And we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible and approachable and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign and everything that they are trying to, and I’m sure will, achieve.”

However, Kamala Harris’ team made it clear in statements that it didn’t approve the picture chosen. “In this moment where the country is so divided, where we need serious leaders, the blue and gold shot represents that,” Harris’ team told a reporter from ET. Regarding the photo ultimately chosen, they stated, “‘That would never have been approved, and Harris’ team is extremely disappointed.’”

Kamala Harris’ recent experience with Vogue Magazine is a great lesson for Black women and all marginalized people in embracing our power to say “no.” As we engage more and more with platforms controlled by the dominant culture who see a sudden need to include us in their performative diversity efforts, it’s important for us to approach these encounters on our terms, establishing clear boundaries. Black women, in particular, need to start demanding, upfront, the power to control our narratives including the aesthetic of the spaces we occupy. Even if it costs us the placement on the front cover of Vogue.

Besides the occasional appearance of a Black face on a white magazine, Black women still remain at the lowest tier of the hierarchy of inequality in this country. This isn’t my opinion. This is based on social science and economic data. However, what Vogue’s treatment of Vice-President-elect Harris shows us is that even those of us “uppity” Black people that “make it” aren’t immune from the reality that we exist in completely separate worlds from our white counterparts. Worlds with different understandings, different views, different rules, different leverage. Having a law degree, a position of power, a high-paying job, or successful entrepreneurial pursuits does not immunize us from the relentless grip of racism in all of its expressions on the spectrum of white supremacy. The sad reality is that no matter how hard we work, our narratives – narratives that encompass lifetimes of accomplishments, of beating the odds over and over again, narratives of the beauty and grace we bring that transcends a history of trauma – can be distorted, re-written, muted out or extinguished altogether in one fell swoop by one act of insensitivity and complete ignorance.

It doesn’t surprise me that Vogue refused to honor and respect the requests of the soon to be Vice President of the United States of America. I mean, let’s be real, subordinating yourself to a Black woman was never something written in the American playbook. In fact, Black people ourselves often have a hard time subordinating to a Black woman. It’s my understanding that the photographer and an editor are Black, but this doesn’t mean anything if you’re hired to further the mission and fit into an agenda whose main purpose is to preserve the narrative of “whiteness.” A narrative that requires Black women to remain at the bottom, servicing the world, nursing other people’s kids, saving everyone but ourselves – being “accessible” as Wintour herself described the “feel” she wanted to convey. A word that, deep down in the sub-conscious thought of every American, has a special meaning when applied to Black women.

The narrative of the “accessible” Black woman is NOT flattering. It’s dangerous. It has made us the slaves of the world. Objects to be bought and sold, taken in any way by anyone at any time. Sadly, from our own internalization of our own oppression we often find ourselves complicit in our abuse, finding it difficult to find our voice and to muster up the strength to say “NO.” Abusing Black women has been so normalized in our culture that the dominant perception is that Black women can’t be abused. I started a business in part to protect myself from exploitation from outside forces, but also to protect myself from the ways in which I’ve internalized it – resulting in my accommodating exploitation in personal and professional settings. As we become more entrenched in systems that have historically thrived on our oppression, it’s critically important that we establish firm boundaries, even if it means saying “no” to things that might seem to (temporarily) elevate our status.

“Vogue’s cover choice was clearly an attempt to typecast future Vice President Harris as the “round-the-way girl” because that’s what they thought would be more palatable to their readers as opposed to the Black woman power shot that was most representative of her role as the second in command of the United States of America.”

No, we don’t want Kamala Harris to be accessible. No one should. We need the second in command to the highest post in our country to project strength, courage, grace, pride and wisdom. We need her to stand up for us, and we need her to know we are watching and looking to her to lead. We need her to represent, NOT be “accessible.”

The Vogue fiasco, while seemingly small in the big scheme of things, is important because as we set our “woke” barometers, if we can’t recognize even the small slights and see their larger implications, we’ll keep reproducing the same poison. When you have one of the most secure buildings in the world overtaken within minutes, occupied and desecrated by armed white supremacists with the complicity of law enforcement – that’s where we’re at – the place we never left. Vogue fits into this picture right along with everyone else. Let’s not fool ourselves. The dystopian mélange of MAGA hats, fox fur-wearing, painted face, bull-horn sporting white men scaling the Capitol walls with AR15s isn’t some anomaly. It’s just one manifestation of white supremacy on a continuum where Vogue’s need to downplay Kamala Harris and make her “accessible” lies closer to the other end. While the “insurrectionists” may be the devils we know, they are the scapegoats, compartmentalized by white people “not like that” in an effort to position their own racism as something different. I mean, who wants to be associated with people defecating in the capitol building as part of the warfare for the white revolution? If we just got rid of them we’d be so much better, right? Actually not.

Those guys living off the grid, who spend their lives avoiding taxes, fortifying their bunkers and building bombs as they prep for the “race war” are not the ones that have created the biggest barriers to Black progress. The people who have put up the biggest barriers to progress are right here among us, in the progressive community. I have my own stories as a lawyer of being fired and pushed out of jobs by “progressive” white women who should have had my back, who boosted their own careers while riding on my back. There’s a big problem with that and we need to start talking about it and stop the gaslighting.

The only way things will change authentically is when the culture changes from the inside out, through and through. The only way the culture changes is when we begin to acknowledge white supremacy as being a continuum – with gruesome lynchings of Black people on one end, and on the other end, a cover photo of the most powerful woman in the US and one of the most powerful people in the world, portrayed in an unflattering image connoting “powerlessness,” “unpreparedness,” a lack of professionalism and the frivolity assigned to Black women who attain positions of power because white culture needs us to feel “accessible,” and non-threatening. Sadly, Black women are delegated one of only two spaces in the narratives of the dominant culture: compliant and easy; or difficult and angry. Vogue’s cover choice was clearly an attempt to typecast future Vice President Harris as the “round-the-way girl” because that’s what they thought would be more palatable to their readers as opposed to the Black woman power shot that was most representative of her role as the second in command of the United States of America.

Vice-President-elect Harris still looks fabulous but let’s face it, it’s not the picture she wanted, and even objectively speaking, it does little to command respect or do her justice in the role she plays as among the most powerful people in the world. They had a picture that projected this, a picture she wanted, and they chose one that portrays the opposite of what she wanted to portray – the seriousness of her role, something critically important following an administration run by Trump who took nothing seriously except executing his own will against the people.

The cover photo unilaterally chosen by Vogue, which betrayed the understanding it had with soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris, juxtaposed against the picture she actually wanted should tell you everything you need to know about how the dominant culture prefers to see Black women in power. What Vogue did was a “fashionable” way of saying, “we’ll let you get big…but not too big.” It’s these regular slights, the constant micro-aggressions, and the daily micro-doses of white supremacy that ensure that nothing ever changes. The only way to combat this is to call it what it is when we see it. It’s time to start establishing clear boundaries and to stop fearing the outcome of exercising our right to control our narratives. Sometimes that means we remove ourselves from potential “opportunities,” but if we start learning how to say “no,” I think we’ll realize how much more power we have than we’ve been led to believe. When we start standing up for each other, then we’ll see real change.