What Can We Learn From Beyoncé? On White Editors & Black Authorship

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By Sean Santiago. Photographed by Hao Nguyen.

 
 

[UPDATE: Tyler Mitchell confirmed via Twitter that Condé Nast Head Creative Director Raul Martinez proposed him for Vogue's September cover shoot. So ignore literally only the very last line of this post and somehow every other point I make is still salient!]
 
By now you’re well aware that Beyoncé was allegedly granted total creative control over her cover shoot for Vogue’s September issue, hiring 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, a collaborator of sister and earthbound angel Solange, for the job. “He would not have been Anna Wintour’s first choice,” The Cut reported.

Significantly, it marks the first time in the magazine’s 126-year history that a Black photographer has been hired to shoot the cover. As the comedian Phillip Henry pointed out on Twitter, that’s over 2,833 issues of Vogue. (I can just hear the negotiation now: “We can’t pay, but it’ll be such great exposure!”) Mitchell, who’s shot covers for The Fader, Office Magazine and Teen Vogue, said in a recent interview: “I don't have an elevator pitch when it comes to my work because it's always evolving….my only description would be that it is about the black experience and humanizing black people.” Humanizing Beyoncé in the year of our Lord—who is in fact Beyoncé—2018 is a truly exceptional feat.

And so it feels like now might be a good time to talk about white editors and Black authorship, and if those two things are at odds. It feels like now is a good time to ask what does an editor do, and how? It feels like now is a good time to talk about being the white editor of a fashion magazine with a Black model on the cover.

Whiteness becomes standardized, the default: our editorial lens on the world. Outsider viewpoints are always exceptions to the rule.

The Observer noted twelve years ago that, “It speaks volumes about the differences between Condé Nast and its closest competitors that no other Manhattan media company seems to do as much to thrust its editors into whatever social milieu they are meant to be writing for and about.” Reader, they were writing *for* and *about* rich white people.

The "social milieu" I am writing for and about would be better described today as a community, and community means responsibility—of and not striving toward. If I do my job well, Cakeboy reflects that community in meaningful, substantive ways. When I wrote about our latest issue for them., the headline had to be changed from “I Didn’t See Myself In Fashion Magazines—So I Made My Own,” to “I Didn’t See My Queer Self In Fashion Magazines—So I Made My Own,” to make it clear that I myself wasn’t the (Black) person pictured in velvet, pearl-trimmed chaps. I had to speak for myself and, presumably, all of these people whose pictures I'd commissioned for the magazine. We had to be in it together, to some degree, because I said I saw myself in them. But what does that mean?

Contributor and Podcast of Color host Rakeem Cunningham once lamented on Twitter: “Y’all only support people you wanna fuck.” And while Cunningham's tweet was directed towards the creative community at large, his comment highlights the importance of making work that fosters a sense of inclusion (and is, in actuality, inclusive) and having "brand values" that are more than skin deep. Do you put in the work to make that happen, or do you exploit Diversity Aesthetics™—Now available on iOS 12!—for professional gain? And by whose standards are you held accountable?

Related Content: Study Finds No Significant Improvement in Film Inclusion Over Past Decade


Whiteness and the act of "editing" or "curating" is understandably a, shall we say, site of contention. While I simply can’t wait to see Ms. Wintour rocking her “I Love My Blackness And Yours” t-shirt, it has to be said that the Vogue brand has a way with (and a history of) whitewashing; Eurocentrism performed as rote ritual and taken to, at times, a perverse peak. Take Priyamvada Gopal’s reading of Vogue Italia’s now ten-year-old ‘Black Issue’: “This is black girls-as-white girls: all aquiline noses, large eyes, oval faces (bar the standard exception of ‘unusual’ Alek Wek), hair coaxed into silky straightness or carefully turbaned away in shot after shot,” opines Gopal. “By simultaneously marking blackness as ‘special’ and yet ensuring conformity to dominant (white and European) ideas of sophistication and beauty, the ‘black issue’ tells us a great deal about race and ethnicity in the media today. To be non-white is to be constantly relegated to a ‘special issue’.”

Whiteness becomes standardized, the default; our editorial lens on the world. Outsider viewpoints are always exceptions to the rule. Wintour’s Vogue is particularly adept at crafting the kind of tone deaf narrative that exonerates its subjects from (white) guilt. One such interview that stands out in my mind is a 2010 profile of the model Gisele Bündchen, a sixth-generation Brazilian of German descent. “I thought I was going to be able to save them, guide them,” she told the magazine of her brief stint working with the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers. “They take care of girls from shelters, girls who have been abused. I came up with a nine-week program and went to talk to them about empowerment and self-esteem….when I got there they were like, ‘Who are you?’ There were a lot of Latina and black girls. In Brazil, everyone is a mixture, and no one thinks about it. In America, maybe you have more problems with that. It took me a week or two just to get them to sit down with me and talk. I had my yoga teacher come up from New York to teach them yoga. I wanted to share something, but I ended up realizing that you cannot save anybody. I forced it, and it didn't quite go through.”

Instead, she launched a face cream, Sejaa.

What Gisele means to say when she laments that in Brazil, “no one thinks about” race, is that no Brazilian with the surname Bündchen thinks about race. And this is the problem with diversity: it so often works outwards from whiteness. It is a white construct deployed by white people to fix a white problem, which is simply that they’re there in the first place.

In Vogue’s March 2017 “Diversity” issue Maya Singer waxed poetic about American girls: "In a climate of immigration bans and building walls, the biggest names in 2017 make the case that there isn't just one type of American girl—nor has there ever been." Turn the page and readers found that Executive Fashion Editor Phyllis Posnick had styled white model Karlie Kloss as a Geisha. Some people thought it paid respect to Japan’s influential beauty culture, but in America, when some asshole from Connecticut puts another asshole from Connecticut in a black wig and says “Geishas are such an aesthetic right now,” without considering the fact that the US put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, even though the introduction to that issue’s very themes addresses the fact that our terrorist president is trying to ban, imprison and brutalize immigrants, even though Liu Wen, a Chinese model, is the first Asian woman to appear on your cover in 126 years—that’s 2,833 issues and counting—(WE’RE COUNTING), even though Lucy Fucking Liu—sorry, what was I saying? Oh, right: your diversity is bullshit.

 
 
As clearly bad and less interesting while doing it are the white artists who make work that is dissonantly black-ish.

Just last week Twitter was in a righteous fervor over Juergen Teller’s recent Vogue Paris cover shoot with Rihanna. The photos owed a striking stylistic debt to Black artist Mickalene Thomas, with whom Teller shares a gallerist, but never acknowledged or credited her influence. Instead, in a thread that, had it been picked up by a white gay at BuzzFeed, would have been written up as This Art Critic Just Came For The Industry In The MOST Iconic Way—All Shade All Tea!, the writer Antwaun Sargent notes that Vogue Paris actually posted and deleted a hashtag citing the artist’s name on Instagram. “For [Thomas’s] gallery to release that lukewarm defense and some pubs to turn what is so clearly a case of plagiarism into some stupid debate that gives Juergen Teller the benefit of doubt—something Mickalene would never been afforded if the shoe was on the other foot—is bullshit.”

White editors, Black authorship. But who is tainted by Teller’s co-opting of another artist’s vision? Can amends be made? Can Mickalene Thomas just get fucking hired? As clearly bad and less interesting while doing it are the white artists who make work that is dissonantly black-ish. No, I'm not talking about Iggy Azalea, but maybe Luke Austin is the Iggy Azalea of Instagays? At the opening of the photographer's book of portraits of Black men, executed in his typical un-style, Austin posed in front of one of the portraits wearing a t-shirt that reads, “You were brainwashed into thinking European features are the epitome of beauty.” The irony was not lost on commenters.

In Austin’s photographs the viewer’s gaze is placated, not activated, let alone aggravated. But in an interview with the writer Mikelle Street, Austin declared outright: “It’s more for my white audience as sort of me shaking them or punching them in the face, kind of going ‘look at this,’ ‘do you not see the beauty here because you seem to be skimming past it on my Instagram’.” Months later, Austin described his artistic un-process as such: “When going through a bunch of images I hope for one that gives me that same feeling of sliding in to [sic] a hot bath on a cold day. You know the one. If I don’t get to one, I’m really disappointed in myself. I’ve realized after years of taking photos of people that I’m not really trying to capture something about the person sitting in front of me, usually I’ve only just met them (something pretty about them in some nice light yes) but I’m actually trying to recreate a feeling/mood that I’m feeling, therefore they’re all really self portraits....just using all your pretty bodies, lol.” Now THERE’S a title: Using All Your Pretty Bodies, LOL. It’s the Dexter spin-off we never knew we needed! Amazon Prime is calling, henny!

(Reader, at this time I would like refer you back to another excerpt from Tyler Mitchell’s afore-quoted interview, with which I opened this piece: “[My work is] looking at people of color, black people, and black lives, and it has to do with portraying honesty and truth in that. I always wanted to see people for who they are with sensitivity and optimism.”)

WATCH: This White Photographer Solves Racism By Being Like, ‘Hey, I Don’t Get It.’

Similarly, them.’s These Steamy Photos Prove Your “No Asians” Rule Is Racist Bullsh*t (“Gay Asian Men Take Steamy Photos That Highlight Sexual Diversity” reads the post’s SEO-optimized meta title) posits the text and accompanying photos, written and art directed by Humberto Leon, as “a message to the Grindr gays with ‘No Asians’ in their profiles,” as if Leon and his entirely Asian team literally performed this labor to prove a point to white men. Irrespective of the content that follows, the headline centers white men and weaponizes Asian desirability against them, as if that’s something that needs to be done.

One of the shoot’s own subjects apparently felt moved to respond to the framing, writing, “As queer Asian people in America, we only become legible in opposition to whiteness and straightness: News stories and social justice clickbait articles never simply uplift queer Asian identity. Instead, they frame us as victims: Racist sexual preferences excluding gay Asians are wrong; White supremacy tells us that Asians can’t be desirable, but they can! Look here!”


When white editors are not invested in Black art, or Black artists, or Black people, we have a problem. Will Beyonce’s Vogue cover be a canonical “special issue” or the marker of a sea change? Check the masthead.

I am a white editor. I have a job to do. It is my responsibility to do it well. Just like it is Anna Wintour’s job to do hers well. Or, when she can’t, to hand over creative control to literally Beyoncé. Must be nice.—