At Top Magazines, Black Representation Remains a Work in Progress

On the final Friday morning in August, the web site for Harper’s Bazaar journal led with a picture of a Black mannequin smiling broadly in an Hermès robe, her hair in dreadlocks. Beneath that was a portrait of Lil Nas X and, slightly below it, an assemblage of tales about Aaliyah’s private type.

The journal’s most up-to-date print cowl featured Beyoncé, photographed by a Black photographer, Campbell Addy, and styled in half by Samira Nasr, who in 2020 turned the primary individual of shade to steer the publication in its 154-year historical past. (This was additionally Beyoncé’s first Harper’s Bazaar cowl in a decade; she was final photographed and styled for the journal by two white males recognized for promoting photos that resemble soft-core pornography.)

None of that is misplaced on Nikki Ogunnaike, who was named digital director at Harper’s Bazaar in November. Nearly 15 years in the past, when she started interning at trend magazines, she grew accustomed to being one in every of two Black individuals on workers, she stated.

That surge has gone sluggish. The majority of those nine publications used less Black talent for their covers in the six-month period from March to September of this year when compared to the previous six-month period that came on the heels of the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. (Two exceptions were Vogue Italia and Harper’s Bazaar, which used more Black talent over time.)

Diverse covers also do not always reflect a diverse staff. The people creating magazine covers — the models, photographers and hair and makeup artists — are typically freelancers and contractors, hired quickly and employed temporarily. Long-term staffing changes take more time and effort.

Even as Black leaders ascended to top jobs and turned content in a new, more inclusive direction, they weren’t typically able to make rampant new hires, or wipe out the staffs they inherited and start over. And because of fashion’s longtime exclusion of marginalized voices, the Black talent pipeline went underdeveloped for years.

“When it comes to Black leaders stepping into these roles, a lot of people expect changes overnight,” Ms. Ogunnaike said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Chioma Nnadi, the digital director and highest ranking Black editor at Vogue, called it a “slow and steady kind of journey.”

“Radical change actually is incremental, and changing the culture of a company or changing the culture of an industry — it takes a long time,” Ms. Nnadi, who stepped into her role last September after six years as the website’s fashion news director, said. “In order to make lasting change, it can’t be a box that’s ticked and forgotten about until there’s another crisis, or there’s another flash point in the news cycle.”

While Ms. Ogunnaike and Ms. Nnadi work for different publishing companies — each with its own diversity baggage — they feel a similar pressure at times, operating within traditionally white institutions.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who was named editor of The Cut in January, described in an essay published Monday “the specific kind of pressure to get it right at all times, at all costs, that comes from being one of the very few Black leaders of a publication, and the high wire can feel like it’s suspended above a pool of piranhas.”

And that’s the problem, as companies continue to grapple with their internal cultures more than a year after being called out for their shortcomings: There is an expectation that Black leaders alone will drive change. “I don’t think it should be up to people of color to shoulder the responsibility of coming up with the answers and the solutions,” Ms. Nnadi said.

New organizations like the Black in Fashion Council (of which Ms. Peoples Wagner is a founder) and the 15 Percent Pledge are demanding accountability from well-known brands and working to elevate Black industry professionals. But, Black leaders say, it’s white institutions that need to carry out the commitments to change.

“I would love to have white allies be asked: ‘What are your diversity and equity and inclusion efforts looking like in your space, as a white person?’” Ms. Ogunnaike said. “The onus cannot only be on the people who didn’t even create these racist systems to begin with.”

While the relevancy of magazines has been called into question over the last decade, Ms. Lee believes cover images still matter. They document history, reflecting societal changes and defining the public’s perception of beauty.

“This is something that I’ve been fighting for since I began modeling,” she said. “For me, it was always about transforming the imagery that we see around Black bodies, specifically African American women at a nontraditional size.”

Ms. Lee has also fought for more Black talent during photo shoots: people who understand how to light, apply makeup and style the hair of Black women. On the occasions she’s arrived to a set without any “P.O.C. people on the glam team,” she said, “I’ve had to put my foot down and say, ‘I’m not shooting with these people.’

“I never want to be involved in something that does not have an expansive crew,” Ms. Lee continued. “It just doesn’t make sense. I actually think that’s the reason I’ve been modeling for years and people may think I’m a new face. Maybe if I had been a little bit more concerned about ‘making it’ back then, without ‘making it’ in a way that I felt was true to myself — if I didn’t hold on to what I felt was right — maybe it could have happened earlier.”

Lacy Redway, a longtime hair stylist, said she’s had Black clients take on similar fights to get her hired on a cover shoot because they felt comfortable in her hands. Before 2019, she said, the only magazine where she consistently worked with an all-Black crew on a cover shoot was Essence, the Black women’s magazine. When working for other publications, she was sometimes the only person of color on set.

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