Opinion | Vogue’s Kamala Harris cover shows that diminishing powerful Black women is still in fashion

The photo, leaked over the weekend, has been a topic of heated discussion for days. Shot by Tyler Mitchell, the first and still only black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover since his beautiful 2018 portrait of Beyoncé, the incoming vice president is pictured in her famous converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. She wears her street clothes, a dark espresso blazer and black ankle-length pants, and stands before a backdrop of pink and green drapes — the colors of her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. On her face is the expression of someone not quite ready for the camera.

Notably, an alternate, online cover, widely shared, has Harris in a pale blue Michael Kors Collection suit, against a lighter gold backdrop. She is folding her arms and smiling. She looks pretty. It’s a much better photograph; it comes as no surprise that her team reportedly preferred it.

But in the world of fashion, print cover choices matter. And in a world where strong Black women are often maligned as intimidating and unfeminine, the image Vogue chose reduced Harris just as she is taking her rightful place at the heights of American power.

It’s frankly shocking that this is the direction the magazine went. Considering that Vogue, and the fashion industry as a whole, came under fire in 2020 for lacking diversity, one would think that major publications would go above and beyond to get Harris and her historic ascension right.

Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour spoke to journalist Kara Swisher and explained that “all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice-President-elect really reflected the moment we were living in” and that “a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible, and approachable, and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign.”

I wonder if she watched the same campaign I did. The key to the Biden-Harris victory was not “approachability;” it was the powerful antidote they offered to the incompetence and the racism of the Trump administration — specifically their vow to fight the twin scourges of racist division and covid-19. We didn’t need to see a diminished, approachable Harris wearing her Chuck Taylors. How about a competent, commanding Harris wielding her vice-presidential power? Or something with the breathtaking emotional appeal of the suffragist-inspired white pantsuit that Harris wore to celebrate victory in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7?

This was not Vogue’s only recent misstep with photographing Black women — the recent badly-lit, unflattering cover photos of Simone Biles come to mind — but it’s not like taking a good photo of Black women in politics is some impossible task. Vogue itself has shot amazing cover photos of Michelle Obama, and Ethan James Green’s 2019 black-and-white portrait of Stacey Abrams for the magazine was stunning. Abrams was dressed in a dark colored power suit and heels. Unsmiling, she looks every bit the modern political general that she is.

“What should have been a blissfully distracting, glossy celebration of a barrier-breaking moment has become a cause for disappointment,” my Post colleague Robin Givhan wrote. As Givhan pointed out, the cover feels like a thief that has robbed us of the opportunity to revel vicariously through Harris in Black female accomplishment.

Black accomplishment in White patriarchal power systems is always fraught. Writ large, it’s Donald Trump winning the presidency after Barack Obama. But in incessant, exhausting smaller acts such as magazine photos, we are reminded of a truth about America: Black progress is often followed by backlash and the diminishment of our power and victories.

That’s why this punch, intended as such or not, hurt so much. It was harm caused by thoughtlessness, a lack of care and attention to the power and significance of Harris’s rise and what it means to so many women like her. Black women are tired of bracing ourselves against harm. All we want is to be embraced for who we are.

Considering that the Capitol was just attacked by Trumpist insurrectionists and the FBI has warned about threats against her, I know the vice president-elect has bigger things to worry about than a magazine cover. But I hope Vogue is listening to Black women when we say, when we win, give us our due. We deserve to be elevated as the powerful, competent leaders that we are.