The Subtle White Supremacy of September Magazine Covers

Anisa Tavangar
Sep 22, 2017 · 5 min read

White supremacists believe that whiteness is the standard, the ideal, the most beautiful and the most noteworthy. This September’s biggest magazine covers suggest the fashion establishment agrees.

NEW YORK, United States— Last month, every major American fashion magazine excitedly unveiled their September issue cover— the most important, highest-stakes covers of the year —and almost every single one featured a white woman.

September issues not only say a lot about what these publications interpret as the most noteworthy people in popular culture, but also about who holds the purse strings in the entertainment industry. Celebrities with something massive to promote — a new beauty contract, a blockbuster movie — have a lot of money riding on their star-power and magazine covers are one important way to promote them. Simply put: the person on a cover often represents millions of dollars worth of investment. And despite many magazines’ newfound pop-feminist efforts to become more inclusive, it’s become clear that many of this September’s biggest covers represent a subtle kind of white supremacy in action.

We’ve all seen the horror of the violent white nationalist rallies that recently took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. But white supremacy isn’t manifested only in torch-carrying neo-Nazis with delusions of racial superiority. White supremacists believe that whiteness is the standard, the ideal, the most beautiful and the most noteworthy; the September issues suggest that when push comes to shove, the fashion establishment agrees.

Of course, white supremacy is an extreme ideology. None of these magazines or the people involved are actively promoting a white supremacist agenda but when a predilection to whiteness is promoted, it feeds into the belief that whiteness is better. White privilege begets white supremacy begets white nationalism. These concepts are different when siloed but uphold and run into each other.

Take the biggest magazine of the bunch: Vogue put Jennifer Lawrence on four separate covers of its September issue to celebrate its 125th anniversary with what the title calls an “American Beauty.” Lawrence plays a distinct character in each image — the patriotic superstar, the down-to-earth country girl, the golden bombshell and the work of art. In all four images, Lawrence, a white, blond, skinny, cisgendered, heterosexual woman, is presented as the ideal example of Americanness and beauty. Her whiteness, light hair and blue eyes tell a story that black, brown, Asian, and native women have seen too many times: you can never be the most American unless you’re also white.

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But the issue with these covers is not just emotional. It’s also economic. September issues contain the year’s biggest shopping guides. The magazines contain tips on what to buy and how to wear it. Excluding a large subset of the population by centering imagery on white women, these magazines make the assumption that women of color are not a large enough market to go after. That’s just not true. A 2016 report by Nielson found that black millennials have a buying power of $162 billion a year and more social influence than any other millennial subset. Magazines that position themselves for a largely white audience miss the opportunity to tap into black consumers and other consumers of color.

In addition, the covers say a lot about racial skews in other industries. The actresses, musicians, and models on September issue covers get a huge PR bump through this promotion. Covers confirm to the industry that these are the stars worth investing in. Even their inclusion on these covers indicates that these celebrities have an immense infrastructure of institutional and economic support behind them. This cycle keeps money and power in the hands of white stars.

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Allure made a statement this year by putting Helen Mirren on their cover, naming her “the hero we need” and declaring “the end of anti-aging.” It’s an important step, but as Mirren is a face of L’Oreal, a big advertiser in Allure, is their cover more courageous or convenient? This demonstrates that while magazines are willing to make cautious steps towards diversifying their approach, they still hold on to the notion that whiteness is neutral.

To present a hero for the anti-anti-aging movement who is also not white would mean two elements of “otherness.” Magazines often slip in progress and inclusion in shallow ways that are paired with whiteness, as if not to overwhelm audiences with too much difference. This September, it’s Halima Aiden on the “inside cover” (an oxymoron) of Glamour; The Weeknd on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar flanked by Adriana Lima and Irina Shayk; Selena Gomez on InStyle, a safe choice to promote her collaboration with Coach; and Amandla Stenberg on one of three Teen Vogue covers. It’s also important to note that while Lima and Gomez are mixed race, they are both light-skinned mass media stars with no history of activism. Despite the fact that Gomez is the most followed person on Instagram, she has stayed relatively mum about the challenges that women of color have faced and has not advocated on their behalf.

It’s no secret that the fashion industry makes racially charged missteps fairly frequently, but what happens when the issue isn’t as simple as a single project (like Marc Jacobs’ dreadlocks, or Karlie Kloss’ geisha-themed shoot for Vogue) but an industry-wide blindness to inclusion? In these instances, the mistake is perhaps less obvious, but potentially just as harmful.

And when you consider all the international editions that feature white models — Bella Hadid is somehow on the cover of Vogue Spain, Vogue Arabia, Vogue Australia, Vogue China, Elle Russia, Super Elle China, and Harper’s Bazaar China — it’s clear that white supremacy is a problem beyond American borders. In a global beauty climate where there is an immense preference for Caucasian features (and pressure to artificially acquire them), prioritizing whiteness in places where whites are not even the majority of people is a dangerous endorsement of irrational beauty standards.

Charlottesville put a spotlight on modern white supremacy as the very real, very repugnant force that it is. But the issue extends well beyond the most obvious and extreme examples. Systematic prioritization of whiteness exists across every part of American society (and beyond) and, for many, it’s not even evident because it’s just considered normal. Magazine covers are not a life or death issue, but white supremacy is and not addressing the way the fashion establishment promotes whiteness undermines women of color and re-enforces the kind of racial hierarchy that drives prejudice and worse.

We can’t only fight the type of white supremacy that rears its head in the streets of Charlottesville. We have to push against the kind that dominates our newsstands too.

Anisa Tavangar is a student at Barnard College (Columbia University) and editor-in-chief of Hoot magazine.

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