Outrage Over ‘Teen Vogue’ Pics Reveals Racial Identity More Complex Than It Seems

Images accompanying an article about Senegalese twists ignited a firestorm over the seeming lack of inclusion of black women.

(Photo: Instagram)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s a hairstyle that originated in West Africa and has long been popular in the black community in the United States. Now, thanks to a Teen Vogue article celebrating the coiled braids, “Senegalese twists” have gone high fashion. But some readers of the magazine are taking to social media to express their hurt and anger over those being left out of the pictures: dark-skinned black women.

The firestorm started late Sunday evening when Twitter user Jojothajawn began tweeting her displeasure over the pics accompanying an article in the mag.

“Seriously not buying @TeenVogue again. I’m so insulted by this! You interview a White girl about African hairstyles!!” Jojothajawn wrote in one of her tweets. “It’s bad enough that your cheap ass mag barely has any BW [black women] but the ONE time you should, you don’t deliver,” she wrote in another.

The tweets were shared on Twitter and Tumblr thousands of times. Jojothajawn and other Teen Vogue readers also criticized the inclusion of images of only lighter-skinned black or mixed-race actors, such as Zendaya and Zoë Kravitz, as examples of celebs who rock ethnic hairstyles.

“With these waist-length Zoë Kravitz–inspired twists, life felt infinitely easier, my morning routine swifter, and I could go from swimming to a dinner party without so much as a blow-dry,” wrote the article's author, Teen Vogue beauty and health editor Elaine Welteroth. In the article, Welteroth details a trip she took to Rwanda and the experience she had getting her hair braided.

“What about Solange? Janelle Monae?? Non celebrity POC??!!” tweeted Jojothajawn.

Jojothajawn seems to be referring to how pop culture and fashion borrow heavily from black and African culture—from Bo Derek’s cornrows to the big-booty stardom of Iggy Azalea, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez—but rarely put darker-skinned black women in the spotlight.

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So, Why Should You Care? With her tweets, Jojothajawn reminds us of the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. Last year, an analysis of 611 covers published by 44 major fashion mags found that only 19 percent featured nonwhite models. The problem extends to the runway, which is among the reasons Bethann Hardison, a veteran black model and agent, founded the Diversity Coalition, an organization that seeks to catalyze racial diversity within the industry. “Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism,” Hardison wrote in an open letter.

Just as studies have shown that it’s critical to the self-esteem of brown and black girls to have dolls that look like them, seeing themselves within the pages of a magazine matters too—particularly when the hairstyle is one that originates with black girls and women.

Welteroth addressed the controversy in the comments section of a post on Instagram—and it turns out everything isn’t as it seems with the images.

“It is told from my personal perspective as a mixed-race girl who travels to Rwanda to embrace an Afro-centric hairstyle. I describe feeling a sense of beauty, strength, and pride in connecting with my heritage in this way,” she wrote about the article. Welteroth, it turns out, is half black.

Although images of Welteroth weren’t used in the print version of the piece, she defended the decision to feature anecdotes about Zendaya and how the former Disney star’s faux locks were criticized by Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic on the red carpet at the Oscars in February.

“We are both mixed-race and it was important in telling this particular story—MY story—to cast a model who is also mixed-race. I welcome important dialogue about representation, but it is no longer productive when we refuse to look at the context.” Welteroth also challenged readers who might think “the model doesn’t look black enough” and those who might think she isn’t black enough because she is biracial.

Model Phillipa Steele wrote on Models.com that she is “1/2 Fijian and the other half is made up of Tongan, French, English and American.” Fans of Steele are taking to Twitter to defend her ethnicity.

Other people who hail from Fiji are also sharing that when it comes to blackness, looks can be deceiving.

As for Jojothajawn, on Monday afternoon she apologized on Twitter to anyone she might have offended. But she still seems hurt by the colorism in the fashion industry and the overall exclusion of darker-skinned black women.

“Why can’t I look in a magazine and see models who look like me?” she asked.