Can Anna Wintour survive the social justice movement?
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Can Anna Wintour survive the social justice movement?
Anna Wintour at the Coach Spring New York on Sept. 10, 2019. A reckoning has come to Bon Appétit and the other magazines of Condé Nast. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Ginia Bellafante

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On Monday, as swiftly as a 9-iron taken to a tee at Augusta, Adam Rapoport resigned as the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine after a damning Halloween photo circulated on social media that morning. Drawn from the vast insensitivity archives to which so many influential people have made inadvertent submissions, the picture, from 2004, shows him costumed in a tank top and thick chain necklace as his wife’s “papi,” the term she attached to it in an Instagram post several years later.

As it happened, Rapoport had been facing mounting grievance from his staff about the magazine’s demeaning treatment of employees and freelancers of color and the dubious ways in which its popular video division presented culturally appropriated cooking. But these apparently were insufficient grounds for forcing him out.

Over and over, power structures seem to require that accusations of racial bias are documented by photographic evidence — proof to override a reflexive or simply inconvenient skepticism. Police officers abused their authority for decades without consequence. It was not until a growing body of video footage revealed all the brutality, and the systemic prejudice at the heart of it, that the world began to express the outrage there to be mined all along — justice by iPhone.

In that sense, Rapoport’s ouster at the hands of a camera was entirely fitting. Bon Appétit belongs to Conde Nast, a media empire perhaps unrivaled by any institution on earth in its supplication to image. For decades, both at the level of corporate culture and branded worldview, the company’s lifestyle magazines have held to the notion that there are “right” people and wrong people, a determination made by birthright. There are the rich, and there are the dismissible; the great looking and the condemned — a paradigm that has now become dangerously untenable, and one the company has been striving to change.

Within the Conde Nast framework, autocratic bosses were left to do whatever they pleased — subjugating underlings to hazing rituals with no seeming end point. So much was excusable in the name of beauty and profit. “Difficulty,” Kim France, a former editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine, told me, “was regarded as brilliance.”

No one at Conde Nast has had more of an outsize reputation for imperiousness wed to native talent than Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, the artistic director of the company and more recently its “global content adviser” as well. Rapoport, who spent 20 years at the company and turned around an ailing product in Bon Appétit, reported to her.

What sort of management cues were to be taken? Famous for a self-regarding style — she might demand that subordinates arrive 30 minutes early for certain meetings she attended — Wintour was obviously not in the best position to try to convince him, for instance, that he should not ask his assistant (black and Stanford-educated) to clean his golf clubs. (That was one of the many revealing details in a Business Insider exposé of the food magazine that arrived this week.)

Race is a fraught subject at Conde Nast. Several employees of color I spoke with, all of them laid off over the past few years, talked about the challenges they faced. They struggled to be heard or get the resources they needed to do their jobs at the highest levels; they faced ignorance and lazy stereotyping from white bosses when the subject of covering black culture came up; they all said they were exhausted by always having to explain it all.

Even though they were no longer at Conde Nast, not one of them felt free to speak on the record out of fear of retaliation from the company or the concern that they would be looked at as complainers, making it much harder to find work.

One former staff member who is black could not fail to see the irony in being made to go to unconscious bias training — which became mandatory at the company early last year — only then to lose a big chunk of his portfolio shortly thereafter. “I felt so devalued,” he said, “after working so hard.”

Unconscious bias training is supposed to alert you to your blind spots in your perception of people and ideas. But at the level of corporate and creative governance, the programming at Conde Nast has not been seamlessly woven into the company’s broader philosophy. Last month, during a round of layoffs, in which 100 people were let go amid the economic calamities of COVID-19, the company dismissed three Asian American editors, all of whom covered culture at different publications.

Among the Top 10 editorial leaders listed on Vogue’s masthead, all are white. According to a spokesman for Conde Nast, across divisions on Vogue’s editorial side, people of color make up 14% of senior managers. On June 5, amid global protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, Wintour sent a note to her staff acknowledging that “it can’t be easy to be a black employee at Vogue” and that the magazine had “not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators.”

Although Vogue has made a greater effort to feature black women on its covers in recent years — Rihanna, Serena Williams, Lupita Nyong’o — the gate swings open far more easily for those who are not. And in this particular area, too, legacy weighs heavily. When LeBron James made history as the first black man to grace the cover in 2008, he shared the space with a white supermodel, Gisele Bündchen, who appeared as a damsel in his clutches, an unmistakable reference to King Kong.

A spokesman at Conde Nast admitted that much progress needs to be made in regard to diversity at the company, but he defended Wintour’s record, pointing out that she has passionately supported various designers of color throughout her career, helping to raise money for them through her work with the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She also installed two black editors to lead Teen Vogue, genuinely radical in its content, one following the other (Elaine Welteroth and then Lindsay Peoples Wagner).

At the same time, Wintour has presided over Vogue for 32 years, and during that period she has done more to enshrine the values of bloodline, pedigree and privilege than anyone in American media. A brief and very inconclusive list of Wintour’s assistants in the 21st century includes the Yale-educated daughter of a prominent Miami dance director, the Dartmouth-educated descendant of a major bank president, the Princeton-educated daughter of an Oscar-winning screenwriter and so on. For so long it was central to the Conde Nast ethos that you had to be thin, gorgeous and impeccably credentialed to retrieve someone else’s espresso macchiato.

Even now, as the publishing industry continues to implode and wonderful writers who could really use the work (or at least the prestigious affiliation) abound, Vogue continues to list among its contributing editors people like German heiress Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis and many others among the wellborn. Five years ago, Thurn und Taxis posted a picture on Instagram of a homeless woman reading Vogue, seated on the sidewalk, with the words, “Paris is full of surprises.” Vogue quickly issued a statement, calling the gesture distasteful, and then proceeded to run her byline on its website at least 10 more times.

Last year, Grace Coddington, another contributor, who had held enormous influence over what was shot for Vogue and how in her many years as the magazine’s creative director, was photographed with her collection of “mammy” jars, racist ceramics depicting African American women as servile maids.

Wintour clearly believes that she can break from the past and kill off any vestiges of a system steeped in the benighted values for which she has become the corporate avatar. The public apology from Bon Appétit was quite startling in its admission of failure, particularly its concession that the magazine “continued to tokenize” the people of color that it did hire.

As part of her contribution to this new wave of progressivism, Wintour wrote a piece for a week after the death of George Floyd, aligning herself with Black Lives Matter and calling on Joe Biden to select a woman of color as his running mate.

For someone who had seemed so averse to activism as the world has roiled from inequality for years, it felt like a desperate grasp for relevance. A spokesman for the company bristled at the suggestion, arguing that it is Conde Nast’s job “to cover what’s going on in the culture in the moment.”

As it happens, André Leon Talley, who recently wrote a memoir about his complicated relationship with Wintour as a black man and longtime former editor at Vogue, also has a lot to say about the current moment. This week in a radio interview with Sandra Bernhard, he offered his opinion about his ex-boss’s professed transformation.

“I wanna say one thing: Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad; she’s a colonial dame,” he told Bernhard. “I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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