Vogue's racism smear and niggling doubts about its own toxic prejudice

U.S. Vogue’s racism smear and niggling doubts about its own toxic prejudice: The fashion bible has decreed that the use of the word ‘niggling’ was racist. But guess which publication has been accused by its own staff of shameful racism

Who would ever think that Vogue, the fashion industry’s in-house ‘bible’, might be racist? Or that its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, could be considered very racist indeed?

Might a rational person accuse one Chioma Nnadi, who runs Vogue’s website, Vogue.com, of also being racist, along with at least a dozen of the magazine’s most senior writers?

What about the person in charge of British Vogue’s Instagram account — a young woman called Lexxi Duffy? Is she guilty of casual racism, too?

I only ask because there is compelling evidence that, behind that glossy façade, Vogue must believe that its magazine, along with a great many of the senior journalists who run it, are indeed guilty of such crimes.

We can say this with some confidence because a week ago, an extraordinary article appeared on Vogue’s internet site chronicling the supposed ‘viciousness’ of British Press coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Written by a British journalist called Hamish Bowles, it sought to argue that the UK media was institutionally racist and, more specifically, suggested that racist intent lay behind a decision by the Daily Mail to use the word ‘niggling’ in the headline of an article about the couple’s engagement that was written by my colleague, Sarah Vine, back in 2017.

Last week, the Mail therefore wrote to Ms Wintour (right) asking Vogue.com to withdraw the ‘extremely serious and unfounded allegation’ of racism regarding the use of the word ‘niggling’ that was made in the article

Mr Bowles appears to think that because ‘niggle’ has some phonetic similarities with the N-word, it must therefore carry racist connotations.

Furthermore, he seems to be suggesting that the editor who chose to use the term (it did not feature in the article) did so because he or she wanted to draw malign attention to Ms Markle’s ethnicity (which was also not mentioned in the article).

It’s quite an allegation to make, in an era when such claims can end careers and, in extremis, land people in prison. Particularly since the Oxford English Dictionary correctly points out that the word, in fact, has several possible meanings, none of which dovetails with the one Bowles projects.

Indeed, the most common definition of the term is: to ‘cause slight or persistent annoyance, discomfort or anxiety’.

The OED records that it has been in use since the 1500s, when spelled ‘nigle’, and while its exact origin is uncertain, etymologists believe it may derive from Swiss German, or Scandinavian.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it to describe an illness in a 1796 letter. William Blake used the word to describe over-fussy artwork in an 1810 speech. Earlier, it notes, the Stuart dramatist Thomas D’Urfey included the term to describe ungracious behaviour in a stage version of Don Quixote.

Written by a British journalist called Hamish Bowles, it sought to argue that the UK media was institutionally racist and, more specifically, suggested that racist intent lay behind a decision by the Daily Mail to use the word ‘niggling’ in the headline of an article about the couple’s engagement that was written by my colleague, Sarah Vine, back in 2017

The point is that, contrary to what Mr Bowles claimed, there is no context historically in which ‘niggle’ or ‘niggling’ appears to have been considered racist by any qualified expert.

That may explain why it has been used on more than 3,687 occasions by The Times, and 2,268 times by the high priests of political correctness at The Guardian (the Mail has clocked up just over 2,000 mentions).

Last week, the Mail therefore wrote to Ms Wintour asking Vogue.com to withdraw the ‘extremely serious and unfounded allegation’ of racism regarding the use of the word ‘niggling’ that was made in the article.

On Saturday, the aforementioned Ms Nnadi wrote back stating that Vogue endorses the journalist’s view.

‘This is an opinion piece,’ she wrote of his article. ‘We are agreed on the definition of the word (which Hamish noted within the story). At the same time, our editors concluded that Sarah Vine’s word choice was indeed surprising and jumped from the page.’

Forget, for the time being, the fact that Ms Nnadi’s letter (falsely) accused Ms Vine of writing the headline in question. Consider instead a simple point: if the word ‘niggling’ is indeed likely to be racist, as this senior Vogue editor seems to be arguing on behalf of her organisation, then her lofty title needs to take a very hard look at itself.

Why so? Well in common with most English language publications, Vogue appears to use the words ‘niggle’ and ‘niggling’ on a very regular basis indeed.

Take, for example, a post uploaded to Instagram before Christmas by British Vogue, whose social media is managed by Lexxi Duffy, a white woman. It read: ‘Buying skincare products is always accompanied by that troublesome niggle: is this even going to work?’

It was illustrated with a picture of a heavily freckled woman, believed to be a British model called Giselle Norman.

Was the post trying to suggest that freckles are ‘troublesome’? Was some wider racial slight intended? I very much doubt it. But by Vogue’s own logic, the use of the word ‘niggle’ leaves it open to that very criticism.

Take, to cite another example, an article published on Vogue.com a few years back by Suzy Menkes, the hugely influential former editor of Vogue International, who has appeared on the U.S. TV series Project Runway and played herself in the 2016 Absolutely Fabulous movie. It notes that she has a ‘niggle of concern’ about one of Meghan Markle’s favourite designers, Roland Mouret, and his latest catwalk show.

To illustrate the article, several photos of BAME models were chosen. Does this make Ms Menkes racist? Of course not. But Vogue might argue that it does.

Then, to pluck a third case study from thin air, comes the oeuvre of fashion pundit Tim Blanks, a white Canadian.

In the course of a single month, he used the word ‘niggling’ no fewer than three times in catwalk reports he wrote for Vogue.

The racial connotations of the pet’s name were, of course, overlooked. And the author of this puff piece? Why, that would be Hamish Bowles (pictured)

He mentioned a ‘niggling in the back of one’s mind’ about Haider Ackermann, the Colombian-born designer who was raised in Africa. An ‘intriguing question niggling’ about German designer Jil Sander. Plus a ‘niggling sense that Cavalli hadn’t quite pulled this one out of the bag’. This final quote was a reference to attempts by photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya to ‘create an art happening’ during the show.

Perhaps importantly, if you are one of Vogues moral arbiters, Mr Wijesooriya is of Sri Lankan heritage. Was Mr Blanks therefore racist to use the word ‘niggling’ in connection with him?

Again, of course not. But by Vogue’s own twisted logic, we are entitled to argue that he was.

What makes the title’s position still more hypocritical is the fact that Vogue has, in recent months, been the subject of a series of toxic race rows in which the culture at the very highest echelons of the organisation has faced severe, and seemingly justified, criticism.

It dates back to October 2020, when the New York Times published a highly critical article about editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s attitude to race-relations, saying she oversaw a hostile working environment where women of colour, and especially black women, had been ‘sidelined’ for decades.

The article’s author had spoken to 18 black journalists who worked in Wintour’s office. They all agreed that Vogue, where the 71-year-old Briton has been in charge since the 1980s, favoured ‘a certain type of employee — someone who is thin and white, typically from a wealthy family and educated at elite schools’. Eleven of the journalists went so far as to call for her resignation.

What makes the title’s position still more hypocritical is the fact that Vogue has, in recent months, been the subject of a series of toxic race rows in which the culture at the very highest echelons of the organisation has faced severe, and seemingly justified, criticism

According to the article, Wintour — who, to the apparent dismay of some ‘woke’ employees is a Dame of the British Empire — had presided over a string of culturally offensive incidents in recent years, most notably when she used the term ‘picaninny’ in a derogatory way to describe black models in an internal email about a 2017 photo-shoot.

The same year, it reported that Wintour had dismissed claims her magazine had glorified cultural appropriation in an article which had praised an appearance by reality TV star Kendall Jenner wearing fake gold teeth — popular with black rappers — saying: ‘I honestly don’t think that’s a big deal.’

A few months later, Wintour published a photo-shoot depicting white model Karlie Kloss in a geisha outfit.

Colleagues had warned her the images would again lead to allegations of cultural appropriation, but she refused to scrap the project due to its ‘enormous expense’.

Wintour also drew severe criticism for having failed to attend an important meeting on race relations, organised by Vogue’s publisher Condé Nast in June last year, despite serving as head of the company’s diversity and inclusion council.

The New York Times article cited computer analysis of the average ‘lightness’ of the skin tones of Vogue cover models during her reign. In one span, from 2000 to 2005, it noted only three of the 81 women featured were black.

Wintour took it on the chin: ‘Undoubtedly, I have made mistakes along the way, and if any mistakes were made at Vogue under my watch, they are mine to own and remedy and I am committed to doing the work.’

That apology cut little ice with Andre Leon Talley, a black fashion journalist who was once Wintour’s right-hand man and most senior black employee but who left in 2013 after a falling out.

‘Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad,’ he said. ‘She’s part of an environment of colonialism. She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.’

Elaborating on the remarks during an interview with the Daily Mail, Talley added: ‘At one point, I was the only black person on Anna’s staff. This statement, for me, is devoid of sincerity. It comes from the world of whiteness and privilege.

‘Anna probably feels that her apology will be a defining moment, but knowing her, it will soon be back to business as usual.

‘She’ll click, clack, clickety-clack down the hall in her Manolo Blahniks and move on. It’s a corporate stance, directed at future advertisers.’

Fast forward to this weekend, and one of Wintour’s protegees, Alexi McCammond, the editor of Teen Vogue, was forced to issue a grovelling apology after tweets from a decade ago emerged in which she wrote about ‘stupid Asians’ and ‘swollen Asian eyes’ and used the words ‘gay’ and ‘homo’ as insults.

At least 20 members of Vogue’s staff have filed complaints about her ‘past racist and homophobic’ remarks. Yet, for now, she remains in her job.

It’s hard to square this fact with Vogue’s apparent conviction that the word ‘niggling’ can be deployed as a racially loaded term and used to bully a mixed-race celebrity. But no one can accuse the fashion magazine of consistency.

Back in 2011, Wintour’s designer friend John Galliano was fired by Christian Dior after being filmed in a Paris bar making appalling anti-Semitic remarks and at one point declaring: ‘I love Hitler.’

Although he was later found guilty of a hate crime by the French courts, and shunned by most of the fashion industry, Ms Wintour’s magazine elected to stand squarely beside him.

And when Galliano returned to the catwalk in 2015, he was the subject of a hugely flattering 3,600-word Vogue profile in which he was not asked a single awkward question about the notorious incident.

Instead, the article declared that the designer had successfully ‘struggled with his demons’ and he’d found happiness with the help of his dog, ‘Gypsy, his tiny Brussels Griffon’.

The racial connotations of the pet’s name were, of course, overlooked. And the author of this puff piece? Why, that would be Hamish Bowles.

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