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Alexandra Shulman’s ‘Guardian’ Interview Is a Case Study on White Privilege

The ex-British Vogue editor chose white cover girls and staffers because she “doesn’t see race.”

Alexandra Shulman Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

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Alexandra Shulman wants you to know she’s color-blind and doesn’t have a racist bone in her body. That’s how the former British Vogue editor defended herself in a trainwreck of a Guardian interview after Naomi Campbell criticized her for making what the model viewed as a jab at the magazine’s new chief.

In an October column she penned for Business of Fashion, Shulman wrote about what it takes to be a good magazine editor.

“It’s certainly not a job for someone who doesn’t wish to put in the hours and thinks that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of designer clothes with a roster of famous friends,” she declared.

The comment led to lots of tongue wagging in fashion circles that Shulman, who stepped down in June after 25 years at Vogue, resented her successor. Edward Enninful, a Brit of Ghanaian heritage, not only has loads of famous friends but also appears to be undoing Shulman’s legacy by firing longtime members of her overwhelmingly white editorial team to make room for diversity.

“I’m not pleased at how [Enninful] has been treated,” Campbell told the Guardian after Shulman’s column appeared. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I find it racist. It’s like a vendetta and it should stop.”

After Shulman left the magazine this summer, Campbell took to Instagram to share a photo (printed in Vogue) of the editor’s staff, which appeared to be all white.

“Looking forward to an inclusive and diverse staff now that @edward_enninful is the editor,” Campbell wrote.

Shulman has denied using her column to make a passive aggressive attack on Enninful. But her denials of racism to the Guardian only sparked more criticism of her run at Vogue. She initially tried to shoot down Campbell’s concerns by claiming that, during her tenure, the model was British Vogue’s most featured covergirl after Kate Moss. When the Guardian pointed out that was false — model Natalia Vodianova appeared on eight covers, Gisele Bündchen 11, and Campbell just five — Shulman was left tongue-tied.

Things only got worse when Shulman tried to defend having black people on the magazine’s cover a paltry 12 times in 25 years. She trotted out the age-old excuse that black people don’t sell magazines, and she really didn’t know any black people famous enough to put on the cover. It’s as if black Brits with an international following, including Thandie Newton, Naomie Harris, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mel B., and Sade (very much relevant during that 25-year span) don’t exist in Shulman’s world. While celebs like Beyoncé, Sean Combs, and Rihanna have appeared on British Vogue, Jourdan Dunn is the only black model to appear on the cover outside of Campbell, according to the Guardian.

“My chief remit was not to show ethnic diversity as a policy,” Shulman said. “You would sell fewer copies. It’s as simple as that.”

But it’s not as simple as that. Remember the all-black Vogue Italia issue that dropped in 2008? The issue sold out in both the UK and the US. It is now a collector’s item. It just so happens that Enninful was one of the key architects of the all-black edition, designed to make a statement about racism in fashion.

The intent of that issue appears lost on Shulman, who also made a rather unconvincing argument about why she hired so few people of color while running Vogue.

“Well, I guess I have to hold my hand up and say I don’t encourage positive discrimination in any area,” Shulman told the Guardian. “I have never been somebody who’s box-ticked. I’m against quotas. I feel like my Vogue had the people in who I wanted it to. I didn’t look at what race they were. I didn’t look at what sex they were. I didn’t look at what age they were. I included the people I thought were interesting.”

Affirmative action, or “positive discrimination,” exists precisely because, more often than not, qualified job applicants from marginalized groups do not get the access they should to employment opportunities. Journalism and fashion insiders alike frequently operate with a country club mentality. They hire people they know or their friends know, often refusing to make job positions public. And it’s no secret that white people tend to know other white people, wealthy people other wealthy people, and so forth. Yet Shulman feigns cluelessness as to why more candidates of color did not walk through her doors for interviews.

Shulman made yet another gaffe when asked what she thinks of Adwoa Aboah, the biracial model who graces Vogue’s December issue, Enninful’s first.

“She’s the perfect mixture of mixed race, sort of posh Notting Hill royalty,” Shulman answered. “So she’s the perfect cover star, absolutely.”

Of course, suggesting that there’s a perfect kind of mixed person suggests that there’s an imperfect, or undesirable kind of mixed person. But it’s clear Shulman doesn’t recognize the insinuation she’s made. After all, she doesn’t look at color, and did you know that her son’s grandfather was a civil rights leader? Well, he was. And that, by Shulman’s logic, means she couldn’t possibly be even a tiny bit racist. (Robert W. Spike, an American civil rights activist, theologian, and father to Shulman’s ex-husband, Paul Spike, died in 1966.)

To her credit, Shulman could’ve done worse during this interview. Let’s be grateful she didn’t invoke an imaginary black best friend.