Breaking barriers may be easy part: Vogue magazine Kamala Harris cover foretells battle to get respect she’s earned

The controversy over Vogue magazine’s February cover of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in casual garb and Converse shoes seems a small thing. But it foreshadows a battle to be treated with the earned respect and dignity her office demands.

SHARE Breaking barriers may be easy part: Vogue magazine Kamala Harris cover foretells battle to get respect she’s earned
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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks during a COVID-19 memorial Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington, on the eve of her and President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Evan Vucci/AP photo

When Vogue magazine’s February cover leaked, of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in casual garb and Converse shoes, rather than a business suit or even wowza Vogue glam, the internet went crazy.

The vice president of the United States? A woman who broke the second highest barrier in the land? The first Black American woman in that role? The first South Asian American?

Disrespectful. Dismissive. Discriminatory. All that and more was the take on social media.

The controversy grew until legendary editor Anna Wintour, forced on the defensive, announced Tuesday that Vogue will print a new edition of the February issue, using the photo of Harris from its digital magazine cover — wearing a suit.

This may seem a trivial scandal. But it actually foreshadows the battle Harris most certainly will face: to be treated with the earned respect and dignity her office demands.

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When the cover of Harris in Chucks was leaked Jan. 9, sources on the Harris team told national news outlets it contradicted their understanding that she would appear in a powder blue suit — the casual image designated for an inside page. Members of her team said they were blindsided.

On Jan. 10, Vogue defended the informal image as capturing their perception of Harris, releasing the powder blue suit image as an alternate appearing only digitally.

As criticism rose, Wintour argued days after that Vogue had no formal agreement with the Harris team about the cover image, before capitulating only one day before inauguration.

The new version of the February issue will be available for ordering online.

However, Ms. Wintour, this should never have occurred. Placing Harris on the cover in the Chucks she often wore during the campaign only served to remove her from rarefied air.

This picture combination ocreated on Jan. 12, 2021 shows two handout photos from Vogue, of US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a Michael Kors Collection suit (L) and (R) in a Donald Deal jacket and Converse sneakers against colors inspired by her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, on the FEB 2021 cover. The casual sparked controversy with critics saying it diminishes her achievements, forcing editor Anna Wintour to defend the image. (Photos: Tyler MITCHELL/VOGUE/AFP) RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

Photos of two Vogue magazine covers of U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sparked controversy with critics saying portraying Harris in sneakers is disrespectful to the first Black woman to be elected vice president.

Tyler Mitchell via Getty Images

Perception is everything. Harris deserved a portrayal equal to her now White House status.

Chicago is headquarters to Harris’ sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., its signature pink and green used as backdrop on the Vogue print cover. In an informal social media poll of women friends, many were outraged by it; others, proud to see her in Vogue, regardless.

“Vogue knows it could have done better for a cover pix. Not regal enough!” said a Hyde Park publicist.

“That’s a ridiculously terrible cover,” said a South Loop jewelry designer.

“If she was in a $10,000 ball gown, people would have complained about it being high fashion. I love her,” said an Evanston telecommunications executive.

“She will represent us all in either Chucks or suit,” said a Bolingbrook insurance exec.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks after President-elect Joe Biden nominated their economic and jobs team at The Queen theater on Jan. 8, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware. For Secretary of Commerce, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo; Secretary of Labor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; Small Business Administrator, California official Isabel Guzman; Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Biden’s former counselor Don Graves. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks after President-elect Joe Biden nominated their economic and jobs team on Jan. 8 at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware.

Jim Watson/Getty

When Harris is sworn in with President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday, the 56-year-old lawyer, career politician and daughter of immigrant parents — her mother from India, her father from Jamaica — will have sealed her entry into Black history and Women’s history.

But American history is less than kind to Blacks and women in the struggle for equality.

A persistent glass ceiling, the #MeToo Movement and gender pay gap remain inarguable evidence of the decreased value and disrespect of women as they strive toward similar goals or reach similar achievements as male counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, whose legacy we just celebrated, is still a fragmentary journey.

The systemic racism unveiled by George Floyd and COVID-19 death disparities, voter suppression tactics and the Jan. 6 insurrection provide vivid testimony to a tragic truth: A segment of this nation remains opposed to ascribing dignity to Black people based simply on race.

FIL - In this Nov. 7, 2020, file photo Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Del. Harris will make history Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, when she becomes the nation’s first Black, South Asian and female vice president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) ORG XMIT: WX201

Vice President-elect Kamala acknowledges breaking a barrier in her acceptance speech Nov. 7 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. “Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” said Harris, who will make history Wednesday when she becomes the nation’s first Black, South Asian and female vice president.

Andrew Harnik/AP

Harris, then, must be prepared to encounter disrespect based on gender and race.

At times it will be blatant, as were the numerous incidents wielded against the first Black president, Barack Obama — Biden at his side as vice president then.

At times, it will be subtle.

Implicit bias is defined as when a person or entity subconsciously engages in negative attitudes or associates stereotypes toward someone based on race.

That’s what we saw with the Vogue cover, a subtle taking-her-down-a-notch portrayal of our vice president.

Harris, who has blazed the path for all women, and for women of color in particular — who now might see past previously unmovable barriers — will have to demand she be afforded the earned respect and dignity due the occupant of the nation’s second highest office.

It’s a battle that Harris has throughout her career proved more than ready to weather. But having reached this level, breaking the barrier may prove to have been the easy part.

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