Commentary: French Elle Slammed For Racism

Commentary: French Elle Slammed For Racism

Published February 2, 2012

(Photo: Courtesy Elle Magazine)

The French have a charming/irksome habit (depending on your view of the French) in taking English words and chi-chi'ing them up. Le Big Mac. Super cool, but pronounced "zooo-pair kewl." If this latest news got it's own supercool francophiled lingo, it would be "le screw up." It takes a certain je ne sais quoi (see, we do it too!) to set out to write a fashion story praising the first lady and wind up with an open letter being published in a national newspaper that is telling you to get a clue and stop being ignorant.


Here's what led to the brouhaha: On January 13, French Elle published a story which said that this is a new fashion day for Black people, whose wardrobes had normally veered towards "thug," thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama. It continues by saying that "chic has at last become a plausible option for a community that previously knew only streetwear." At last. Now, as you take off your hoodie, gold fronts and size xxxxxxl jeans that you wear to the office everyday, rest assured that said editors were called out for such foolishness in a letter writen two weeks later and printed in Le Monde. 

A group that included prominent Black French cultural folk such as supermodel Noémie Lenoir and the Cahiers du Cinéma critic Vincent Malausa wrote an open letter that not only condemned the original article, but French Elle's overall coverage of Black women. Says the letter, titled "A quand une femme noire en couverture de "Elle" (translation: When will a black woman be on the cover of Elle?) "Elle magazine informs us that in fashion, in 2012, "the 'black-geoisie' has finally integrated white codes" of dress.


The letter goes on to insist that the editors of the magazine "venture out of the glass-enclosed headquarters" and see how the Black people of France dress and engage in life.

American media watchdog website Jezebel, in response to the letter, investigated how many Black women are indeed on the cover of the weekly mag. "Out of the magazine's 52 2011 issues, I could find only two covers that featured women who aren't white," says Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers. "One was the winner of a modeling contest, and the other was the French actress Leïla Behkti, who is of Algerian descent."

Le sigh. More than the season for cobalt or skirts of a certain length, it seems to be the season of European editors going out of their way to be racist (smile, Dutch magazine Jackie). Fashion has always been a world of elitism, ostracism and haughtiness. So to be surprised at these latest shenanigans would be to forget decades of heinous offenses done in the name of haute couture. Yet, just because it's a longstanding tradition doesn't make it one that needs to be continued unchecked. To usurp another Frenchism, vive la revolution!

Written by Ayana Byrd


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