Award-winning journalist, author, and former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue Elaine Welteroth kicked off the 2019 Dialogue season on January 14 with a keynote address considering issues of diversity, inclusion, and ways to engage the next generation of changemakers. Welteroth has consistently broken ground in her career as the youngest person, and only the second African American person, to hold the editor-in-chief title in Condé Nast’s 110-year history. She brought an emphasis on social justice concerns to the teen magazine and made it a relevant news source in today’s frenzied journalistic field.
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'Cause it didn't happen if it's not in Instagram, right?
[Laughs] Well, Elaine, welcome.
Thank you so much for having me.
Yeah, welcome to Chicago, welcome to the MCA stage, welcome to our visitors, today.
Hi, everyone. [Audience response] Thanks for coming out on a really cold night. Although it's probably not that cold for you all. [Laughs]
Well, first of all, I just wanted to say, I'm thrilled and honored to welcome you. Our conversation tonight, as Madeleine had mentioned, about diversity, about youth empowerment, about inclusion, set against the backdrop of this very complicated cultural moment, I think this is one conversation that the MCA is ready and willing to engage with thought leaders such as you, Elaine. And so, for the next hour––I know our time's ticking––really just looking forward to learning about your insight, your perspective, and the kind of trajectory that brought you to the stage today. So, shall we begin?
Let's dive in.
All right. So, Elaine, you began your career at Teen Vogue, I believe as the beauty editor, back in 2012. And then, in 2016, you were named the editor-in-chief. During your tenure, you were credited with revolutionizing Teen Vogue. I wonder if you could paint a picture for those of us on the outside: what did you walk into when you first took on the leadership position?
Well, first of all, I have to say, especially because I'm in Chicago, I started my career at Ebony Magazine. [Applause] And I would not be on this stage, I would not have had the opportunities that I have had, I would not have walked into the roles that I have with as much confidence as I did, if I did not start at Ebony Magazine. So I have to give credit to that important institution, because it is where I learned how to have an outside––how to bring my outsider's perspective, as an editor, into an insider world. And I learned how to be a journalist and how to tell stories through the lens of black culture.
And I kind of developed this passion for elevating the outside voice, by being an outsider. I mean, I came from a very small town in Newark, California, which no one's ever heard of––not Newark, New Jersey––and no one I knew had ever dreamed of going to New York for work, chasing a big dream like a magazine career, which to me felt too competitive to even dream of. So, when I had the opportunity to start at Ebony, under an amazing, amazing black female leader named Harriet Cole, frankly, I mean, I thought that was my wildest dream come true. But the very first day when I got there, I cried in the bathroom [laughs], because I realized, very acutely, that I was at the very, very bottom of a––of a system that kind of keeps black titles at the bottom of a hierarchy. So I started as an underdog, and I was constantly proving myself, and proving the value of black people, and of a title like Ebony.
And so, I think it's important that I start there, because from that perspective, I was able to cross over to a place like Condé Nast, which I nicknamed the Condé Castle, when I was at Ebony. And I set my sights there from that first day, and I thought, "You know what, I have a very diverse background, I come from an interracial family, a very––" You know, I have a lot of different friends and family members who come from different backgrounds, and I thought, "I wanna be a bridge in the divide, in this racial divide, particularly, and I think I can." And so, by the time I got my job at Glamour––which actually happened before Teen Vogue, as well––I found myself sort of conforming and assimilating, just to build up credibility, and just to feel like I deserved to even be there.
And then by the time I got hired at Teen Vogue as the beauty director––and I was still very young, I was 25––I distinctly remember a moment that completely changed the way I approached my career from then on, which I think resulted in some of the work that I was able to do at Teen Vogue. And it was, you know, working for this promotion, being promoted into this big position as beauty director, and seeing my name in headlines for the first time––next to my race––in 2012. It wasn't just, you know, "Elaine Welteroth becomes the new beauty director at Teen Vogue," it was, "First black beauty director in Condé Nast history." And so, for me, that really put into perspective what unique opportunity, and responsibility, I was walking into that role with.
Whereas, prior to that, I was looking at––again, I'd spent so much time just trying to fit in, trying to assimilate, trying to, you know, speak a certain language for a certain audience––we can just call it "white"––it was––that's what it was, primarily. And so, I––but in that moment, I thought, "I would be doing a disservice to the communities of color, to the people who identify with me, if I come in here and pretend to be anything but what I am." And, you know, before that happened, I was sort of thinking about the model of what it is to be beauty director at a place like Teen Vogue, at a place with "vogue" in the title, and feeling a little bit of, you know, imposter syndrome.
You know, "Do I know enough about––capital F––Fashion? Do I know all of the photographers? Do I––" you know, I don't come from, you know, a prestigious school, even, so there was a lot of doubt. But once I really saw that opportunity and seized it, and just said, "You know what, being me is gonna be different and better than anything that's been––not better, but different than anything that's been here. Let me just go for that. I'm just gonna pave my own lane." So, in that role, I mean, that really created the early stages of the changes that later the world would sort of see at Teen Vogue, because it starts small.
With anything, with any change you wanna make, it starts small. It is one decision to the next, it is one story at a time, it is one foot in front of the other, one hire after the next, right? So I think that it's interesting––and I felt like I needed to slow down and start farther back. Because I do think that by the time people, you know, the rest of America kind of heard about what was happening at Teen Vogue, it did sort of seem like it happened overnight. It was this overnight success. And as with any movement, anything that requires, you know, that involves a lot of change, it never happens overnight. It's always about moments and the drumbeats that build up to it.
And so, I was at Teen Vogue for, actually, six years, I think five years before I was promoted to the leadership, and by that time, we had already been quietly disrupting stuff. We had already been breaking the rules. And the beauty of working at a place like Teen Vogue, which was considered a smaller brand in this much larger company of brands, is no one was really paying attention, so no one was really gonna tell us no. So we were just sort of doing our thing, and then we hit critical mass. But the world––to answer your question––the world was totally different, even just five years ago, totally different, pre-woke America, like, no one was wanting to have these hard conversations about social justice and politics and, you know, racial identity and gender identity and, you know, sexual fluidity––all of these things that we talk about every single day, now, right?
And so, we all were learning while we were running, we were all teaching each other. We had to allow space to make mistakes and to take risks, which we took a lot of. But it was definitely a fashion-focused teen magazine, that was considered the younger sister to Vogue. It wasn't really a place that you, yeah, that housed these kinds of conversations before I got there.
So, back in the green room, we were talking about, change doesn't happen without setting your intentions, right? And I know that when you left Teen Vogue, you described helping define the core values of that publication––and I think which you defined as: equality, human rights, empowering young women, and building up thought leaders of the future. And you've already talked about some of the moments that sort of indicated, for you, that Teen Vogue was on the right path towards achieving those ideals. I wonder if, could you, like, talk a little bit more about how those values––how you carry those values into your workplace.
Well, let's see, I think––where would I start with that––I think that, again, it goes back to that point of story by story. And I think there were a couple kind of pivotal stories that––and hires––that really changed the trajectory of our mission. We didn't come together and say, "We're gonna set this new mission and go from there," actually. We just started to do work differently, work that we cared about, that we believed in, work that we saw that was missing in the zeitgeist. And you have to remember, I mean, at that time––and even now––the media industry is––print media in particular, but––the media industry in general is very challenged. And so, everyone's kind of running the same stories, and especially for a young magazine like Teen Vogue, at that point, everyone was shooting our cover girls.
You know, we used to corner the market on young Hollywood, and then, the young stars that we were––you know, Kendall Jenner was on Vogue every other month, a Vogue's cover, and so we had to––I remember saying, "I'm bored. Who else is bored?" [Laughs] And I think as a storyteller, as an artist, your gut is your compass, and if you are bored, you'd better believe your audience is. And so, at a time like that, it was sort of pivot or die, you know? It was, like, "If we continue to go forward in doing the same things and not rethinking our model, we probably will not be around very much longer." So, what do we have to lose? Let's throw caution to the wind, let's throw out these old models, and let's just do work we believe in.
So at least if we go down, we go down with our fists up. We're, like, you know, we're proud of what we've done. So, there was no model for what we did when we did it, and it was very scary, I guess, in a sense. But right away, because of social media, we saw there was an audience for this kind of content that went deeper, that explored the nuance that, you know, gave a voice to the youth perspective, in a way that we had not seen in mainstream media before. Certainly, there were places like Rookie––I don't know how many, like, young––I can't really see you guys, but [laughs]––but we were able to translate some of that in a way that still felt like Vogue, it still felt like it could be Teen Vogue. We still––
One thing I'm proud of is that––and part of our intention, part of our purpose, was to create this really safe space for all intersections of our audiences' identities to exist and to be celebrated. So it wasn't like we were dissing women's magazines, or fashion writing, or beauty coverage. It was, like, "No, we do that, too." But you can be a young person who cares about bronzer, and, you know, how to zhuzh your hair, and dry shampoos, and Bieber, and Selena, and what's going on with them, and, like, and also wanna be on the frontlines of Black Lives Matter. And, you know, care about LGBTQ rights, and wanna know how to be an ally, like, these things are not mutually exclusive. And I think before that, it definitely felt like you had to choose, you had to choose a side.
And we had to prove, as well, that we could be a credible news source for political coverage, for, you know, more sort of culturally-conscious work. So it took time, it took time and it did take intention. And I would say my very first hire was the first sort of stake in the ground for me, in terms of wanting to start to change the culture. Because I think any outward change starts on the inside.
[Inaudible phrase] talk about your first hire?
Yeah. So, when I got hired at Teen Vogue as beauty director, my first hire was a male beauty editor. He was the best person for the job, and he happened to be a male. And I remember pitching him, and I was so excited about him, and I wanted my editor to meet him, and she said, "Oh, a boy in the beauty department? I don't know about that." And I was just, like, "But Glee is the number one show on TV. I think our audience is ready. I don't really see an issue, here." And so, he came in and just shook things up.
I think part––you know, now that I've had time to reflect, I think that not only was he the best guy for the job, but he also was another outsider, who knew what it was to be othered, who really wanted to, you know, use beauty as a tool for conversations about inclusion and representation. And I think it's important, when you get your in, you get your foot in the door, to open the door for the next person who may not have had a seat at the table if you didn't create one for them. And so, he actually helped me––he became an ally to me inside the office, and he helped me find my voice editorially. He helped me push for changes that I might not have, had I not had that support internally. And together, we started to kind of foster this different culture, I mean, like, from small things.
I think it's also, it's small things, like, it was really quiet in that office, and really stiff and rigid before we got there. We would just play Mariah Carey really loud, you know, and [laughs]––not encouraging that, but––but there was this, like, different energy in the office, and there was different ideas that were being brought to the table. And I think from there––he went on to become the––he led the digital team to great success. And because he came in with that same moral compass and the desire to prioritize inclusion, every single one of his hires reflected that same priority.
That's interesting, 'cause, you know, I'm trying to draw a thread from your early days here in Chicago, and citing your mentor, Harriet Cole, and how you're sort of paying that forward by stating your commitment to building a diversity of pipeline, right? A pipeline and, like, helping the next generation come up. Could you talk a little bit more about how you're doing that now and, you know, having left Teen Vogue, how are you carrying that commitment forward?
Well, I always say that it's––so, job titles are temporary, but your purpose is everlasting. And I think while I was even at Teen Vogue, I identified what my why is, and what drives me. And it really is this passion for helping to give a voice to the youth perspective, to help elevate issues that affect the next generation. And to create space for marginalized communities to have––to really have their perspectives recognized. And this is the time to do that, there is such a need for that. And so, I think that, you know, in everything that I do, I use that as my sort of north star. And I think that we all, no matter where we are, and no matter what job title you have or what industry you're in, I think it's important to identify what your personal mission is, what your purpose is, what––not to get too cliché, but, really, what is your reason for being, and how is your work serving that.
Because we can so easily get pulled into other people's missions, and lose sight of what is unique to our voice, what only we can do, like, what's your zone of genius, how can you operate in that, with more of your time, with more of your energy. And so, I've found a way to kind of craft that for myself, as my own sort of entity, and it takes shape in all different types of ways. I mean, I just finished a book, that is coming out in June, June 11th; just picked my cover today––[applause] you guys, having a baby––I mean, having a baby––having a book is like having a baby. [Laughter] I haven't had a baby, but it––I feel about 11 months pregnant right now.
Woo, it is really an all-consuming effort. But I really believe that everything that I have done in my career and in my life, to date, culminates in what this book will be. And I––
Can you give us a little sneak peek?
Well, I just––I haven't really even talked about it publicly, 'cause I'm so deep in the trenches. For any writers in here, you understand, like, if you're, like, swimming in words for months, to come out and speak in, like, coherent sentences is such a challenge. This is, like, the first time I've been outside in––in a while. [Laughter] But, so I'm not even gonna try to attempt to put it in, like, a pithy one-liner that will sell it. But I will just say that it is––my hope and intention is that it will be so much bigger than my story. It is so many people's story, and it is so––there are so many universal themes that I hope will be sort of––I hope that this will be the way that we can crack open conversations that we need to have more.
And I hope for it to be a tool that puts me in community with my tribe. Which is really broad, I'm realizing. And even here tonight I'm, like, wow, like, there's so many people in Chicago, so––great outfits, great, you know [laughter]––but care about the world, like––so, I really hope that this is an opportunity for me to be in communication, directly, offline, about things that matter. And hopefully, help all of us progress in our lives and our careers. But also, you know, I've done work with ABC News, and, you know, I reported for them during the March for Our Lives. And then I partnered with them on producing a documentary that went a little deeper and told the stories of some of the student survivors who really didn't get the big press hits.
I mean, I think mainstream media focused on, like, a handful, but there were so many students who were sort of left in the shadows, and we wanted to bring their stories to light. So, a number of projects I've done in this past year, but I just, I don't worry about how or––you become a magnet for what your intention is. And I think that I have carved out a path for myself where I have drawn––I sort of have drawn opportunities to me that are inline with who I am and what I care about. But that––it takes a long time to get there, you know? Like, so I don't wanna talk about that, like, as if that's a universal norm; it really isn't, and I do appreciate that.
But back to our conversation in the green room, I think – when I said it takes intention, I was actually talking about, specifically, just as an anecdote, I was talking about the CBS hire today, or the news about the White House correspondents. Are you guys familiar with that story that came out today? Well, apparently, you know, CBS News came out with their roster of reporters who are going to be, you know, in the White House, and there isn't a single black reporter. And so, they're being called out. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called it out for what it is, and she said, "In 2019, it's unacceptable. Try again." [Applause]
I mean, I just got chills. And I feel like Alexandria represents the future. But it takes someone who is in a seat of power to really prioritize that mission of making inclusion the norm. And if no one's going to do that, it will never change. So, I'm so proud of people like Alexandria, and there are so many other young leaders who are rising up, people of color who are rising up and changing the priority, from inside institutions, from inside systems that really need to be disrupted. And I think that Teen Vogue was another example of that, you know, you have to––
I always say, in order to change the story, you have to change the storytellers. My caveat to that is, in order to change the storytellers, you need to change who's in those seats of power, who's even determining who gets a seat, you know? And I'm seeing that change, slowly but surely, but we have to continue to keep it at the top of the agenda or we will slide back, as we have across many other challenging issues in our country.
So, you talked about Alexandria, you talked about the Parkland survivors, all in a way to sort of paint this next generation of changemakers. For all of us in the audience, could you paint a portrait, if it's possible, of who those people are, what do they look like, what is their voice, and how are they using the tools that they have at their disposal, to express their agency?
Well, I'm sure there's plenty of them in the room tonight. Right? You can clap for yourself. [Laughter] [Applause] I have to say, during my time at Teen Vogue, I came into contact with so many inspiring young people who are so much braver, bolder, smarter than I was when I was their age. And it was, and is, the joy of my career to amplify their voices and to give them the mic, like, just hand them the mic. Because they are truly going to be––they're our hope, they are hands-down our hope for a better future, because they are going to demand that the status quo is disrupted. I feel like my generation, millennials, we came in here to kind of start turning the ship. They came in with their––
They were born with their fists up. They're just, like, accepting nothing less than what really has been our vision for the future. And so, what are these––they are incredibly informed, the most informed generation of young people in history. They grew up with the internet in their hand, as their third arm, frankly. [Laughs] And that's significant. I mean, it's even very different from my generation. I remember when, like, AOL and, like, highspeed internet began. But this next generation can't remember a time when there was no internet, and they can just look at their phone for anything and everything.
It's a generation that cares deeply about being heard. They believe that they can be the change they wanna see. They see themselves as change agents. And as an extension of that, the type of work they wanna do in the world and the paths that they're carving for themselves are unconventional and really mission-driven. And I don't wanna speak in generalities, but this is what the data shows, but it's also from my observation of the kind of likeminded community that we were able to galvanize at Teen Vogue, this is what I saw. They were people who considered themselves activists, no matter what discipline they were studying, and creatives, no matter what discipline they were in.
And they really––it's also the most diverse generation in history, which we cannot ignore. And so, if you want to stay relevant, if you want to be meaningful, have meaningful impact in term––if you wanna speak to the future, there is no way that you can ignore their voices. I think, you know, Teen Vogue was a case study for that: we were underdogs; no one cared about Teen Vogue, [laughs] I can openly say that. Not nobody, but it was not––we were just kind of doing what everyone else was doing. And it worked for so long for us. But until we really pivoted and found out, like, in the core what our readers cared about, and we were able to address the ways in which they were being underserved by mass media, that is when––like, all ships rise.
Like, we all kind of came up together, and learned together, and were able to create work that meant something. And it would not have happened if that––we were just a reflection of that generation. I remember being in early meetings and just scrolling through Instagram, scrolling through Tumblr, and reading what our audience was actually talking about on the internet. And it had nothing to do with what we were talking about in the magazine, and I saw so much whitespace to go deeper. And when I met folks like Yara Shahidi or Rowan Blanchard, I was blown away by how much they knew, even, in some cases, more than me. They are the ones that really engaged me deeply in thinking differently about activism, they gave me a new definition of what activism was.
I remember Rowan Blanchard and this cover story that I worked on with her and Yara together, she said, "To me, activism, it was very accessible." She said, "Activism is a need to know, a need to help, and a need to act," and I was, like, "If that's––well, that's the criteria, count me in." And I think that's important, that's really important, because for so many years, we always thought, "Well, someone else is––that's not––I'm not an––who am I to call myself an activist? Who am I? I work in an office, all day." But you, too, can––you, too––just, sometimes the most radical act is just being your authentic self in spaces where you were not intended to be, in systems that were not built for you, and having a voice.
That in itself is a form of activism. You know, wearing your hair natural, in spaces where that's considered taboo, that's activism.
You referred to that as accidental activism? I remember reading an article about your visit to Vanderbilt University, and you talked to a roomful of students of color, and you talked about accidental activism. Is that what you're talking about?
Wow, you did your research. [Laughter]
Like, wow, what page of my Google News was that one on? [Laughter] Yeah, I called it accidental activism because––because of sort of, you know, my own awakening to the notion that I could actually be a changemaker just the way I am. And this generation actually helped me own that. But, you know, there are different types of activists, and I talked about a bunch of different––you know, there are the folks who are on the frontlines. We need them. There are the folks who are, you know, trying to change the system from the inside, the lawmakers. We have, you know, there are the politicians, who play by the rules but they're subversive in their own way.
We have the corporate backers who really have the power of the pocketbook. There's all different types of activists, and I had to figure out who I was gonna be at a time like this. Because we will all look back on this time and think, "What did I do? Was I standing on the right side of history?" And our kids are gonna wanna know, they're gonna wanna sit around the table and talk about this moment, the way that we talked about the '60s. I remember, growing up, I wanted to know where my mom was, I wanted to know where my dad was, what were they doing, were they picketing––I couldn't even imagine a world like that, and then here we are. But it's funny, I actually, early on in my career when I was still at Ebony, I remember, vividly, being invited to this amphitheater, like, secret meeting on Fashion Avenue, Seventh Avenue.
And it was held by a woman named Bethann Hardison, who is––some people know her in here? [Audience response] She's a hell-raiser. She is an agitator. She has no problem with confrontation. And she is a––she's one of the first really respected black women in fashion, who I saw use her position of power to really drive change, in an unapologetic way, like, she wasn't about baby steps. She called [laughs] the whole industry into a room, and because she was so respected, no one wanted to say no. They were, like, "I don't know what this is, but I guess––here we go." And so, I was a little peon editor, I sat way in the back, I didn't know any––you know, I knew the names, but people didn't know who I was, so I was just quiet observing.
And one by one, she called out people in the industry, by name, [laughs] for not casting black models, in campaigns, on the catwalk, and in stories, editorial stories. And, I mean, people had to stand up and own it. [Laughs] It was a full-on call––like, now, today, we hide behind our screens when we call folks out. This was––there was no screen to hide behind, my friend. And I just remember being so taken aback, but, like, enamored and in awe of this mighty force of this woman. And shortly after that, we all saw the all-black issue of Italian Vogue. And I remember thinking, like, "I don't know that one would've happened without the other. This is interesting."
And then, you know, it was a one season thing, so I thought, "You know, that's one way to do it, and we need her doing that. But that's not my style. I don't know if I'm prepared to do that." [Laughter] So, I was, like, "What's my style? What am I gonna do?" and I just put it in the work. And I remember, like, my first story at Teen Vogue was about my natural hair journey, and talking about the ways in which I shrunk my cultural identity growing up, because I was trying to be something I wasn't, and my hair was the biggest indicator of that, straightening it and trying to blend in. And how I've gone on this long journey to become more and more myself, and more and more proud of my blackness. And my hair has just, as a result, grown and grown and grown.
And it was, like, so my first day at Teen Vogue, whereas, all my other kind of first days, important days, proms, picture day, all that stuff, I always straightened my hair. But I was, like, "For this first day, it's the bigger the better." And the response that I got from that story was wild, and it let me know, "This is needed. This is needed from this position, from this platform." And so, I remember thinking, "My way is gonna be through storytelling, through authentic storytelling, through representation." Again, you can't change the stories unless you change the storytellers, and if you're not changing the storytellers, that representation you're seeing isn't authentic. And in 2019, we need to be focused on delivering authentic representation, looking at who's behind the story, who is the photographer, who's the stylist, who are the people, who are the image-makers behind the work that we're seeing in media, that we know matters so much in terms of our identity and what we deem as valuable.
And so, that was my approach. And so, I do kind of, tongue in cheek, I think of it as accidental activism, because it wasn't that conventional sense of, you know, Angela Davis, you know, Black Panther Movement, but I certainly was my own version of being a changemaker from the inside.
I'm being given a sort of five-minute heads-up before we open it up for conversations with our audience. But I wanna ask one final question, and, you know, I wanna get tactical, a little bit, here. Because you have such a strong social media presence, and you, I think, have found this way to really seamlessly blend political voice, and activist voice, and this kind of fun, you know, sort of light vibe. Could you talk a little bit about how you're leveraging social media as a tool to sort of hit on all of those notes? And how do you use that to have robust conversation with your audiences?
Well, I don't know how tactical I can get on this, because I'm truly not that––I don't overthink it. I think the only way for me to show up is to be authentic––I just talked about that––and it's the same thing on the internet. I mean, I am someone who cares about both politics, social justice, social change, and fashion, and beauty, and entertainment, and culture, you know, as an umbrella. And so, I think every time I show up on the internet, I'm just, I'm responding to a call that is just to be me, and to not worry about what people think, or what box I'm not checking, or––that's––I think that's old. I think that's the way of the past.
And so, I think to be––I don't wanna be too formulaic about that, you know? But let's see, I do not shy away from putting some controversial perspectives out there, because I really want to engage people in nuanced conversations. I wanna dive deeper into the gray areas. Because more and more, as I've grown up, I've realized that most things that we are debating are not black and white, and yet, they're often presented, in mainstream media, in this very directed binary way. And there's often this––I often just find myself kind of seeing in-between––reading between the lines, and wanting to spend time there. And I've found, on the internet, that there are lots of people who actually do wanna engage in really thoughtful discussion.
And so, many times, I've engaged and found, "Wow, there's something––"sometimes I'm scared, sometimes I am scared to put things out there, I'm, like, "What am I gonna get?" For instance, Meghan Markle, during the whole royal wedding phenomenon, which, frankly, I didn't really care about, and, like, I felt like everyone cared so much about this wedding, and I thought, "This is so problematic. Are we really, in 2018, this excited about a Disney princess narrative? Like, what?" [Laughter] I was so––I was, like, alarmed by it, actually. And so––
What did you [crosstalk]?
Well, what I posted wasn't even about that [laughs]––that's what I was talking about with everybody, but I decided––there was another aspect of it that to me was just so fascinating. As a mixed-race woman, I identify as black, but I am mixed-race; my father is German Irish, my mother is African American. And so, when I saw all the coverage around Meghan Markle, I thought, "This is so interesting. This is the first time, in my adult life, that I have ever seen the term 'biracial' used in the media." And I'm thinking about, I've lived and reported through the election of President Barack Obama, I've lived through, you know, the first black––" so, first black president, first black woman to win an Oscar, Halle Berry, all of these firsts––so many of these firsts are actually mixed-race people, but we've never identified them that way.
Because, going back to the times of slavery, there was the one-drop rule, and, so, this is so¬¬––it's deeper than what we even recognize consciously. And so it's, like, if you look black, even though we know your mother is white, your––we kind of dismiss it, because you're black––your phonetic read is black. And so, and there's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, unless we are willing to unpack how we think about racial identity in America. Why is Meghan Markle biracial if Barack Obama is black?
And I just wanted to talk about that, and I was, like, "This is probably a bad time, [laughter] probably bad timing, no one's gonna wanna talk about this." And so, I was, like, "But I'm gonna just do it anyway. I'm probably gonna get a lot of haters, gonna lose a lot of followers, but I'm just gonna do it anyway. I'm just curious." And it begs the question, you know, are we ready for a black princess? I don't know. I think maybe the closest we can get is biracial, to be comfortable. And also, she does read––one could say that she could read as white or she's passing. If she decided to wear her natural hair, which I would imagine looks more like mine, would we have a harder time calling her biracial?
Like, I just wanna understand how we talk about racial identity in America. And so, I put it out there, and the response was overwhelming, from all different types of people, all ages, all backgrounds. And it proved to be something that, frankly, people really hadn't thought about, and wanted to discuss, had discussed, had been thinking about it, didn't know how to talk about publicly. And so, those are the things that I just love––I just love going there, and I think that internet is of great––it offers plenty of forums for those kinds of more nuanced discussion. And I am doing a show with Audible where I hope to be doing more of that kind of deeper-dive sort of cultural critical conversations.
And I'll be talking to young firsts, so, young––"first only different" is the term that we're using, and––which is––hopefully, you guys have read Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes. Have you guys read that? It's amazing. If you haven't, you should.
But in it, she coins this term, "First. Only. Different." F.O.D. And I'm certainly an F.O.D.; there's probably tons of F.O.D.s in this room. And so, I want to host conversations with those F.O.D.s, young and old, and black and white, and wanna understand some of the common themes in our experiences, and why they matter in a moment like this. So, stay tuned, and once my book baby is out fully-fully. [Laughter]
Very exciting. This has been fabulous––I can't believe our time is over.
I can't believe [crosstalk].
But we wanna open it up for conversation with our audiences. Maybe we can turn up the lights for a little bit? I see a lot of––I see some hands––I know there are some burning questions out there. We have a couple of mic runners––great. Yes, hi.
Hi, my name is Maya Rodriguez; I'm with the University of Chicago. I do diversity and inclusion affairs, there. One of the things I wanted to ask you, Elaine, is, I think throughout my college career, and even now, I think that people of color and women of color do a lot of emotional labor, taking care of people, trying to assist them. And sometimes I think it's hard to take a break and know who to lean on. And I was just gonna ask, like, who have you leaned on and where have you found support, personally, professionally, just as somebody who cares a lot about fashion and inclusion?
Such a great question––thank you for asking that question. I have found, one of the greatest things about being an F.O.D. is the tribe that came with me. And it surprised me, the kind of support that exists for this, like, rarefied small––right now it's small; it's growing rapidly, but––this group of people who understand what it is to be the only one in the room. And it's a very specific thing, and there's pressure that is––it can only be understood by somebody who understands that experience, and so many people in the country just have never had to experience that. And that has been something that consistently has been challenging for me throughout my career, for different reasons.
So, there have been really amazing strong powerful women in leadership positions, who have taken me under their wing and just, like, really coached me and supported me during hard moments. Even during promotions that looked great on the outside, and on the inside needed some coaching. So, it's really been about looking to my left and my right, and being willing to be vulnerable with those people who have similar experiences. And the thing I've found is, so many of the things I've experience that I thought I was the only one, or, like, I couldn't believe I wasn't prepared for, when I was vulnerable enough to share it with these women, it's like, "Me, too. Me, too." They all have similar stories.
And so, I think it's, you know, I do think we have––there's a pressure to keep it all together, be strong for everyone. You're so independent, you're trying to make things happen, you're ambitious, but you do need a soft place to fall, and you need to find that and cultivate that tribe, and be there for them, as well, when they need it. So, and sometimes it's about reaching out, like, little text circles. I have so many little group chains where sometimes it's just sending a positive message out to everyone on, like, Monday morning, and you never know when you needed that, you know? Like, I remember being in a really hard time, and two of my girlfriends called me, out of nowhere, and I was in my office, like, on the brink of tears. And I needed that, I needed that phone call.
I wouldn't even have thought to reach out to anyone in those moments, but––I think it's important just to say that no matter what it is that you're going through, there are so many other people who are in that––who have experienced that or are experiencing it at the same time. And it's okay to be vulnerable, and it's okay to share the hard stuff, because we don't see enough of it on the highlight reels and in the headlines that we see, but believe it's happening. So, hopefully that's helpful. And making time for self-care. I meditate, now, on Tuesdays. I go to a guided meditation group, on Tuesdays. [Laughter] It has got my life together, many times. [Laughter]
Hello, my name is _____ _____. And I wanted to ask you a question about something that you mentioned earlier about imposter syndrome. Hi. [Laughs]
Hi, okay, there you are. [Laughter] It was like the voice of God for a minute. [Laughter]
How do you believe that imposter syndrome has shaped your life, work life, for better or worse? And how did you grow from it? Do you think that you were affected by imposter syndrome because of external influence or internal influence?
Ooh, you guys came with the questions [laughter]––that is good. Okay, two-part question; the first part was how has imposter syndrome shaped my work life, okay. And the second question was?
How did you grow from it? And do you think that you were affected by imposter syndrome because of external influence or internal influence?
Internal-external––oof, that's really nuanced, and I do think it's both, I do think it's both. There's––so much of what we have to overcome, in order to show up in the world and be who we need to be and who we're called to be, is––it requires us to let go of things that we've been conditioned to think, and to retrain ourselves to see ourselves in these spaces, and to see ourselves as worthy of being in these spaces. And we do lack––when I say "we" I mean even young––young people in leadership roles, women of color, women in business environments, we lack role models. So, whereas, a white man has seen so many different versions of powerful white men, throughout their lives, and they probably take that for granted. We just, we're deprived of those role models, so when we're out there in the world, we're often rewriting the rules ourselves, and we're trying to figure out how to be.
And please believe, when you try to be like a man and embody power like a man does, sometimes it does not work out well for you. So you do have to figure out who you are going to be in these spaces, and––and imposter syndrome is real, and some of it––and so much of it is actually, it is in our mind, but it's there for a reason. We were all ingrained in this sort of––we were all raised in this patriarchy, I mean, not to use just heavy jargon, but––so, we have to do the work of undoing those damaging narratives that we have all absorbed. And I think it's okay to acknowledge it. And then, how has it shaped my career? I just think it's like sort of inextricably part of my experience.
And at the same time, I think at some point I've tried to create an environment, in my office, that became the kind of world I wanted to exist in, and a safe space for someone like me, and also someone––anyone in the office who felt other, who felt like––who might have otherwise felt like they didn't belong. And so, I think changing the culture, when you're in a decision-making role, is the biggest––it's the biggest thing you can do to kind of overcome your own imposter syndrome, and hopefully help minimize that weight that we all kind of carry into, really, any room. And what I've learned is that we all feel like outsiders, in some regard, whether you're a person of color, a woman, or otherwise, there is always something that we're trying to overcome. So, I hope that's helpful.
[Crosstalk] one up there, and then maybe––we have a question down here.
Hi, my name is Yungchen. I'm actually a member of the Team Creative Agency here at the MCA. I'm also Tibetan American, and I wanted to ask you if you have any suggestions for people like me who don't have a lot of representation in the world, who want to advocate more for people like me and, like, speak out more for, you know, people that are different.
What's your background?
I'm Tibetan American. Yeah, so, if you weren't familiar, Tibet is a country in China, that is currently being illegally occupied by China. So, yeah, there's not a lot of people like me here. [Laughter]
And that makes you, like, someone who has a superpower, in any conversation, because you know something other people don't. And I think rather than burying that and trying to find other common ground, I think you can walk in with a sense of, like, ownership of who you are and what you know, that other people don't. And share, share what you care about, because we are all so hungry––actually, more than you would even think––to understand each other. But it takes someone being brave enough and generous enough to extend themselves and what they know and their culture with other people, for other people to grab onto it and to understand you better. So, I think if anything, this is the moment. This is the moment for someone like you, someone who has a unique perspective, to find a way, which it sounds like you have already, to carve out space, carve out a lane, and use it to put into the world what you think is missing.
That's what we did at Teen Vogue; that's what you are doing, you're creating this conversation series for that very purpose. So, it sounds like you don't really need advice, actually. [Laughter] And you kind of just put the whole room onto what you care about. I'm sure you're gonna meet people, after this, who are gonna wanna learn more, so. I mean, I would love to see––are you an artist?
Amazing, amazing. Well, I would love to learn about what you're doing, so maybe we can kind of, you can help us connect afterwards, just to––I'd love to keep an eye on what you're doing, and support in any way that I can.
One more question?
This is so fast. This is the fastest hour of my life. [Laughter]
Hi, I'm Imani Joseph; I'm also a member of the Teen Creative Agency at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
And I'm just an inspiring, like, writer and poet. And I just, like, whenever I'm in a creative space, they always want me to, like, separate my identities, like, as a woman and, like, as also as a black person. So how do you deal with, like, the intersectionalities of your identity in, like, writing and, like, functioning in, like, these white spaces? [Laughter]
Oh, just, like, the answer of life, right? Just [laughter] the meaning of life, right here, right now. She's, like, "And you have 20 seconds to go." [Laughter] Woo, well, I––there's just¬¬––just be. That's the only thing I can say is you can just be. And there have been many times where I've had to do that. There's one example that comes to my mind, where I was invited to write an essay in a book that was commemorating the Women's March. And I really had to sit on that ask for a minute, because I remember going into the Women's March, feeling, in full transparency, detached from that mission.
Like, I felt that that mission, that umbrella, didn't include me. Because I remember coming into the office with some of these same women, and, you know, for instance, after Philando Castile passed away in the most horrifying way, and being truly to my core, like, broken after that, and coming to work and feeling so alone in that moment. I did not see anyone crying at their desk, I didn't see––I didn't see other people gripped by that horror. And, so, to come to work the day that, you know, we lost this presidential election, for folks who are democrats and who were really rooting for Hillary, it felt like this was, like––it was like the sky was falling. And, truthfully, it was, it has. [Laughter]
But it felt like there was this dissonance, like, "You have your struggle. I have my struggle. I don't know that our struggles are the same. I don't know that you even are aware of mine." And "mine" meaning my whole community. And so, I felt a little bit on the outside; it felt like I was going into the Women's March as an observer more than a participant. And so, when I was asked to write an essay, I just thought, "How real am I able to get? Can I get this real? Can I just, if I'm gonna write this essay, this is the perspective that I have on this."
And I thought it probably wasn't gonna be appropriate, but it turns out they wanted that perspective. Because there's no way to grow––and actually, I will say, once I got to the Women's March, I actually was so––[big breath out] I was so relieved and empowered and so inspired by the ways in which they intentionally shined a light on the intersections of all different types of women. And it felt like the most inclusive demonstration of feminism that one could possibly program. I'm sure you can poke holes, but they really covered their bases.
How many of you guys felt that way, when you were a part of it? Did you? Maybe some didn't––hm––we can debate it later or online. [Laughter]
So, I did, you know, I was able to kind of share that that was a positive takeaway. But we have so much more work to do, to understand each other as women, in this movement, in this feminist movement. And some of these same women would come into the office and touch my hair, and I'm, like, "You don't get it. [Laughter] You want me to march with you but you don't get it," you know? And so, there was this kind of anger that I didn't even realize that I had, that I had to unpack and be honest about. But the only way to make progress is if you are willing to be honest, and for other people to be willing to listen. And they were.
So, I guess my advice to you is just to continue to speak your truth, in respectful ways, and allow for the possibility that you'll be surprised that people really do want to learn how to love you better and how to partner with you better. [Applause]
I wanna give Elaine the last parting words for us, so I do have a question to sort of close us out. But first of all, thank you, and thank you to our audience. This keynote, tonight, is the first in our Dialogue series, it is our commitment to fostering an open exchange with our visitors, with you, about these issues that we've just been talking about for this past hour. So, please, check your program books and our website; we have three more Dialogue programs coming up in the spring. We hope to see you at each and every one of those events.
And then, for Elaine, to close this out, we are, what, 14 days into the new year, and you are, you know, here with us. This is our tribe, our tribe of changemakers, of accidental and intentional activists. What's your wish for us, as we march forward into the new year?
Ooh, that's a weighty question. I guess my hope would be that you don't stop. Because we are living during a very specific moment in our culture, where everything feels so politicized and so divisive, and it is uniquely bringing us together, to have uncomfortable conversations, courageous conversations that we have not had. But in order for us to continue pushing, pushing, pushing for change, and pushing back against all of the regression, we have to remain consistent, and we have to build communities that are going to stick together. Because it might get worse before it gets better. And then when it gets better, it's still gonna get worse again.
And I think that we've all witnessed the world go in directions we never thought possible, but it's because we all took our eye off the ball. And so, I would just say, I hope that––my hope is that you––that this is just the beginning. That this is just the beginning, and that some of the young people who are taking advantage of the program are gonna build your own platforms that are gonna house more safe spaces, so that this continues for your children, and your children's children. So, that's my hope.
How's that for my world peace speech? [Laughs] [Applause]
Thank you all, so much, for coming. It's such an honor to meet you and to be here. Thank you so much. [Applause]