Elle

When news broke that Nicki Minaj was covering July’s issue of Elle magazine, photographed by Chanel head of house Karl Lagerfeld, all fashion-loving (and Nicki-loving) eyes instantly turned to the internet to see what provocative imagery the rap star would be serving this time around.

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But as it turns out, the most-talked-about picture in the high-fashion spread featured a very-covered-up Minaj in the process of having her floor-length extensions groomed by celebrity stylist Kim Kimble.

To some, it was a striking image of two extremely successful black women at the top of their respective games, captured by a legendary designer and photographer for one of the top fashion magazines in the world. To others, the dynamics of the image seemed instantly problematic:

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When writer Myles E. Johnson (who has written for The Root) tweeted his criticism concerning the image, he sparked a heated debate about colorism, stereotypes, privilege and whether all of the above are occasionally in the eye of the beholder. While his initial tweet lacked specific context (he would later subtweet that it was a “white supremacist image”), the assumption was that he took issue with the image of a well-heeled, straight-haired Minaj being groomed by the darker-skinned and braided Kimble, wearing her work clothes.

While some agreed, others weren’t so readily accepting of his hot take:

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So, which is it? Is it a portrait of two thriving black female creatives at work—Kim Kimble, in particular, doing what she does best (and wearing her beauty tool belt, to boot)? Or is it an obvious play on “mammy” imagery and stereotypes, insultingly casting the darker-skinned Kimble in the role of stooped servant to her lighter-skinned mistress, Nicki Minaj?

Unfortunately, the definitive answer lies with Lagerfeld, who, according to Minaj herself, asked Kimble to stay in the shot and, by extension, Elle magazine, which then opted to publish said shot.

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Would Lagerfeld have found the shot as striking if Minaj’s stylist had been a white woman (or man)—or even a lighter-skinned black woman? We’d like to think so. Would such a shot have been published if Minaj were a white woman? Admittedly, we’d like to think not.

Because yes: The optics here are potentially fraught with meaning—if you’re looking for it. Frankly, we’d like to think that what Lagerfeld found most appealing about capturing this moment was the almost surreal line created by Kimble’s hold on Minaj’s extensions, almost evoking the sense of Minaj being a show pony to be reined in (but that’s a horse of an entirely different color, pun intended).

It’s also worth asking how much more or less loaded this image would be if taken by a black photographer and hanging in a museum, rather than by a white photographer for a magazine spread. Would the colorism be undeniably inherent if viewed through an entirely black lens (as one could argue Johnson was using)?

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Or is a successful, self-made black woman like Kimble entitled to show up and be captured doing her job (very well) without having anything further projected onto her? Is she obligated to represent anything more than her own talent simply because she is dark-skinned? Is there space for both of these examples of black womanhood to coexist without one automatically being assumed inferior?

The controversy was not lost on Minaj, who sought to clarify the issue by reporting (via Instagram) that Kimble was “thrilled” to be included in the shot (co-signed by Kimble via repost), joining Minaj in “screaming and spazzing out” after it was taken.

In my own decadeslong experience in the industry, most beauty professionals, however talented, well-known or successful, rarely get the opportunity to have a moment in the spotlight—and, therefore, often jump at the chance when they do. It feels a shame that Kimble isn’t allowed the agency to do the same without her image being instantly associated with denigration.

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Because in the end, Kimble’s opinion of the shot might be the most important (or should be). Regardless of how the optics may subjectively read to the viewer (because it’s all subjective), like Minaj, Kimble is a grown woman and self-made millionaire who was proud to take part in that image, doing her life’s work.

Perhaps the most “woke” thing we can do is let her enjoy that moment, instead of attempting to project her into a lesser one.