Elaine Welteroth's Evening at Vanderbilt

Elaine Welteroth is a force of nature. On the surface, it’s easy to laude her social media activism, transformative push for diversity in the media world, and groundbreaking journalism. However, even amidst her sudden rise to heroine, Welteroth’s speech was not a “how to” guide for activism, but rather a humbling narrative highlighting the power of personal individuality. To Welteroth, each woman’s distinct story is powerful enough to shift cultural climates. Simply being yourself and telling your story is as much an act of activism as rallying on the front lines of a protest. Your presence is your protest (John Faison).

Peppered with emotional anecdotes, Welteroth spoke about her childhood growing up biracial in a predominantly white neighborhood. With the lack of minorities showcased in the media, she felt an innate sense of inferiority to her White peers. In a particularly poignant recount, she described being disappointed after she received the Black version of a doll that was advertised as White for Christmas. She remembered telling her mother “I Wanted the one on the TV.” which was code for I wanted the White doll. In response, her mother reminded her of the inherent beauty of being black, whether or not its portrayed in the media. Years later, at the advent of her career, she faced yet another internal struggle; how to conduct herself as a Black woman working in White America. Subsequently, she began straightening her hair and changing her voice in order to appear less black.

However, It was not until she became Teen Vogue’s first African American Beauty and Health editor, and its second African American Editor in Chief, that she realized post racial America was a myth. Moreso, her “race was going to walk into every room before her.” It was at that point she decided to “lean all the way into [her] otherness” (Jen Wilkin), and “see points of difference as superpowers”. She felt that it was time to “stop the assimilation sharade”. Her uniqueness was her most valuable asset.

From that point on, Welteroth took full advantage of her role of “holding the pen” by crafting images and stories that were far more diverse than anything in Teen Vogue's history. Under her leadership, Teen Vogue featured its first cover with three “no-name” black models (which broke all the unspoken rules of publishing.) Additionally, Teen Vogue featured articles like “Cultural Appreciation” and “Rowan Blanchard and Yara Shahidi on Representation” that centered on empowering girls to tell their stories and celebrate their differences. In doing do, she created the type of media that her younger self never saw. These articles drastically shifted Teen Vogue from a magazine solely focused on beauty and celebrity gossip to one that equips young girls to think critically about their identities and analyze current events. At the end, Welteroth encouraged the audience to continue to occupy spaces of of low representation, authentically tell their story, and when met with resistance remember that “boundary breakers get bruises.”