Op Ed

Milwaukee Magazine’s Racial Insensitivity?

Their fashion shoot uses black man in prison garb for atmospheric “local color.”

By - Oct 2nd, 2017 01:02 pm
Adam James Stoner's mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

Adam James Stoner’s mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

The recent controversy generated by the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, which appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement to sell a soft drink, is just the latest example of how marketers and media outlets can be tone deaf and culturally insensitive when it comes to race and image.

A classic example is a feature article on fashion in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Entitled “A Cut Above,” it boasts of how dozens of “designers spent months cutting, sewing and finishing their 2017 collections for Milwaukee’s Fall Fashion Week in September.” The five-page spread includes models giving a sneak peek at some of the fashions, along with brief bios of the designers.

I’m not a fashionista, so I was only paying casual attention as a flipped through the spread. My attention abruptly went into full focus, however, and my blood pressure went up, when I saw the third page of the spread. The model poses, in a mini-dress by Sarah Nasgowitz, in front of a mural of a black man wearing “prison orange.” The mural is one of many in Black Cat Mural Alley, an open-air mural gallery on the East Side. When you see the mural in person, it takes your breath away because of its large scale.

The painting, “Devontay,” of the black man in prison orange is bold and portrays the dark reality of far too many African American men in Wisconsin. Artist Adam Stoner told TMJ4 news the painting is meant to have a social impact: “The image should never be normalized to anyone.” As State Bar of Wisconsin President Fran Deisinger stated in a March 1, 2017 article, “The issue of mass and disparate incarceration is one of the most important justice issues in our state.”

But such points were lost on the photographer of the photo, Aliza Baran; the magazine’s art director, Paul John Higgins; and the editor-in-chief, Carole Nicksin. Apparently, at no time during the process of setting up the shot, photographing it, selecting the photos, and making the final decision of what goes and what doesn’t into the layout did it dawn on any of them: “Uh, maybe we should consider a different photo.”

Perhaps Milwaukee Magazine and its editors were too consumed with their role as the city’s cheer leader to notice its glaring error. The magazine helps portray a Milwaukee that is cool, hip, trendy and focused on attracting young business professionals and even younger, freshly college graduated millennials thirsting to make their fortune in affluent new corridors of power and success, such as the Third Ward, the Fifth Ward, and recently constructed neighborhoods along the Milwaukee River.

But the new Milwaukee isn’t for many long-time denizens of this metropolis who are people of color, who see a city with a horribly high number of incarcerated black men and boys from impoverished communities.

Milwaukee has the largest population of blacks in the state and Wisconsin is known for having the highest incarceration rate of black males in the country, most of whom were arrested and convicted in this city. Considering this disparity, it is troubling to see a white model posed seductively in front of the imprisoned black man. The details of the 4,000 plastic cable ties that make a geometric pattern in the mini dress have no significance in contrast to the man with nothing but time on his hands that she stands before.

I’m not sure if the magazine’s staff did this on purpose or out of ignorance. Nonetheless, it is a tasteless display in a city trying to move past a reputation as one of the most racially segregated in America.

It would behoove marketing and media companies to diversify their ranks. This would greatly reduce—if not eliminate—such editorial mistakes. This problem has been known and talked about for decades, but recent reports show that nonwhite staff make up only 5 to 6 percent of marketing and advertising organizations nationally. The time is long overdue for cultural inclusion for those overseeing marketing campaigns, and at the tables of editor’ meetings.

Clarene Mitchell is managing partner of TCM Communications LLC, a husband and wife team dedicated to helping professionals, entrepreneurs and nonprofits tell their stories. Collectively they have 50+ years of communications expertise; Thomas as an editor of a community newspaper and Clarene as a journalist and public relations professional.

Categories: Op-Ed, Race

10 thoughts on “Op Ed: Milwaukee Magazine’s Racial Insensitivity?”

  1. Bill says:

    I had a similar negative reaction when I saw the Milwaukee Magazine article. Poor choice of a background for the photo shoot. Didn’t the editors consider that this might appear tacky and insensitive?

  2. Keith D Prochnow says:

    Today’s Milwaukee Magazine is not the outstanding periodical of Betty Quadracci, John Fennel, Bruce Murphy and Kurt Chandler. Expect more insensitive brainless decisions to be made by current fluff-pushing management at Quadgraphics. My subscription lapsed a year ago.

  3. Hannah J says:

    I haven’t seen the most recent issue yet. I do enjoy reading the magazine because they have some timely articles, but I get the impression it isn’t made “by Milwaukee for Milwaukee.” It seems to be written from a suburban point of view, kind of to boost business in the broader metro area. In this situation, maybe a caption about the artist and his point behind the work would have been tasteful to add some gravity and context to the photo.

  4. Tom bamberger says:

    If as the artist says, “The image should never be normalized to anyone,” then he should keep his art inside. Or maybe sell it too racially sensitive folks.

    You can’t control the meanings that can get attached to public art.

  5. Paula says:

    Author left out that on top of using the mural for a crass purpose, the dress was actually made of plastic ties. That’s a double shame. Was it done purposefully to send a message? Or just incredibly thoughtless. This is very much like the Jenner Pepsi ad.

  6. Observer says:

    White privilege done by a magazine that should be renamed “Real Estate Shoppers Guide for the Greater Milwaukee Area.”

  7. Socrates says:

    “Oh, look, someone made a mistake. Let me get on this soapbox and continue shouting about it for a month.” – What is the goal here? Is it leveraging publicity for your communications firm? Is it constructive in some way? Is it wallowing in your own righteousness because it wasn’t your mistake? Are you imagining that this helps others think ahead in some meaningful way?

    It is hard not to notice how much this op ed piece seems like nothing so much as one of those incidents in middle school where someone trips in the hall, spilling papers and books, and there is always that one person who has to start shouting to make sure everyone sees and joins in the humiliation and then spends the rest of the school day making sure anyone who wasn’t in the cafeteria has also heard the story.

  8. To Socrates point, the author could have mentioned that the magazine issued an online apology on September 8th.


    Yes, Milwaukee magazine makes its bread and butter “selling Milwaukee,” but also has published–including recently–some hard-hitting journalism, including about complex Milwaukee issues. And hosted a recent free forum on “Segregation in Milwaukee” last spring.

  9. A Bee says:

    I didn’t see this as I rarely read Milwaukee Mag, but based on the egregious “editing” of their online content that I occasionally come across I would expect no forethought or proofing has gone into this photo choice.

  10. Karen Coy-Romano says:

    I too was dismayed at how insensitive it was to position a fashion model in front of what is clearly a powerful art installation and political statement–along with an opportunity to build awareness about the state of race relations and incarceration of African Americans in our Midwest city. Perhaps the young staff involved in this incident need some consciousness raising and exposure to what it means to live in one of our county’s most segregated cities and the impact that this has on our marginalized citizens. Please consider how your actions are perceived to all of our residents. Thank you.

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