• Kat Chen

On The Masthead

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

The face of The Blue and White as told by the faces of The Blue and White.

By Kat Chen


On every cover of The Blue and White, you can find proudly displayed what we consider ourselves to be: “The Undergraduate Magazine of Columbia University.” Indeed, we are an absolutely Columbian magazine in that nearly three out of every four editorial board members are white, and in that 69% of our writing staff of 35 is white. The issue of representational optics should not still hold the social weight that it does. But our publication’s problem is exactly with how we look, with whether or not we are seen as “The Undergraduate Magazine of Columbia University” in the pejorative and not the progressive sense. As the illustrator supervising the compilation of our masthead, I saw this problem in magnified detail as I worked on staff portraits. In this role, for two years, I have had a managing hand in promulgating just how we look.


The first masthead we released on our website was composed of 60 portraits, 19 of which I illustrated. The work of remote portraiture in the time of Covid cultivated a strange intimacy between the staff of The Blue and White and me. For a couple months, I catalogued every pore, dimple, and freckle before I had shaken any of their hands or had any real indication of their heights. Ours was a parasocial closeness. As invasive as it felt, I also understood this was my job.


Illustrators like me choose our medium to draw out the art in life that lenses cannot capture. We chose to hand-draw the Blue and White staff not to compete with the camera, but to animate what their photographs collect. My greatest discomfort during the project became obvious in my moments of pause. After fleshing out dozens of gradating peach-toned faces, I felt embarrassed to look at my drafts of our staffers of color—including the portrait I created of myself.


The assignments, few and far between, looked off. I found myself struggling to bring more to the frame than my own unfamiliarity with depicting people of color. I quickly undertook a self-education on finding recognizably human skin tones, reshaping planes of the face, practicing the gentle curves of monolidded eyes. I sought to repair the gaps in my ability to fulfill the responsibility as an illustrator, and in this case as a portraitist: to draw people in all their variety. Pressed against the slope of this learning curve, I questioned the other ways our publication was at a loss to reflect the student body. The absence at the face betrayed an even greater lack of voice.


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I did not have the words at the time of the initial debut of our masthead to voice anything other than my gratitude for its completion. With this fall’s new additions to staff, however, the correspondingly redesigned masthead gave me compelling reason to speak. Our new staffers compose a mosaic of faces that signals a tectonic shift within the magazine, a silent yet striking announcement that something new is happening.


There are significantly more students of color joining our writing staff. Without an explicit enumeration of our diversity problem, The Blue and White is peopling itself with students who erode the rarefied and insular bubble of student publishing that our magazine exemplifies. Historically, for each application cycle, we solicited the Columbia community for creatives to join the magazine, fishing for voices we ambiguously and hopefully desired were distinct, assured, mature, nuanced. But in reality, the generations of our staff diluted into a singular profile of prior journalistic experience, metropolitan taste, editorial aspiration. Where we apparently asked for difference, we actually sought the same unspoken qualifications closely linked to certain specific and similar educational backgrounds. Whether we were conscious of the pattern or not, we cyclically bottlenecked a supposedly fair and meritocratic opportunity to break into writing and publishing at Columbia. But our enduring failure to acknowledge our complicity remained consistent with our existence as a magazine of homogenous composition.


The date of The Blue and White’s establishment, 1890, sits adjacent to the tagline on our printed issues. Technically, we went on a century-long hiatus before our revival in 1998. Our history (or lack thereof) is worth mentioning because it reveals that we are a relatively teenaged magazine. If The Blue and White were a person, we’d still be in puberty; if a work of fiction, an early manuscript constantly subject to edit and revision. While it might be tempting to scrap the previous drafts of ourselves who have failed to be “The Undergraduate Magazine of Columbia University,” we can’t. Our past iterations are the leftovers of what we were saving for another unrealized future, a portmanteau of all the looks we call “old-fashioned” now but may restyle as “vintage” later. In our ever-metamorphosing approach to becoming, we deserve an understanding of where we came from, and how much we have changed. This is the purpose our masthead serves. It is a snapshot of the yearlong drafting process we undergo to recruit, encourage, form something even better.


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Illustration by Kat Chen

From 1965 to 1971, Phyllis Johnson would occasionally surprise the world with a gift.

Like most presents, but unlike most magazines, Aspen Magazine came wrapped in a box. Johnson billed Aspen as “the first three-dimensional magazine,” and packaging designed by Andy Warhol only hinted at the cornucopiac wealth of content inside. A living room post–Aspen unboxing may have acquired a miniature of Tony Smith’s minimalist monuments from the MoMA sitting on the coffee table. The newest John Cage improvisation playing on the record player. Susan Sontag’s letters basking under a soft reading light. A super 8 reel by Marcel Duchamp projected in the background. The greatest philosophers and artists of the 21st century sat upon doorsteps like old friends waiting to be let in. Aspen’s novelty may have rested in its expansive spatial imagination, but the magazine’s longevity came from the miracle Johnson conjured every issue: She made the venerable giants vulnerable.


Aspen only published ten issues before the financial and bureaucratic cost of publication and distribution twisted Johnson’s arm, and she terminated the project. Aspen did not disappear quietly, though. Its classic boxes have found a home in MoMA’s library and its name remains a fount of inspiration for new generations of art journalism. The sum of all its fascinating relics equates to our collective memory of Aspen as “the magazine in a box”—definite and singular.


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The Blue and White being the young and unthreatened publication it is, our concern should not be with our legacy, but with our perception. The newly established masthead tradition is one of our greatest testimonies of the present we shape. I hope that as our roster rotates, these wordless signatures we leave behind do the continual and necessary work of reinterpreting the imposing mantle of being the campus magazine. What makes us the Undergraduate Magazine of Columbia University is not a mandate to investigate and categorize the Columbia undergraduate experience in order to normatively define what it is, but rather, an intentional and inspired purpose to act as a written forum for our community in order to better write and care for it.


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