Essence magazine hires Ellianna Placas, a white woman, as their fashion director and the black internet (yes, there’s a black internet) goes nuts:
Placas, who used to work at O: The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly, will apparently make her debut in Essence’s 40th anniversary issue, on newsstands in September. Although Essence has been looking for a fashion director for quite some time, not everyone is happy with their newest acquisition.
Michaela Angela Davis, former fashion editor of Essence and former editor-in-chief of Honey Magazine, revealed on her Facebook Wall, “It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned Essence Magazine has engaged a white Fashion Director. I love Essence and I love fashion. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally. The fashion industry has historically been so hostile to black people–especially women. The 1 seat reserved for black women once held by Susan Taylor, Ionia Dunn-Lee, Harriette Cole(+ me) is now-I can’t. It’s a dark day for me. How do you feel?”
I should say, right off the bat, I don’t read Essence. My mother never subscribed, and by the time I got to college, I was a ladymag hater for life. I’ve probably read enough of its content over the years to make up two or three issues. Enough content to know that while Essence is one of the few magazines directed at black women, it certainly doesn’t meet all of our needs. For example, it’s heternormative, and deeply invested in the black middle class. I say all of that to explain that I’m not invested in the product, even though I have friends who read it religiously, and I have friends who have worked there.
Having said that, I can understand where Davis and others are coming from. Fashion highlights the often-fraught relationship between black women and white women. Remember, it’s been one scant generation since a black woman first graced the cover of Vogue (and considering whole issues can go to press without a single black model in them, we haven’t seen much improvement). There’s also the deeply ingrained societal idealization of white femininity — something a black woman will never be able to achieve, no matter how straight her hair gets. Essence is also one of the few publications nurturing a significant number of black writers and editors — there is literally a handful of black editors at fashion mags in this country. So it’s no surprise to me that hiring a white woman to determine the course of fashion and beauty at a black publication evoked such a strong reaction.
But it’s a short-sighted and ahistorical reaction. Angela Burt-Murray, the editor-in-chief, wrote a response to the furor, saying that the magazine was “founded to empower, celebrate, and inspire black women to climb higher, go further and break down barriers. Our commitment to black women remains unchanged as we continue to stay laser-focused on those principles–no matter who works with us.” And ultimately, Essence is part of Time Inc. It has shareholders to answer to, and financial goals to meet. In order to continue working at its founding principles (whether or not it actually is, is debatable, in my opinion), the editor has to make decisions that should be easy, but aren’t, like hiring the best person for the job even if that person looks nothing like the target demographic. Besides, as Burt-Murray notes, Placas freelanced for the magazine for six months, with no readers being the wiser at the ‘infiltration.’
As an aside, I also think those who are outraged are missing something crucial about the history of what we call “black” publications, or TV shows, or even colleges. White people have always been involved, to some extent. This is unlike the other side of the coin, where whites have often historically had trouble including people of color (Vogue is one example, most network television shows are another). Girlfriends and The Game, two television shows that targeted the same demographic Essence does were produced by white Republican Kelsey Grammer. Both shows featured mostly black, heavily female casts. And speaking personally, when I was a child and my father worked at a black newspaper in Southern California, the paper’s production guy was white. While he didn’t have editorial input, his work still heavily influenced the paper. It didn’t make it less black. To go further back, whites helped found many historically black colleges–although not necessarily out of altruism–including my alma mater. And today, no one would say that Howard isn’t a black school, even if it has white professors.
I don’t think there’s anything to fear in the hiring of Placas. And, if by chance, some intangibles are lost, the readers of Essence will vote with their pocketbooks and the editorial staff will learn what is and isn’t acceptable to its readership. But I predict everyone will actually forget about this in six weeks. And I wish Placas the best at her new gig.