The Essence Controversy Is More Than Skin-Deep

Last week, the staff of Essence magazine found itself embroiled in a racially charged fracas over its recent appointment of Ellianna Placas, the black publication’s first white fashion director. Essence editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray went on the record to defend the decision, noting Placas’s myriad qualifications and wondering incredulously why readers were so outraged over this, and not, say, a story the mag ran about “sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities.”

To Burt-Murray’s credit, her resolve has not softened — at least publicly — despite the criticism that continues to pour in via Twitter, the blogosphere, and one irate Michaela Angela Davis, a former Essence fashion editor whose comments to Clutch Magazine ranged from the pragmatic (“If there were more balance in the industry, I would feel different”) to the dramatic (“I feel like a good girlfriend has died!”).

In one sense, Davis’s point is prudent. You can name most of the black fashion and market editors currently working full-time at mainstream publications in one paragraph: Julee Wilson (Real Simple), Rajni Jacques (Nylon),  Matthew Henson (Flaunt), Shiona Turini (Teen Vogue), André Leon Tally and Chioma Nnadi (Vogue), Anoma Whittaker (Complex), Shanelle Rein-Olowukere (People StyleWatch), Janelle Grimmond (Essence), Elaine Welteroth (Ebony), Wendell Brown (Esquire), Mobolaji Dawodu (Fader), Lindsay Taylor-Huggins (Self), and, well, me (Paper). Yet Placas is hardly the first white editor to work for a publication targeting a black audience. Niki Schwan, Vibe’s current fashion director, is white, as is founding editor and current editor-at-large Rob Kenner. Over at XXL, a hard-core hip-hop publication geared toward young black men, editor-in-chief Vanessa Satten is both white and female.

So why Essence and why now? Why, even in a “post-racial” world where Barack Obama is president, do African-Americans continue to bemoan inequality? What’s really at stake here?

Many African-Americans feel that Essence has gone back on — as Davis phrased it in her recent interview with Anderson Cooper — “the promise” of serving a black audience. Maximo Patino, director of Recruitment and Diversity at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, understands how disheartening the move can be. “Besides Ebony and Jet, [Essence] is the only bastion for African-American women,” he said. “It’s more than a magazine — it’s an institution, so injecting a white face on staff is extremely symbolic.”

Tyson Perez, editor-in-chief of Unvogue, believes the Essence audience would’ve welcomed any number of qualified minority editors. “In a perfect world, I would say race didn’t matter, but as it is, I cannot name even ten black editors at any mainstream publication, not to mention fashion directors,” he noted. “One of the younger black editors should have gotten this opportunity.”

Essence responded to our query with Burt-Murray’s statement, but not specifically to our question as to how many African-American candidates were interviewed for the fashion-director position, or why Placas emerged as the forerunner at a time when many qualified black editors could’ve been considered. “What is assumed is that there were no other viable black candidates, and that [Placas] was the only option,” said Matthew Henson of Flaunt. “But don’t bash the white editor. She interviewed and got hired. Look instead at the black person who hired her, and question them.”

Other critics of the Placas appointment insist it goes deeper than the mag’s public face; it’s about understanding black culture and the black experience. As a former longtime editor at Essence, speaking off the record, pointed out, “When it comes to defining black style, speaking to our unique body shapes, and looking to highlight designers that speak to us, it will be a challenge [for a white woman] to authentically edit and educate.”

But will it really? As fashion director at Essence, the Australian-born Placas is responsible for researching and incorporating brands and styles that appeal to a predominantly black American readership, the same way she’d research and incorporate brands and styles that’d appeal to any audience — suburban homemakers, for example, when she worked at Oprah or House Beautiful. No one accuses the many British editors working in top positions at American magazines of not understanding the “American experience.” No one accuses female editors working at Maxim, GQ, or Esquire of not understanding the “male experience.” It would seem that a good editor can serve any audience, without necessarily being a part of it.

The proof is in the pages, though. Placas has unofficially helmed the magazine’s fashion coverage for six months. Those issues were, according to Burt-Murray, well received by readers, thus proving than an “outsider” can connect just as well with a black audience as an insider. This is a skill Hyun Kim, current partner at LTD+ and former lifestyle editor of Vibe, learned firsthand. “I was fully aware that the content [at Vibe] was about African-American urban culture, but bringing my perspective as an Asian-American broadened the dialogue,” he said. “It’s these different views that can make a magazine special. That should be celebrated.”

Freelance fashion writer Kofi Yankey sees something else to celebrate: inclusiveness. “Doesn’t it actually show a sign of progress, coming especially from our end?” he asked. “If [Placas] were editing the entire book or even the beauty section, that would be an issue. But it’s fashion. Get over it!”

All considered, the uproar seems superficial at best. On the surface, yes, a book that allegedly celebrates “blackness” appears to be rejecting it. But that “blackness” is only skin-deep. Aside from its African-American editorial team, much of the talent employed to produce the book isn’t, in fact, all black. The photographers, stylists, and even catering companies hired for photo shoots featuring black models are very often white. The fashion designers and brands covered in the magazine’s pages are by and large white companies. And, of course, Time Warner, the owner of Essence, is a predominantly white corporation. So does this particular hire really stand to throw Essence, and its mission to serve black women, off its axis?

More to the point, a few angry readers or tweeters refusing to buy the magazine probably won’t impact the bottom line; disillusioned advertisers, however, can. None of the Essence advertisers we contacted agreed to comment on the situation, but it seems reasonable to assume that if an advertiser marketing a product specifically at a black audience feels like the magazine where it’s placing its ads is no longer reaching that audience, it’ll put its money elsewhere. The only problem is, as Patino noted, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of other places those advertisers can go.

My guess: Once the dust clears and tempers cool, Placas — just like the institution that is Essence — will still be there. Her work officially debuts in the 40th-anniversary commemorative issue, due out in September. Advertisers aren’t going to flee en masse, and it’s probably safe to say that readers won’t, either. There will be no consequences, if any are even deserved, and ultimately no change in the status quo hiring practices of the predominantly white publishing industry. And that, not the lone hiring of a white woman at a black publication or the emotional outrage it triggered, is what’s truly outrageous.

To that end, Vibe’s Kenner is taking a time-will-tell approach. “We should be talking about why more black editors don’t get jobs in New York instead of focusing on the occasional white editor who lands at Essence,” he said. “If [Placas] is not, in fact, the best candidate for the job, it will soon become clear, for all eyes are sure to be on her.”

Zandile Blay is a fashion market editor at Paper magazine and a style columnist for the Huffington Post. She also founded the Blay Report, a fashion-news blog permanently hosted by BritishVogue. Check out more of her work at Additional reporting by Terrence Phearse.

The Essence Controversy Is More Than Skin-Deep