Is Essence magazine showing their true colours?

Essence magazineThere was uproar when the news broke that black magazine Essence appointed Ellianna Placas, a white fashion editor (incidentally from Australia). But is the problem more than just skin deep?

The brand mission of Essence magazine states that “Essence inspires black women of all shades and shapes to lead bold, fulfilling lives. We encourage their passions and dreams and celebrate their community. As a trusted friend, we reflect their best selves and motivate them to live without limits.”

Given Australia’s poor record to date and lack of visibility of black women in magazines and popular culture, I’ll admit that my first reaction to this wasn’t exactly one of pure elation.

In fact, I was thinking what would an Australian know about the African American culture? It seems that I wasn’t the only one asking that question.

Michaela Angela Davis, who was also the founding fashion director for Vibe magazine and a one time editor-in-chief of the print version of black fashion magazine Honey, started the cyber controversy with a post on Facebook that has attracted dozens of comments.

“It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned that Essence Magazine has engaged a white fashion director,” she wrote. “The fashion industry has historically been so hostile to black people — especially women. The seat reserved for black women once held by Susan Taylor, Ionia Dunn-Lee, Harriette Cole [and me] is now — I can’t. It’s a dark day for me.”

But what Michaela failed to acknowledge is that Placas has already been freelancing in the position for six months. She certainly lookss good on paper with stints at O: The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly which are both cross-over successes. The report by mediabistro confirms Placas makes her official debut with Essence in their 40th anniversary commemorative September issue.

But others simply judge her on face value. Joan Morgan, an award-winning journalist, author and long-time writer for Essence quoted in the Clutch doesn’t seem to care how qualified Placas is. “This is about the fact that the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to mainstream women’s magazines remains just about as segregated in its hiring practices as it did in 1988,” says Morgan.

Morgan referenced a 1988 Folio article about Blacks who are discouraged by the publishing industry’s “laissez-faire attitude toward recruitment.” Joan says, “When these same institutions (naming Conde Nast, Hachette and others) start to employ hiring practices that allow black publishing professionals the same access to their publications, that’s when I can get all ‘Kumbaya’ about Essence‘s new fashion director.”

Opportunities to break the ethnic ceiling have traditionally been provided via ethnic or minority magazines. Would this have occured before Black Entertainment Television (BET) finally sold out to Time magazine in 2003? Perhaps not. And in an ideal world, this shouldn’t need to happen.

Angela Burt-Murray, Essence’s Editor-in-Chief who made the hiring decision said response in The Grio “Experiencing discrimination does not make it ok for black people to dish out our own. Having power — and in this case, Essence, as the hirer was in the position of power — does not mean using it to discriminate against or shut out others.

If people like Davis are concerned about the fashion industry closing out black women, this does not mean they should be encouraging some kind of ghetto-ization of fashion where only white people can work for white publications and only black people can work for black publications.”

So is this the end of an era or the start of a new one? You can’t go forwards if you’re always looking backwards. I don’t know if I can really agree with the idea of a magazine that solely employs black Americans. It just reinforces the separatism of black and whites in America, is quite divisive and counter-productive in my opinion.

Refusing to give up a place on a black magazine with their unofficial pro-black policy is reverse-discrimination and as unfair as the ethnic inbalance is, you can’t fight discrimination with discrimination.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a bus changed America, its view of black people and redirected the course of history through one small action.

Isn’t it time that some of us stopped mentally riding different buses and see where that road may take us?

Comments are welcome. However, please  note that personal remarks and attacks or comments not related to the topic may be deleted or edited. 

1 comment:

  1. Teri LaFlesh, 11 November 2010, 12:11 pm

    You make so many good points here, Gillian. I am a mixed (black and white) American who spent many teenage years reading Essence as the only real affirmation of my race back in the 80’s growing up in an all white community. Part of me is shocked by Essence hiring a person who is not of color, and the other part of me finds it a brave move that breaks down barriers.

    It makes me think of the movie Invictus, which portrays Nelson Mandela and his relationship with the once racist national sports team the Springboks. He had every right to punish this team by disbanding them. They symbolized the racial oppression of the white South Africans against black South Africans. But instead Mandela went out of his way to support this team, and he had them reach out to the black community. And in this he brought his country closer together instead of further polarizing it by punishing the whites by taking their beloved team away from them. And though many people didn’t agree, it was the brave thing to do, and brought about lots of goodwill instead of continuing the anger and hurt. Maybe this situation with Essence is such a gesture, perhaps?


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