Essence’s white fashion editor caught up in off-color controversy

OPINION - The furor over Essence magazine's hiring of a white fashion editor is shortsighted and disheartening on so many levels...

The furor over Essence magazine’s hiring of a white fashion editor is shortsighted and disheartening on so many levels.

“It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned Essence magazine has engaged a white Fashion Director,” wrote former Essence staffer Michaela Angela Davis on Facebok after hearing the news. “I love Essence and I love fashion. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally.”

I know there is some nuance behind what Davis said, but on face value it simply looks like a bigoted statement. To be “heavy hearted” that Essence has hired one white fashion director in its 40 years history is racial sensitivity gone overboard. Davis has argued, accurately, that the fashion industry is a “closed world” for black women. Yet, in reality that has little to do with Essence. That is a wider issue for the fashion industry as a whole to address.

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Let’s face it, Essence has played a massively important role and and contributed an undeniable amount to the nurturing of black talent — fashion or otherwise — over the past 40 years. Essence’s hiring of a white fashion editor does not mean that those at the magazine are no longer concerned about where black women fit into the industry. There’s no doubt that Essence will continue to support and host black models, promote black designers and employ black stylists as it has always done. A whole host of people of color benefit — and have benefited over the years — from that magazine’s commitment and dedication to black women.

What I find particularly sad about this controversy is that those who have criticized the hiring of Elliana Placas are literally only upset about her skin color. They have not expressed concern about not whether or not she’s good enough for the job, whether or not she can uplift Essence’s sales, or whether or not she is best placed to serve Essence’s demographic. It is literally her being white that is the gripe. This is very dangerous and shaky ground.

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.

The argument that “we have a tough time and you should only hire us” — is a victim-orientated, scarcity-driven entitlement mentality that does not serve black people well. I don’t simply cannot support that type of reasoning. The bottom line was that in this case a black woman was not the best person for the job. Too bad. It happens sometimes. Angela Burt-Murray, Essence’s Editor-in-Chief who made the hiring decision said: “I got to see firsthand [Placas’] creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand.” Personally, as a black woman and Essence reader, that is what I care about. That — whether or not the reader is being served by the best person possible – is what the critics should be focused on.

And this leads to the assumption that’s inherent in the criticism — that only black people can adequately serve black consumers. I do think there are some things that require the insight of a black person — particularly when it comes to social and political matters – but I don’t believe that fashion is one of them. I have no idea who styles or designs the majority of clothes that I wear, and quite frankly I do not care. Do they look good? Do they suit me? Do they fit? That is my concern and, I believe, the concern of many other women. I don’t believe that another black woman necessarily better understands how I, as a black woman, like to dress.

My hairstylist is white. She is an award-winning hairdresser, a truly exceptional stylist. In fact, she is the best hairstylist I have ever had. She loves black hair and knows and understands it better than any other black hairdresser I have ever come across. Should she be denied jobs because she is white? No way. That’s discrimination no matter which way you look at it. In any case, there are white people doing excellent work across a range of industries to support black audiences and black consumers. That has always been the case and those people should be applauded for what they do, because they are working hard and putting in effort like anyone else.

Last but not least, this controversy does a disservice to the important work that black publications do. There are many people who already have a misunderstanding about why black publications exist. They don’t get that ‘mainstream’ publications, although they do not say ‘white’ on them, are generally not targeted at the interests of black people/other minorities, and can feel that black publications are divisive and encourage segregation. I have always argued that black publications were not created to be exclusive, walled-off, blacks-only domains. They are there to encourage inclusivity and to widen participation in places that previously have been closed to black people. So, being mindful of that, we black people must be careful not to be encouraging divisions ourselves. If we want to have a fashion world that includes us, it means being we too being inclusive.

Essence is doing what is best for its reader. That’s all that counts. Let them get on with the job that we want them to. I welcome Ellianna Placas and wish her all the very best