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Sara Haile-Mariam Headshot

'Essence' Controversy Shows Just How Far We Have to Go In a Conversation About Race

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Essence pics
(Flickr / peiranliu)

In 2006, I sat front row during a Jonathan Varvatos show at Bryant Park during New York's Fall Fashion Week. At the time I was working for a start-up modeling agency. I was one of very few people of color seated in the two long rows that lined the runway. This particular season--like nearly every season at Fashion Week--the runway consisted of very few women of color. I don't claim to be an expert on the nuances of the fashion industry, but at the very least I learned that it was temperamental. The lack of women of color both on the runway and in the audience wasn't unusual. Too often, the lazy and unchallenged explanation for the lack of women of color in the industry is that there is simply a lack of talented women of color, but that's demonstrably false. Alongside the well-known supermodels like Iman, Tyra Banks, and Naomi Campbell are lesser known, but still very visible models like Liya Kebede, Alek Wek, and Chanel Iman.

Now, race is crashing into fashion once again. There has been considerable backlash after Essence, a lifestyle magazine for black women, made the decision to hire Elliana Placas, a white fashion editor. The debate's focused on the idea that if this white woman got the job at Essence, one of the few places dedicated to black voices, then it somehow disadvantages black women in fashion. Period.

The premise of the debate is both entirely hypothetical and frankly depressing. There is ample reason to express outrage over the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. Moving beyond fashion, there is ample reason to feel discouraged knowing that the ethnic and gender makeup of Congress leaves much to be desired. Both the composition of fashion runways and Congress are embarrassingly inconsistent with the diversity of our country. Politics and fashion aren't so different--both fields consistent of individuals selling ideas, pitching people, and trying to get the consumer (or voter) to act according to some overall agenda.

In some ways, hiring a white fashion editor isn't so different than electing a black president. The job descriptions are very different, but regardless of that, choosing to employ someone (or not employ them) based on race (or even gender) alone is wrong.

It was just two years ago that the Obama campaign made the case to elect someone not because of the color of his skin, but also, in those infamous Martin Luther King, Jr., words, the content of his character. Just two years ago our country proved it self willing to elect a black/African American/bi-racial man to the office of the president knowing full way that the majority of our country is not just black, African American, or bi-racial.

This conversation surrounding the Essence controversy--this false debate--suggests that America is still clinging to the same assumptions and anxieties of our past. In a way that's preventing us from moving forward. I'd like to believe that something has been gained from our past. I'd like to believe that the burdens endured by previous generations make it so that I can write this post, so that Essence can exist, so that Placas can get hired, and so that Barack Obama can wake up every morning and head to the Oval Office knowing that his sheer presence in that room is a constant reminder of all that our country is capable of doing, knowing that he won a larger portion of the "white vote" than any Democratic candidate in recent history.

Rather than focus on tearing down an individual like Placas, why don't we have a debate on how we can lift each other up across races, ethnicities, and genders?

As it stands, the critics are currently sending a message to the little black girls reading Essence magazine that they should tell their white friends not to aspire to work for a publication that they may very well love because they're white. Yet that logic would condone the same behavior of little white girls suggesting the same of their black friends whether the publication in question is Elle, or GQ, or People, or Martha Stewart. Instead of saying no white women can work at a "black" publication, we should be asking why there are so few women of color at other publications that are predominately white--and then actually do something about it.

To be sure, there aren't a lot black (or Latino, or LGBT, or Asian American, etc.) publications out there. So let's take steps to change that. Let's come up with concrete steps and strategies that begin with a discussion that acknowledges that--as candidate Barack Obama once said on the campaign trail--"We rise and fall as one nation, as one people."

As now President Obama sat on the couch of The View yesterday, he hit many of the same notes that certainly struck a cord with me in 2008. When discussing the fundamental takeaway of Shirley Sherrod's outrageous firing, he said this: "Let's not assume the worst of other people. Let's assume the best."

You hear that ladies? Yes. Let's.

Cross Posted on Campus Progress.