07/29/2010 01:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Essence Hires White Fashion Director: Business or Betrayal?


It was recently announced that Essence magazine, a lifestyle and fashion publication for black women has hired a new fashion director. Okay, nothing earth shattering here until readers learned that the new woman in charge of dictating style to black women, Ellianna Placas, is white. "Oh no they didn't!" They sure did, and people aren't taking it well.

Media professional and former fashion editor for Essence, Michaela Angela Davis, expressed her disappointment with the choice on Facebook stating, "It's with a heavy heart I've learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director... It's a dark day for me." Wow. She went on to justify her position stating, "The fashion industry has historically been so hostile to black people -- especially women." Other black women have chimed in with their distaste with the decision as well.

I get it. I totally get it, but this perceived gaffe in hiring by Essence made me wonder if this opposition is in fact racist. Well, kinda. I remember being taught in my high school leadership class that people of color could not be racist because racism entails having the power to discriminate. I never really bought into that. One can discriminate without actually exercising any power.

If the situation were reversed and white readers of a mainstream publication were outraged that a black fashion director was hired many in the black community would likely be serving up the race card quick, fast and in a hurry. But since black people have had to integrate themselves into a mainstream, i.e. white culture, one could argue that a black fashion director at a white magazine could in fact make creative decisions that reflect mainstream tastes. And conversely, one could justify opposing a white fashion director being hired for a black magazine because that position would presumably involve having a more intrinsic knowledge of black culture, style and overall proclivity that typically comes with having lived the experience. So I can see the nuance of the offense from people who think this decision from Essence is a mistake, but it still has a racist tone. But the undertone, I believe comes from a feeling of betrayal. And this feeling of disloyalty from Essence isn't the first.

Remember when the magazine featured Reggie Bush on the February cover and poised him as the black woman's fantasy? I and other readers found that interesting because at the time Bush wasn't publicly proclaiming a black woman as his ideal. (Kim Kardashian might have a big backside, but that don't make her a black girl.) So with that and other items, Essence has a history of making questionable decisions.

I have noticed an overall decline in the interest in Essence magazine. Maybe that's because there's been a noticeable shift in delivery and tone in the publication ever since former Editor-in-Chief Susan L. Taylor moved on, taking her refined sophistication with her. I myself no longer instinctively reach for the mag on the newsstand. And that's sad because once upon a time, good or adequate, Essence magazine was the premiere publication for sophisticated black women, even if the title was won by default.

Considering that black publications are fighting against the ever growing digital world even more than their mainstream counterparts, one would think the powers that be at Essence, (um, current Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt-Murray), would think long and hard about making any (additional) controversial decisions that might (further) alienate readers. Burt-Murray stands by her hiring decision giving, in my opinion, a weak defense stating in part:

The things I think should most upset people and inspire boycotts and Facebook protests, often seem to go relatively unnoticed. Like when Essence conducted a three-part education series this year on the plight of black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools.

Um, no. If you're going to try and tell people what they can and can't be mad about, try harder and come up with something better than an "apples and oranges" philosophy.

There's that indignant and emotional response from some of us that says black businesses should hire black people. But from a practical standpoint a business has an obligation to the bottom line, and you hire whoever can deliver results. The twist comes in how a black business will define a white candidate's qualifications for a position that involves an aspect of unquantifiable experience. In other words, can one relate to black consumers without being black?

Hopefully this controversial decision by Essence will help revitalize a mainstay in black media that's lost a little shine. With that said, if Ms. Placas can "turn it out" and provide relevant concepts that inspire black readers to be and remain fashionably fly in a way that is consistent with, and possibly improves the brand, then like it or not, Essence has done its job.