On Monday, a media industry blog revealed that Essence, a lifestyle magazine geared towards black women, had hired a new fashion director named Ellianna Placas, to begin in September. But it was not the lines on her resume touting O: The Oprah Magazine and Us Weekly that attracted attention. It was the color of Placas’ skin: white.
Placas’ hiring is controversial for fans and supporters of Essence. A former fashion director for Essence, Michaela Angela Davis, tweeted: “It is with a heavy heavy heart I have learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director, this hurts, literally, spiritually.” She told Clutch, an online magazine for young black women:
“[The disappointment] is personal and it’s also professional. If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to Black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different.”
Clutch itself wrote of the hiring:
“It felt like our mom walked us hand in hand to the center of the biggest shopping mall in the state, turned around, and left us. But we are no longer the little girls eyeballing the glossy giant who taught us how to love ourselves. We’ve been finding our way through the life, love and labels for quite sometime now; and the likely abandonment of the counselor who taught us everything we know is now evolving into clearer overstanding.”
Clearly, a white fashion director at a black women’s magazine is a controversial decision. Let’s take a nuanced look at it.
There are a couple ways you could look at the controversy. One is that jobs at Essence have been traditionally held by black women and therefore it’s a pipeline for black women to make their careers. So why wouldn’t their unofficial hiring policy be “one in, one out”? A fashion director at Essence on your resume is a prominent position; it could hypothetically be a stepping stone to work at the fashion bible, Essence, or a creative director job at a major fashion house. Since the magazine has prided itself in the past for being for black women, by black women, it’s understandable that some of Essence‘s fans are balking when you look at it through this lens.
Another way to look at the controversy is how scarce black women are as “gatekeepers” of fashion to begin with. While I can’t personally speak for diversity within the fashion or modeling industries, judging by the comments left by black women in those industries on The Grio and Fashionista blog posts, it is very white. Black women in the fashion industry, critics say, are so few and far between to begin with that it’s extremely frustrating there will be one less black woman sitting at Fashion Week.
But what I believe is most important is whether or not a white woman’s hiring will mean the historically black woman’s magazine departs from making beautiful black women more visible and instead starts promoting a white standard of beauty that can be seen most anywhere else. Essence is considered by its readers to be the place to see black celebs and black models. It’s the most prominent magazine on national newsstands to do that. (O: The Oprah Magazine features Oprah on every cover, but the women depicted inside the magazine are of many races.) Why is their visibility so important? When the majority of designers, models, and fashionistas have a white European appearance, it sends the message that a white European appearance is what we as a culture consider to be Beautiful with a capital B. That homogeneity pretty much by default becomes the beauty standard. To me, a commenter on The Grio who calls herself Salhaa hit the nail on the head when she wrote:
“Hiring a white fashion director wouldn’t be so bad if black women and other women of color weren’t constantly bombarded with this white female standard of beauty image and had fair treatment in the fashion industry.”
Of course I am generalizing here, but the point is that as much as the fashion or modeling industries may say they are “kumbaya” and they believe everyone of all races is beautiful, when you look at ad campaigns or runway shows, the numbers aren’t there. With a few notable exceptions — Tyra Banks, Iman, Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman — the face of fashion is a white woman’s. One black girl or one Asian girl tromping down a Milan runway amongst a gaggle of white girls from Eastern Europe does not diversity make.
Of course, it is unfair to assume Elllianna Placas will water down Essence‘s historically black fashion spreads just because she is white. Surely she is influenced by the white standard of beauty that’s so pervasive in this country — because we all are — but that does not mean Placas is not conscious and self-aware enough to push past it. None of us — not her critics, not her supporters — can predict the future in that way.
The editor-in-chief of Essence seems hopeful that she can. Yesterday on The Grio, Angela Burt-Murray defended Placas’ hiring:
I first got to know and came to respect Ellianna when she came to work with us nearly six months ago. We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis. I got to see firsthand her creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand. As such, I thought she’d make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights. I am listening and I do take the concerns to heart.
Burt-Murray also tried to allay the concerns:
Forty years ago Essence was founded to empower, celebrate, and inspire black women to climb higher, go further and break down barriers. Our commitment to black women remains unchanged as we continue to stay laser-focused on those principles–no matter who works with us.
I am willing to trust Angela Burt-Murray. Don’t misunderstand me: I believe all the concerns about Ellianna Placas are valid. It’s all too easy to be dismissive about controversies like this and screech, “Anyone who’s upset about this is being racist!” The hiring of Ellianna Placas at Essence is part of a larger discussion about black women’s underrepresentation in the media, racial disparities, and unequal opportunities.
However, at this point she has already been hired. What’s done is done. To fire her now amid the hullabaloo would be a racial discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. We can be upset about it, but let’s focus our attentions on whether she assumes the responsibility handed to her. To readers and fans of Essence who are upset, I say let time tell whether she does a good job. Although I don’t read Essence magazine myself, my sense from the website — which I do read almost daily — is that its brand prides itself on being accepting and diverse. When it comes to the models and celebs it features, Essence is neither pro-skinny nor pro-plus size. It is neither pro-straighten hair, pro-weave, or pro-natural. It is neither pro-dark black-skinned or pro-light-skinned.
If, a few months down the line, she has featured spreads with stick-thin 15-year-old models with lightened skin and straightened hair, Essence supporters will have every reason to call for Placas’ firing. But she may well fulfill the job responsibilities that we are afraid she will not fulfill. Until then, I say we should wait and see.