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Essence Magazine Hires White Fashion Editor, Betrays Readership

August 16, 2010

You can listen to this commentary here.

Essence Magazine is catching a lot of flack for its decision to hire a white woman as its new fashion editor.

If you’re not familiar with Essence, the publication started 40 years ago by a small group of African Americans who wanted to create a magazine for Black women.

Essence is unique.  It was the first mainstream magazine that actively worked to protect the image of Black women in media, plus, it gave us something we simply could not get anywhere else; an accurate visual representation of Black women, void of stereotypes and exploitation.

The magazine has grown and changed, but one thing has remained constant; that it is for Black women.  I grew up with Essence magazine.  I remember very clearly being a young girl and waiting for it to arrive in the mail each month.  Then I had to wait for my mother to read it cover to cover before I could get my hands on it.

Flipping through the pages was the only time I didn’t walk away from a magazine and think I needed a nose job, lighter skin or straighter hair.  The sistas on the pages of Essence were ever hue of the Diaspora.  I would study the pages, particularly the images, looking into the eyes of the Black women looking back at me, and for a moment, I was beautiful.

Essence announced it was looking for a new fashion editor after the position had been basically vacant for years, filling the gap with guest celebrity stylists- all African American.

Word leaked out last week the spot would be permanently filled by Ellianna Placas who is White.  It has left long time readers, as well as former and current staff at Essence feeling hurt, betrayed and up in arms.

There are essentially 2 sides to the argument.  One side says, Ellianna is qualified to do the job, no matter what color she is- people need to get over the fact that she is white and embrace her.

The counter-position says Placas’ resume is irrelevant, and the very fact she is White proves she isn’t qualified to serve as fashion editor of a publication that says it’s for Black women because she can not readily identify with, or epitomize the image of Black women.

And I agree with that argument.  Essence magazine represents one of the very few opportunities for Black women to maintain control over their own image.  Why is this important? Because too often how we are depicted is not who we are, and because Essence was founded, in part, to tackle that.

The struggle isn’t even close to ending.

Fashion and beauty in this country is still controlled by the status quo- a Eurocentric perspective.

This is not a question really of Ellianna’s qualifications to be a fashion editor, or even how much she does or doesn’t sympathize with the plight of Black women in fashion media.  It really has nothing to do with her.

This is about a magazine that says it exists for Black women, to protect, nurture and provide a path for progress.

Most people think about fashion in terms of clothing designers, and in part it is.  But there is something bigger- it’s about image, in this case, the image of Black women.  We are thought of as baby mama’s prostitutes, exotic dancers, high school drop outs- all the negatives you can imagine- that is how we are portrayed.  It was like that 40 years ago when Essence started, and it’s still like that today. We are not seen as a mainstream, socially acceptable example of what is considered beautiful.  Magazine fashion editors help create those perceptions, based on their own frames of reference, including their own race.

It used to be there was one fashion editor at a major magazine who was Black- that magazine was Essence. Now, there are none.

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