Blacklisted: Racism at Essence Magazine?


You know we’re not in a “post-racial” society when a controversy of epic proportions explodes over the appointment of a white person as the next Fashion Director of a black magazine. Angela Burt-Murray, Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine, recently hired Ellianna Placas as its next Fashion Director. Before anybody decides whether the move is racist, post racial or somewhere in between, we need to think about the larger history of black people in fashion.

Controversy ensued when cultural critic Michaela angela Davis made a Facebook posting denouncing the new hire. “It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director,” she wrote. “The fashion industry has hist Esseence orically been so hostile to black people — especially women. The seat reserved for black women once held by Susan Taylor, Ionia Dunn-Lee, Harriette Cole (+ me) is now — I can’t. It’s a dark day for me.”

So now the question at the tip of everyone’s lips is what a white person could possibly know about black women’s bodies, trends, styles – in essence, what black women want? But I think the real issue is less that a white woman is the new Fashion Director, although it certainly comes as a shock, even to me. What really burns is that people are thinking that somewhere in the fashion industry is a fabulous black person who was passed up for the job. Are you telling me there was not one fierce black women, or outrageously fabulous black gay man who could have filled the position? More than anything this was a missed opportunity. Somebody like Andre J. would have been stunning.

The irony of this blacklash is that it’s quite similar to the moment in the 1970s when a then unknown model by the name of Iman Abdulmajid came from Somalia and took the American fashion industry by storm. At the time, readers of Esseence, among other black publications, were peeved that photographers, designers, and modeling agents had to reach all the way to Africa to find beautiful black women, when there are plenty of beautiful black women right here in the United States. Marcia Gillespie, then Editor-in-Chief of Essence , is widely quoted for saying that the only reason Iman was popular is because she “looked like a white woman dipped in chocolate.”

All told, I’m torn about how I feel about a white women at the helm of style at the premier black women’s style magazine. On the one hand, I’m curious to see what she’ll do. Maybe she’ll blow everybody out of the water and the backlash will die down after her first few editorials.

But on the other hand, I’m really skeptical, given the torrid history of black women in fashion. To start, advertisers didn’t consider black people a valid consumer group until the mid twentieth century, when they up and realized that black women were spending a phenomenal amount of cash on beauty products.

Second of all, black women weren’t allowed to compete in all-white beauty pageants such as the Miss America Pageant – never mind that they weren’t even considered beautiful then.  As a result, black women had to cook up their own beauty pageants, like the Miss Black America Pageant, to set the tone for their own ideals of beauty. And the first Miss Black America Pageant was staged at the same time, and right across the street from, the National Miss America Pageant as a protest meant to bring awareness to the lack of black women in fashion.

When I was reading the comments on the Esseence controversy, one smartass said something like: “This is purely reverse racism. Could you imagine if a major fashion magazine did an All-White models issue, what would people say then?” I wanted to find whoever said that and choke them, because they don’t see the bigger picture. Every issue of every magazine is an All-White issue, whether it says so or not. I mean really: there have only ever been a handful of black women on the covers of major fashion magazines, such as American VOGUE, which saw the first black woman on the cover in 1974. Do the math: that’s only 36 years ago. Over the years there has been a lot of idle talk about the state of black fashion models. Why are there so few? Time and again I’ve heard the line: if you put a black face on a cover, the magazine won’t sell. So in 2008, Italian VOGUE dropped its first All-Black issue, (the hottest issue of all time, so hot it went into reprint) which featured all black models on four separate covers and all black models in the issue.

The White Hire at Essence is a very slippery move, more informed by business, what will sell magazines and what will get ad dollars than courting political correctness. Are people pissed off about the White Hire? Sure. But what irks them even more is the White Hire in the larger context of the lack of diversity in the fashion industry, the fact that everybody knows that diversity is a huge issue in the fashion industry, and the fact that the leading black style publication would hire a white woman as the Fashion Director regardless. There are already so few black people on the catwalks, designing the clothes, or working in the magazines. For the past few months I’ve been working at a Conde Nast publication, and I can tell you that I’m one of the only black people on the whole floor who’s not delivering the mail.