White fashion editor at Essence magazine stokes debate on race

Font Size:

With the country as divided as ever on race, some turmoil has boiled over into the fashion world: Essence, a magazine that targets African-American women, has hired a white woman, Elliana Placas, as its fashion director.

With the announcement came a deluge of reaction seemingly triggered by a Facebook post by Michaela Angela Davis, a former fashion director at Essence. “It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned Essence Magazine has engaged a white Fashion Director. I love Essence and I love fashion. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally. The fashion industry has historically been so hostile to black people – especially women. The 1 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. How do you feel?” Her prompt brought more than comments in response, the majority affirming Davis’s contention.

“Bravo @EssenceMagazine 4 takin steps to rid the Jim Crow-like mentality in women fashion editorial” tweeted one supporter. Others sided with Davis,“Big deal at least to me. Not doubting Elliana Placas’ skills or anything, but it’s what Essence stood for that makes it O_o.”

Davis argued that it is inappropriate for a white woman to head a section of a magazine whose readers are black women. “When you say that you are the one magazine that is there to reflect and celebrate the African-American woman through the very specific filter of the African-American woman experience, you put race in, you put race in your brand,” she said Tuesday on Anderson Cooper 360.

Essence Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt Murray defended the choice, saying Placas was the best candidate for the job. “We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis,” Murray wrote in the Grio. “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.”

While there is outrage, Essence appears to be sticking to its guns. Bob Parks, a member of the national black leadership network Project 21, who has been following the story, told The Daily Caller that it’s correct decision, noting that discrimination laws in the workforce apply universally. “Every place I’ve every applied for a job, I’ve filled out applications that had that old disclaimer that said something about the company not discriminating on the basis of race, gender or national origin,” he said. “Clearly Michaela Angela Davis believes that Essence should hire, not the best person, but the best black person, which may not be mutually exclusive.”

E-mail Caroline May and follow her on Twitter