When I learned last week that Essence editor Angela Burt-Murray had hired Ellianna Placas as fashion director, I winced. Essence is a lifestyle magazine for black women. So how was this white woman going to speak to me?
Then I thought about it. Didn't I stop my subscription to Essence several years ago because I found the articles depressing? (I already know I'm prone to high blood pressure and that black men with jobs can be hard to find.) And the fashion spreads were a little too avant-garde for me.
Around the same time, I started a subscription to O, a magazine with a message that empowers all women, evident in every one of its articles, from the spiritual to the sartorial. Each month, I am compelled to read the Oprah Magazine, ironically, where Placas previously worked as fashion editor, from cover to cover. The fashion spreads rock because they feature real women.
Therein lies the crux of the latest fashion brouhaha, which garnered more online chatter last weekend than Chelsea Clinton's Vera Wang bridal gown.
Here you have a white woman hired as a black magazine's arbiter of beauty. As fashion director, she will decide what's in and what's out. When it comes to style, her point of view will define the magazine's aesthetic. And Placas, with her olive skin and straight hair, will be the face of the magazine whose sole mission for the last 40 years has been to serve black women.
But does it really matter what her skin color is? After all, Essence, with its black senior staff, doesn't even relate to all black women. (Case in point: The magazine put Reggie Bush on the cover of its February black-relationship issue when the NFL running back was dating Kim Kardashian.)
"The issue is, we have an industry that has precious few people of color in it," said Charles Whitaker, a professor and research chair in magazine journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
The American Society of Magazine Editors does not keep statistics on diversity.
Whitaker, who is black, said he believes it's because the numbers are so dismal.
"So the one place where people of color can get their management experience is in black magazines. And since there are all of these barriers to entry in all other places and you take the slot away, I can understand the uproar."
Even at some other magazines targeted to black people, there are nonblack directors of fashion. For instance, Niki Schwan, Vibe's current fashion director, is white.
It's times like these when we wish fashion was just about hemlines and heels.
But it isn't. It's about image, how we define ourselves, and how we judge one another. Fashion directors and senior fashion editors get to have a big hand in creating these images, and historically, black people weren't a part of this conversation at all, hence the need for Ebony and Essence.
So it is important that black women remain a part of that conversation and a part of the decisionmaking process, especially when they are so poorly represented in the fashion world: as designers, models, stylists, and especially magazine editors.
Twice a year for eight years, I've attended New York Fashion Week, where only a handful of black people, in a sea of white people, have the privilege of sitting in the front row.
Currently, the only African-American fashion director at a mainstream U.S. magazine is Aretha Busby at Good Housekeeping.
Andre Leon Talley was among the highest-ranking editors as editor at large for Vogue, but in April, he became a contributing editor.
This is what led to Michaela Angela Davis' heavy heart, which she described when she broke the news about Placas last week in a Facebook posting. Davis, the former fashion director at Essence, appeared on television outlets from CNN to the "Tom Joyner Morning Show."
In response, Burt-Murray wrote on the African-American news site Griot.com that she understood readers' frustrations. (Placas hasn't commented publicly on the controversy.) But she courageously stayed true to her choice: "This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights," she wrote.
I believe Burt-Murray is right. There comes a time when we have to acknowledge the past, swallow the hurt, and try to focus on ending self-segregation, even if the mainstream world isn't ready. In the case of Essence, that means hiring Placas, who Burt-Murray decided was the best person for the job. In that vein, we can't deny that to bring up Placas' race is reverse discrimination at best.
Placas, who worked as a style director on a freelance basis for the last six months, has the credentials. She's been a writer and editor at several Time and Hearst publications, and she has been featured as a fashion expert on the Today show, E! Entertainment, and Extra.
Besides, haven't black people long been trying to prove that African-American culture is American culture? Isn't it pretentious to think white people can't see the beauty of black people, especially when white people joined in putting a black man in the White House?
Maybe Essence will follow the example of O and celebrate the essence of every woman's soul, not just black women's.
Now if only we could get mainstream magazines to follow Essence's diversity program.