Feminist blogs have expressed disappointment with Essence Magazine for controversial issues over the last few years. But last week, the blogosphere was fired up when it learned that Essence had hired a White fashion director, Elliana Placas. This revelation was brought to us via Facebook, became viral on Twitter, and crossed over to mainstream media when the former fashion director, Michaela Angela Davis, shared with her Facebook friends this message:
“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?”
Michaela Angela Davis was the Essence fashion director with the crazed hair, who dressed as if she had no fashion sense. Her messiness on Facebook got her booked on morning news, afternoon talk shows and radio programs across the country claiming that Essence, a magazine for Black women, should not have hired a White woman to work for them. Not only is Ms. Davis messy but she is delusional. She is on national television telling Black people to practice racism when we are at a moment in our country where race-baiting has become nightly theater. What nonsense!
Before I go any further, let me disclose my relationship with Essence Magazine. I have been featured in Essence. I have also been a conference speaker at Essence’s Women Who Are Shaping the World Leadership Summit. When I was chosen to be featured in the magazine, I was asked to come to New York for the photo shoot. I decided to use a Nashville photographer and makeup artists instead. The photographer was a close friend, Blair Morgan, and Nora, the makeup artist, had worked with Blair for many years. Curse me, both are White. In 2006, Angela Burt-Murray, the editor-in-chief of Essence, and I, along with 38 others, were chosen as the country’s most influential African-Americans under 40 by Network Business Journal Magazine. I spent two days in New York and conversed with Angela several times. She was energetic, full of bright ideas for the magazine, and filled with joy about her role as the new editor. Since that time, our paths have crossed at annual Essence events and at New York fundraisers.
The outrage that has been fanned by the former fashion director is not worth the login time to respond to her on her Facebook page but I will anyway. She has led many astray with her backwards thinking. Black Enterprise, Ebony, and many other national and regional ethnic publications have all hired White folks to work for them. The target markets for those publications maybe race-specific but the writers, the graphic designers, the sales team, the distributors, and many others are not limited to one color. Black publications, especially, should not practice what is done at so many non-color publications around the country: avoid inclusion.
If we look at the local newspapers in Nashville, we see that the Tennessee Tribune started with a diverse staff. There has never been a “white writer’s desk” in the back at 1501 Jefferson Street. For nearly 25 years, writers and staff members from every background have worked at the Black-owned newspaper. No boasting, just stating facts. There are several newspapers and magazines in the Nashville area that still have only White writers and staff. With so much diversity in our city, that is unbelievable. When asked about the lack of diversity at their publications, the usual “We can’t find anyone” is the reply. Really?
When Black folks start practicing “Blacks only need to apply” in the marketplace, the lessons about equality and inclusion that many died trying to teach us are lost. When Black folks sit on TV trying to address racism in others, they look hypocritical when they buy into Davis’ thinking. When I listened to Michaela Angela Davis speak on one program after another last week, I did not know if she was speaking as a disgruntled employee or a misinformed spectator. For the record, Essence is not Black-owned anymore. It is owned by Time Warner which also owns CNN and Time. For a large conglomerate that is publicly traded to hold a “Black folk only” seat at one publication is a lawsuit waiting to be filed. Yes, I know there are many “White folks” chairs at large corporations but let us be honest: the rules for one group are not necessarily rules for another.
Now, Burt-Murray did not let this Facebook-inspired madness go unaddressed; she fired back like she had swallowed her big girl pills. The editor-in-chief of Essence took to the Internet and shared about her decisions to hire the new fashion director and the fake outrage that had ensued. In an editorial on The Grio.com she said:
And when I set out to hire a new fashion director I certainly had no idea I would end up making this decision. 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.
But interestingly enough, the things I think should most upset people and inspire boycotts and Facebook protests, often seem to go relatively unnoticed. Like when Essence conducted a three-part education series this year on the plight of black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools. Crickets. When we reported on the increase in sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities? Silence. When our writers investigated the inequities in the health care services black women receive? Deadly silence. When our editors highlighted data from the Closing the Gap Initiative report “Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future” that showed that the median net worth of single black women was $5? There went those darn crickets again. When we run pieces on how unemployment is devastating black men? Nada. When we run story after story on how HIV is the leading cause of death for black women age 18-34? Zilch. The things that really are the end of our world apparently aren’t.
I love the hell out of her response! Wonder how many protesting are really subscribers? In our country, we have the right to protest. But when we see one knee-jerk reaction after another, the voice of reasoning is diminished greatly. When folks inject race into the question of what team a multi-million dollar ball player is on or why Reggie Bush doesn’t date Black women, folks come unglued. Trying to find out why so many young Black teens are killing each other or how to get young folks educated, the passionate outrage fades quickly.
Folks, we need to pick battles wisely. Remember the battles fought and won to overcome racism? When we work to better our community, we actually make progress. When we stop to address foolishness, progress gets sidetracked. We must stay focused on real issues and leave Facebook fights on Facebook.
For me, my staff at Inspired Media is White, and the hardest working people in the publishing industry, who work at the Tribune, a Black-owned newspaper, are White. I could not run my multiple businesses without them.
Photo Credit: Blair Morgan for Essence Magazine