'Essence' and Essentialism

by G.D.

Essence magazine's decision to hire Elliana Placas, who is white, to finally fill its long-vacant fashion director position, has sparked one of those depressingly by-the-numbers controversies on race. Racism! Reverse racism! Placas's whiteness has been taken as a sign that Essence is going through a fundamental change, and that Time Warner, the magazine's corporate parent, is planning to reposition and re-imagine the magazine for a wider audience, and this is just the first step. 

The most quoted voice in the conversation has been that of Michaela Angela Davis, who used to hold the fashion director title back in the day at Essence, and who took to her Facebook page to voice her disappointment on the move to hire a white woman.

There is one precious seat at the fashion shows that says Essence the magazine for black women. When asked, "What is your unique perspective for black women?" How is that answered?

But this is a pretty ridiculous question. How could anyone, black or otherwise, answer this question in a way that wasn't gauzy and sort of silly? ("Well, my unique fashion perspective for black women entails..." ) This goes a little beyond the structural issues that Placas's hire highlights--a white fashion director will serve as the public face of a prominent black women's magazine for a fashion industry that has never particularly welcomed black women's voices or faces--and suggests that something ineffably but essentially black will be missing from her work. But this needn't be a hypothetical. Placas has been the magazine's de facto fashion director, as a freelancer, for a hot minute now--she started six months ago. If the blackness she lacks was so important to the way the magazine looks, wouldn't folks have picked up on it before?

(For her part, Angela Burt-Murray, Essence's editor responded to the criticism in a particularly tone-deaf way, saying that the opprobrium the magazine has received for its decision has been louder than the fedback it has gotten for its coverage of issues like H.I.V. and sex trafficking. This is a tried-and-true derailing tactic. You're complaining about this, when what's really important is... As if people can't be concerned with all those issues and what this hire means at the same time. Unlike discussions about, say, H.I.V. or domestic violence, aiming ire at Essence is the most appropriate response for this editorial decision. Many of Essence's readers have responded to the Placas hiring as uncharitably as possible, but Burt-Murray seems to be assuming the worst of her readers as well.)

To widen the scope a bit, I think there's a problematic tendency to conflate the health and robustness of black institutions with the welfare of black people in general. The travails of Essence, or a specific HBCU, get used as shorthand for larger issues affecting black folks. So Essence hires a white woman in a prominent role, and black people can't never have nothin' for themselves. Essence, of course, isn't some kind of co-op, nor are its readership and subject matter representative of the diversity of black women and their concerns. But since it's been out there more or less alone, its importance is perhaps dangerously inflated in the larger cultural conversation. There's no reason there can't and shouldn't be other dynamic voices in the conversation so that Essence (and its readers) don't feel like it needs to be all things to all black women at all times. The paucity of black women in positions of authority at prominent "mainstream" magazines and in fashion, which Davis alludes to, is a really  serious issue. But we should also be asking why there aren't more prominent, black-targeted publications around to hire fashion directors to begin with. No one mag should have all that power.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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