Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fashion, Race and Essence Magazine

Essence magazine’s hiring of a white fashion director has touched off a discussion of whether it makes sense for a magazine started at a time when black women were largely ignored by American women’s magazines (and when many of these magazines had, for years, been edited by men) should have given the job to a white woman. The new hire, Elliana Placas, has freelanced in fashion for Essence for half a year. Essence's editor, Angela Burt-Murray, decided to bring Placas on fulltime and is defending the decision. Placas has experience at O Magazine and House Beautiful, among others. “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,” Burt-Murray said.

Comments from readers have touched on disbelief that a qualified black fashion editor couldn’t be found; that black fashion sense and style are both special and specialized and that someone outside the culture wouldn’t be as attuned to it; and that a position that could have advanced a black female magazine staffer’s career was handed to a white woman instead.

Hurt feelings and confusion abound in the early comments, though I’ve also read sentiments that say qualifications and experience should count most in this economically competitive magazine environment, in which many titles are struggling – and if Placas has the right resume, so be it. But does she have the right race, ask others? And how much should that matter?

I’m inclined to think that Essence, which began publishing in 1970, has matured to the point where it, too, can diversify its ranks and benefit from the mix. Burt-Murray seems to think so. Placas will need to be persuasive to win over the skeptics. But the proof will be in the pages.

Read Burt-Murray’s comments on the Placas hiring, and Essence's mission, at