Sometime last year, Essence Magazine got itself a new fashion director – Ellianna Placas. That, by and of itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. Magazines get new fashion directors all the time, right? Right.
Here’s the thing, though. Ellianna is white.
To say that Essence readers did not take too kindly to the change would be to understate things. Folks were off-en-ded. Kanye-west-refusing-to-let-you-finish-whatever-it-was-you-were-doing offended. Peek-a-boob-at-super-bowl offended. For all the furious commotion it caused, the move to hire Ellianna might as well have been the eighth deadly sin. Had Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese game-changer, added several five-minute animated clips to the mix we might have been well on the way to the establishment of a new epoch.
Apparently, some readers went as far as canceling their subscription to the magazine. Yeah, it was that bad. Michaela Angela Davis, formerly a fashion editor at Essence, was, to all intents and purposes, devastated. If what I gleaned off the internet is to be believed, she is supposed to have written the following (and much more) on her Facebook wall.
Now, I like fashion. Occasionally, I like to look at pretty pictures of pretty people dressed in pretty clothes—so soignée, even the camera oohs and aahs. Magazines, I also like. I especially like the bit where some pseudo-celeb slash ‘socialite’ gets to interview a bonafide celeb with 2.0 washboard abs. She asks whether his life has changed. He says no, of course not—he’s really the same guy; he can’t figure out why everyone is obsessed with him. She asks what he’d do with $500—what three items, in particular order, would he buy. A) a vial of anti-venom, for when he gets bitten by a black mamba; B) a second-hand copy of a really good book that’s gone out of print; and C) a leopard cub.
Sorry, where was I, again? Ah, yes. A white person editing fashion for a magazine whose readership is >75% black. Now, class, for the questions that simply must be asked. Was the uproar far greater than its cause merited? Heck, I don’t know. I don’t suppose it’s my place to decide whether the outcries were too loud. Firstly, I don’t read Essence (not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t get it here). Two, I can’t even pretend to imagine what the magazine has come to mean to its fiercely loyal readers. Here, I look at magazines and I am mostly looking at a glossy publication. Just that. None of these magazines is likely to define me, and I say that with the uttermost respect.
Yet, was it just about identity?—was it just about the erasure of a line black people presumed no one should ever have even considered crossing? Was it just about, ‘pray tell, what would a white person know about black fashion?’
No. There was more. A lot more.
And the comments I chanced upon were blunt. You’d better believe that there was no subtlety, no fudging about. Those who claimed they were white wrote stuff like:
‘Just when I thought black people could never actually be racist. Oh, well.’
‘Wow. And they say we are racist! Who knew there was this much hypocrisy? Imagine the same situation, in reverse; imagine the scandal, if a white person had said the exact same thing Ms. Davis said.’
‘Now you know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of things.’
‘Martin Luther King must be rolling over in his grave. Would he have endorsed this sort of reaction? I’ll leave you to think about what you’ve done.’
‘What wouldn’t a white person know about black fashion? Er, it’s so…basic.’
Their argument was that racism is racism, even when the target is white. As long as there’s some sort of prejudice, someone deserves to call it. Could Ellianna get the job done?—did she have the relevant qualifications? That was the question. That was all that mattered. Moreover, she’d worked for Oprah (at O magazine) before—which was a good thing, right?—because the experience must have made her ‘somewhat black’?
And the supposedly black people wrote stuff like:
‘Come on, we’ve got much bigger problems than this. Seriously. Focus, people. Focus.’
‘About freakin’ time. Bar the black cover girls and a few articles scattered here and there, Essence hasn’t been a black magazine in a really long time. Way to make it official. Now that it’s out in the open, we can all finally stop pretending. I’m actually shocked and saddened that people are shocked and saddened. Please, this has been a long time coming.’
‘How dare you invoke the name of Martin Luther King? You leave him out of this!’
‘How can we be the racists? He-llo? We are the blacks here. Everyone knows white people have first dibs on racism.’
‘Excuse me. Would you hire a black dude—sagging jeans and all—to teach a class on Scandinavian culture, no matter how much he knows about the subject? I think not.’
The counter-argument was that the fuss had nothing to do with racism or Ellianna’s credentials and everything to do with opportunities—specifically, the lack thereof—the fact that black women only have so many chances to make it in the fashion industry. That by hiring Ellianna when they were quite a couple of similarly qualified black women to choose from, the management had done the black community a disservice and perhaps been a tad racist.
What do you think? Should we call it?—or should we whitewash?—pencil it in as one of those incidents where racism isn’t actually racism?