More Than Black/White Questions in “Essence” Drama

Is there a place for black women in fashion overall?

By Jamilah King Aug 02, 2010

The debate over Essence’s decision to hire white Fashion Director Ellianna Placas is far from over. Recently, the magazine’s former fashion editor, Harriette Cole, appeared on the "Today" show to talk about the whole thing.

"Part of the sentiment is, ‘Is there any longer a seat at the table for African-American women’ " in fashion, Cole asked on the show. "When the fashion collections come in September, you’ll see there’ll be a sprinkling of people of color . . . there’s no African American right now who’s fashion director."

Some reactions from the blogosphere agree with Davis, but also say that what’s happening at the magazine isn’t new, and is hardly the most important problem black women face in the fashion and publishing industries.

Shani O. Hilton, writing for Feministe, added some perspective:

As an aside, I also think those who are outraged are missing something crucial about the history of what we call "black" publications, or TV shows, or even colleges. White people have always been involved, to some extent. This is unlike the other side of the coin, where whites have often historically had trouble including people of color (Vogue is one example, most network television shows are another). Girlfriends and The Game, two television shows that targeted the same demographic Essence does were produced by white Republican Kelsey Grammer. Both shows featured mostly black, heavily female casts.

Postbougie blogger G.D., guest writing at The Atlantic, looked at the bigger picture:

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… 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.