ESSENCE, a glossy US magazine for black women, has set off a flurry of criticism after hiring a white fashion director for the first time in its 40-year history.
Angela Burt-Murray, the editor-in-chief of Essence, has been forced to defend her decision to hire Ellianna Placas, a white woman, after African-American commentators said the magazine had robbed a black woman of a rare job in the fashion media.
Style consultant Najwa Moses said: “The fashion industry at large is a very hard place to be if you have a black or a brown face. Essence is the one place we might think, ‘Oh, if I keep moving up in my career, I might make it there’.”
Moses, who writes a blog at styleaholics.com, said Essence projected images of sophisticated, elegant black women in a media world dominated by the scantily clad “video vixens” of rap videos.
There was also a question of pure logistics, Moses said. “How can you tell me how to dress my big butt if, maybe, you don’t have one?” she asked.
Michaela Angela Davis, a former writer at Essence, denied the objections to Placas’s appointment were racist — although, having worked at magazines including O, The Oprah Magazine, Us Weekly, More and Life & Style, there have been no questions raised about Placas’s abilities.
“This isn’t about being racist; this is about wanting a place where black women can grow and flourish,” Davis said.
Essence insisted it remained committed to “celebrating the unique beauty and style of African-American women”.
“I understand that this issue has struck an emotional chord with our audience,” Burt-Murray said. “However, I selected Ellianna . . . because of her creativity, vision, the positive reader response to her work and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand.”
Burt-Murray added that the magazine would soon be hiring a number of new staff members.
The representation of black women in the media was highlighted last week when Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture employee, was vilified on conservative TV shows for having spoken at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People about an incident 24 years ago in which she was tempted to discriminate against a white farmer. Ms Sherrod was forced out of her job by government officials apparently worried about accusations that the White House was permitting “reverse racism”. It later emerged that the video of Ms Sherrod’s speech had been edited, and she was offered a new job and an apology from President Barack Obama.