By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; E03
With its September issue, Essence marks its 40th anniversary by proudly reiterating its longstanding mission: The magazine "celebrates, empowers and inspires black women to be bold and beautiful," Editor Angela Burt-Murray writes in the opening pages. The issue follows with a report on the state of black women, an essay by first lady Michelle Obama and the introduction of a new fashion director.
It's that last fact that has overshadowed everything else. Why? Because Ellianna Placas is white. She was a freelancer in the fashion department for six months before being hired to oversee the fashion message.
In some corners of the Internet, the reaction to her race was visceral and unforgiving -- outbursts sometimes untempered by thoughtful consideration. Some of the hurt arose from the harsh reality that there's a scarcity of women of color in top jobs anywhere in the fashion industry. Some saw the Essence position as the one guaranteed perch from which a black woman's fashion vision could shine.
Also mixed into the stew of emotion was the inference that a white woman couldn't fully comprehend a black woman's often-fraught relationship with her hair, body and sexuality -- as her feelings about her appearance sometimes carry the echoes of history and racism. And finally, there was the unspoken irritation that once again, in the beauty competition, white trumped black -- this time, on the home court.
On the other side of the debate, many saw the attacks on Placas's hiring as nothing more than reverse racism. If Vogue should be encouraged to diversify its top ranks, why shouldn't Essence? Why should whiteness be a disqualifying factor for a high-profile job at a magazine aimed at a black audience?
None of those feelings should be dismissed or taken lightly.
But context and timing are important, too. The tumult over who's leading the fashion department at a magazine for and about black women comes at a moment when the most prominent woman in the country -- the first lady -- is African American. President Obama's closest confidante, aside from his wife, is another black woman, Valerie Jarrett. Black women have been astronauts and secretary of state, beauty icons and screen idols. Their appeal has been mass and their emulators have come in all colors.
Black women are still subject to inequity and stereotypes. Indeed, the first lady is not exempt from being caricatured in ways would make even a segregationist cringe. But the advances that women of color have made -- the very accomplishments the magazine celebrates -- complicate the Placas flap. One has to wonder: Were protesters failing to look at the bigger picture?
In the face of weeks of frenzied vituperation on blogs -- and with only modest public support -- Burt-Murray briefly explained her decision in an essay on The Grio. (She declined to comment for this column, preferring to pass on a discussion of the magazine's anniversary if it included a conversation about Placas.) Essentially, Burt-Murray wrote, Placas was the best person for the job.
The fashion director oversees style stories, models and clothes. She serves as an ambassador to designers, the stylish public face of the magazine, someone who stands only a few steps behind the editor in chief.
Because clothes are about image and mythmaking, the fashion director has outsize importance. She is intimately involved with readers as they use their wardrobe as a building block to self-definition. And Essence has always underscored the significance of style among its readers who so often were striving to make themselves seen and heard in a culture that tried to ignore or pigeonhole them.
Essence also made a distinction between the private black woman and her public self. The book was conceived as a supportive girlfriend who whispered secret wisdom into her friend's ear. And it treated a black woman's sense of style as though it was unique: the "special" beauty of black women.
That perspective is moving toward obsolescence. Models such as Liya Kebede and Queen Latifah have won lucrative cosmetics contracts from Estée Lauder and Cover Girl, making black beauty more mass market than ever. Black models have starred as Victoria's Secret angels -- the contemporary version of a popular pin-up. Fashion designers vie to dress stars such as Beyoncé, Paula Patton and Viola Davis with the same ferocity as white ones. Black actresses regularly entrust their public image to white stylists. And designers of every race and ethnicity salivate at the prospect of dressing the first lady and a rainbow coalition of them have helped her look her best.
Burt-Murray assures her readers that despite the hiring of a white fashion director, Essence's mission hasn't changed. But 40 years after it was first articulated, it should. Black women no longer need Essence to nurture their souls -- as one of the magazine's uplifting essays might put it. According to Essence's own survey, their souls are just fine. So is their self-confidence. And when they fall on hard times, their greatest support could easily come from someone who looks nothing like them. Seventy-seven percent of black women say at least one of their five closest friends is of a different race.
Black women still need a strong voice in the fashion industry. Someone to remind Allure that kinky hair is not the same as curly hair and that dark skin is ebony, not medium brown. Someone to introduce Vogue to socialites who call Spelman and Howard their alma maters and not just Brown.
Instead of assuring her readers that nothing has changed, Burt-Murray should inform them that going forward, everything has. How bold it would be if Essence embraced the rise of Michelle Obama -- a black woman who serves as a symbol of the American woman -- and used that as a signal that it's time for the magazine's beloved "sister-to-sister" conversations between black women to be overheard by others, for them to include other voices.
Instead of wishing that the brouhaha over Placas would die down, Burt-Murray should take to the airwaves and hold up her decision as a sign that Essence isn't just about black women. Black women aren't "special." They are individuals and they are universal.
Just as surely as a black woman can develop the skills and sensitivity to someday hold sway over the entire fashion industry, a white woman can learn to seek out a diverse range of designers and a beautiful mix of models. And if the mainstream glossies keep to their mostly homogenous ways, so be it. That's another battle. Essence shouldn't aspire to be just like all the other magazines. It should aim to be better.