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THE ESSENCE OF THE MATTER

Good Enough Mother has watched with increasing curiosity the latest dust-up about race in this country. This time it’s over the hiring of a white fashion editor for the iconic Essence Magazine, which has made its name catering to the beauty needs of black women for decades. There’s been reports and coverage all over the networks from CNN to the Today Show. Now here’s my take – though to be honest, I can truly see both sides of the issue. Let me try to explain.

You see, being a black woman in this country is a deeply moving and profound experience. There are issues that we deal with that are unique to us because of the color of our skin; issues of great importance that we cannot explain and trying to do so is a sure way for something to get lost in translation.


Good Enough Mother has watched with increasing curiosity the latest dust-up about race in this country. This time it’s over the hiring of a white fashion editor for the iconic Essence Magazine, which has made its name catering to the beauty needs of black women for decades. There’s been reports and coverage all over the networks from CNN to the Today Show.  Now here’s my take – though to be honest, I can truly see both sides of the issue. Let me try to explain.

You see, being a black woman in this country is a deeply moving and profound experience. There are issues that we deal with that are unique to us because of the color of our skin; issues of great importance that we cannot explain and trying to do so is a sure way for something to get lost in translation.

I’ll give you an example.  After spending the majority of my adult life chemically straightening my hair, two years ago I decided not to do it anymore. This was prompted by a lung infection that landed me in the hospital, where for three days,I was pumped full of medication.  A week later, I went for my last chemical relaxer and days after that, my hair began falling out in my hands.

That was my epiphany and I joined the ranks of a growing number of African American women who were tired of the chemicals and cost; the burns and the burden of trying to maintain a style my hair was not designed for. I fretted over the forecast and lost more hours of sleep than I can count before I finally said enough.

When I cut the last of my relaxed hair of in March of 2009, I was truly moved to tears as I saw the dry, dead ends fall away.  There was one overwhelming feeling that ran through every fiber of my body…I-AM-FREE!

Black women spend more than any other group on hair care products and procedures. Hair is something we talk about constantly; we compliment each other on it, we share secrets, we obsess over the growth and its overall health. There are entire websites, books and magazines dedicated to the care, growth and upkeep of African American women’s hair.

So when Essence announced that it had hired a white woman as Fashion and Beauty editor, to be honest, one of the first things I thought of was hair. How could she possibly know that struggle when her long, straight locks probably sprout effortlessly from her scalp?  Of course she can certainly ask someone about the black woman’s hair experience but it won’t carry the same magnitude as someone who’s been through it.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSlZ11uZNME[/youtube]

But let’s be real, this is about making money. Essence first and foremost is in the business of selling magazines and that is no easy task nowadays. You do that by putting your best product out there. If they felt like this woman, Elliana Placas, was the best person for the job, then by all means they should have hired her. One peek at her resume and work history answers the question about whether she is qualified. And is it really fair to ask companies to give people of color a fair shake on the anchor desk and in editorial positions in more mainstream publications and but then earmark those positions at magazines that cater to us? Something about that doesn’t feel inherently right.

But the hiring of Elliana does shut off one avenue for black candidates who don’t seem to get the same opportunities at mainstream publications with white audiences. Besides Andre Leon Talley and his work at Vogue, how many other editorial positions are held by people of color at white publications? And by offering the job to Placas does that mean there were no other people of color who could take on the job at Essence?

Maybe in hiring Elliana, Essence was modeling the change it wants to see in the industry.  But I don’t think it’s that deep. I think in the end this is about putting forth a good product and getting people to plunk down their hard earned cash for a copy of a magazine. Time will tell if Placas can make that happen…

14 Comments

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  2. Yelaina

    August 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

    I am SO iffy about this. On the one hand I’m all rah-rah-ree for diversity. On the other hand I’m all “wow, really? Couldn’t find not one sister or fabulous gay black male to fill this slot?”. I don’t quite know how to feel about it to be perfectly honest.

  3. Cody Williams

    August 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    A white woman raised our very black president.

    “Injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere” MLK

    I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. If she can’t do the job fire her, but to say she can’t have it based on her color is so ‘old world’ it’s almost like being on another planet.

    And in general, don’t many black women today follow the fashion lead set by white women? I’m just asking.

  4. Lorrie

    August 1, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I’m with Yelaina: she may be qualified on paper and with experience in beauty writing, but it cannot be ‘experience’ giving her the same understanding of our unique issues with skin tone, hair texture and the features that so white society criticized, but now seem to covet. This is dubious as best and tone-deaf at worst.

  5. Stacey Torres

    August 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    While we are all God’s children, made from the same master plan, there is a reason we are all different – not just black/white – but we are ALL different in order to have a beautiful salad (I use this analogy a lot!). But if we were all rad…ishes, it would soon become a pretty boring salad.
    Fashion, for most black women, is actually cultural – and some of the things we wear, have deep historical/familial meaning. When Bo Derick wore braids/beads 30 some years ago, some of us were shocked that she sported (& claimed) a style that has deep roots (no pun) and historical meaning to many of us. All of a sudden it was “the rage” while we were enraged. Tanning booths, lip plumpers, butt plumpers, halfros, slang (good & bad) … I can go on & on … does not make you black nor an authority on how we dress or carry ourselves, when it goes deeper than what Madison Ave/media dictates.
    What I mean is, we have always celebrated and embraced ourselves through the voice of fashion & style for centuries. It was how we identified ourselves in the face of adversity. To boldly wear colors without fear; patterns… & designs from Africa (i.e., Kinte or Mud Cloth) that has absolute meaning & tells a story – worn by everyone and most who don’t know and don’t care about it’s origins. It would be like me going to Vatican City and wearing the Pope’s Sunday Finest …
    Okay – does anyone remember the very first cover of Essence Magazine – and how they felt about it?

  6. wendy

    August 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Oh boy Rene! When I first heard this story, my heart sank. I immediately thought about all the years that I attended fashion industry related events (dating back to the 80’s when I worked for The Fashion Group, International) and saw the seat assignments. At that time there were only FOUR seats (one for Eunice Johnson, Ebony Magazine, Susan Taylor, Essence Magazine and Audrey Smaltz, Ground Crew, Lois Alexander, curator of the Black Fashion Museum) in a sea of hundreds that I could count on seeing women who look like me ABLE to sit in. The rest of the seats went to other Editors from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, etc., Heads of Department and Specialty stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdales etc. you get the picture. All of those other industry execs were OVERWHELMINGLY white women. You had a few Asian women at that time like Josie Natorie coming on to the scene but we out-numbered them. I remember looking at those African-American women with such pride, just like I know my white counterparts who were starting out in the industry use to look up to their white industry elites.

    But if ever there was an industry that discriminates in a huge way, it is definitely the media industry and specifically the magazine world. I remember one year Ms. Johnson begged me to make sure that she get a good seat (which I made sure she got) at one of our shows. I remember feeling disgusted by how my co-workers (white) would fall over backward for the white industry leaders and every time they saw Ms. Johnson or Susan Taylor, I would have to constantly remind them of who they were and the contributions they made. Even The Fashion Group, International’s Board of Directors while I was working there, was all white even though it was during the height of Essence’s popularity and Ebony had been around for well over 35 years! Discrimination in that industry is RAMPANT, and that is the main reason, that I left it quick, fast and in a hurry even though that is where my undergraduate degree is in.

    As long as Essence is going to brand itself as the “go-to magazine” for black women, than I do not think it was a good idea to hire Elliana Placas in that position. I don’t think a white woman is able to tell the story of a black woman. Nor is she able to tell the story of any other woman beside a white woman’s experience. She can’t speak first hand on what our specific needs especially as it relates to fashion or as you mentioned, our hair care needs. It’s nothing personal or racist but she just simply can’t talk accurately about our experiences in a second-hand manner. Some things you just can’t simply rely on research, you have to live it. I know that she has a background of working with “O” Magazine, but I’ve been a subscriber of that magazine since its inception, and quite frankly, those fashion pages NEVER impressed me.

    With that said, in her role she’s responsible for providing the Magazine’s content direction as it relates to Fashion and there will be others working with her who are black and therefore will have first-hand experiences and will provide accurate content. However I do believe there are qualified black women out there that could have easily filled this position. But evidently, Ms. Placas has “paper” qualifications that Essence wants to benefit from.

  7. Valerie Porter

    August 1, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    The other day’s discussion was about TV anchors and Blacks, today’s is about editors and journalism. All of these subjects leading to our current Media system. This system for Black folks is flawed, no matter what profession we speak about, Black people are being left out of the equation. I don’t know much about the fasion industry or the television networks and cable, but I do know that we were told to get an education and everything will work itself out, well it hasn’t, and if we don’t do someting soon, we will be back in the 60’s and every CEO, CFO, Studio Head and Director of the Board will be perfectly happy . It’s not about Ms, Placas, it’s about us being a bunch pf Placated people , and that will lull you to sleep, all over again. Wake Up Black Folks!!!

  8. Smarty P. Jones

    August 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I’m not on the fence at all about this. I say more power to them. Essence, I’m sure, put the best person in that position that they could. Print media is hurting across the board and people of color are leaving the industry in droves. If she was the most qualified in their pool of candidates for that position, then she should have gotten the job.
    The problem I think folks have with this is the fact that Essence is geared toward black women and they feel that they should only employ black people. That’s a backwards way of thinking. How can we be upset that white owned companies aren’t diverse if we don’t diversify the ones that are black owned. And here’s a newsflash, Essence is no longer black owned. Neither are the majority of the companies marketing hair/skin care products or clothing geared toward black folks. Yet, we’re not pissed that they’ve hired white people.
    If we’re every gonna start to have real conversations about race, we can’t let this kind of foolishness get in the way. It’s a job. Time, Inc. is a business. At the end of the day, it’s about who can get it done. Get a grip.

  9. Lasheryl

    August 1, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I am on the fence about this……I know there’s one black woman out there that is qualified for the job!!!! Not only is our hair different, what about our curves? On the other hand, I have read Essence for years and they have lacked in that one department! Every black woman is not into African print suits and wild color combinations, so they needed a change. I say give her a chance to prove herself.

  10. shon

    August 1, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Good content Rene… but come on – I have yet to find anyone – Black or White – recommend hair products that ACTUALLY do what they say… without finding someone skilled at using heat.

    If they did – they’d be gazillonaires.

    And considering she accepted the 9 to 5 – odds are she won’t revolutionize the hair war either.

  11. Valerie Porter

    August 1, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    @Smarty, So you think its perfectly fine the the black hair care industry has been taken over by Koreans and Whites? Remember Madame C J Walker? Well when I was growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the 50’s, every beauty supply shop was owned by Blacks, now they are Korean’s, as a black beauty shop owner you can’t even order what you want from the major wholesalers because they have a deal with Paul Mitchell and that’s the product you WILL use in your shop like it or not, because Korean’s are the major wholesalers also. When have any of them used a black hair product, yet they can tell you what to use. Let’s get real about these issues and tell the truth. We own nothing! If thats ok with you than call it foolishness. That why I have gone natural. I make my own products to sell in my own store and market to the black community, and yes it is my business, and my job, and I get it done. More of us need to think like that and get a grip!!!

  12. Donna Nash Williams

    August 1, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Essence has been headingthere for awhile….I noticed a few years ago more advertisment with whilte models…I started wondering then and figured it was a money issue…when they could get white advertisers to want to advertise they would…all sadly boils down to money in any kind of business…not surprised…..in the next 5 years Essence will complete change and will probably become a mainstream magazine for women…I am sure the magazine will be happy but for me as a black woman I like having something that speaks to me and my special interests and needs….Jet and Ebony will eventually fold and the black magazine that last will become grey…..or neutral!

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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