On Tuesday, news broke that Essence, the fashion glossy aimed at black women, had hired a new fashion director. But there was one problem — she was white. The outrage was pretty immediate, with former Essence staffers tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging their “anger” and confusion. Our own Justin Fenner wrote a thoughtful and nuanced piece on the controversy — which we’d recommend reading if you want a catch-up. And now Essence’s editor in chief, Angela Burt-Murray has responded.
In a long and insightful essay for The Grio, Burt-Murray explained why, exactly, she hired Ellianna Placas:
I first got to know and came to respect Ellianna when she came to work with us nearly six months ago. We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis. I got to see firsthand her creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand. As such, I thought she’d make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights.
Burt-Murray’s explanation confirms our research: that Placas had in fact been working — albeit in a free-lance capacity — for Essence since February. Burt-Murray also notes that while she shares critics’ concerns that the fashion industry is “overwhelmingly white,” she’s surprised at how much outrage the hiring sparked — especially in comparison to some of the other race-based issues Essence has covered. She writes:
But interestingly enough, the things I think should most upset people and inspire boycotts and Facebook protests, often seem to go relatively unnoticed. Like when Essence conducted a three-part education series this year on the plight of black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools. Crickets. When we reported on the increase in sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities? Silence. When our writers investigated the inequities in the health care services black women receive? Deadly silence. When our editors highlighted data from the Closing the Gap Initiative report “Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future” that showed that the median net worth of single black women was $5? There went those darn crickets again. When we run pieces on how unemployment is devastating black men? Nada. When we run story after story on how HIV is the leading cause of death for black women age 18-34? Zilch. The things that really are the end of our world apparently aren’t.
We’re curious to see what some of Burt-Murray’s critics have to say to her op-ed, but we think one of her statements says it best:
Our commitment to black women remains unchanged as we continue to stay laser-focused on those principles–no matter who works with us.