Cross posted at BlogHer.

Michaela M. alerted us to the news that Essence, the iconic fashion and lifestyle magazine for Black women, has hired an Australian-born, White woman, Elliana Placas, as its new Fashion Director.  Disappointed, former Essence fashion editor, Michaela Angela Davis, wrote:

If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different.

In this 3-minute clip, Davis explains her position to Anderson Cooper:

The controversy over her hire is an example of a more widespread question about representation. Most agree that the presence of Black politicians, actors, models, teachers, professors, authors, and athletes (to name a few) is a good thing for Black people. It’s good, presumably, for two reasons. First, their presence in these roles normalizes Black achievement, beauty, intelligence, etc. The election of Barack Obama, for example, shows us that being Black and being the President of the United States are not mutually exclusive. The success of Tyra Banks and Alek Wek, similarly, upsets the notion that Black women aren’t beautiful.  It is good for all of us to be exposed to evidence that upsets negative stereotypes about Black people, stereotypes that all of us, no matter our color, unconsciously internalize to some degree (test your unconscious preferences here).

But there is a second reason why we often believe that representation is good. It is often presumed that people advocate for their own. Having a Black woman as Fashion Director, it is hoped, will mean that the content of the magazine will be empowering to Black women. That is, that the Director will be sensitive to the historic and ongoing racist idealization of white femininity that makes Black women’s bodies, hair, facial features, and skin color seem to need fixing.  Even if her racial politics are sound (and this is always a serious worry), she certainly does not have the experiences that Black woman in the U.S. often share nor, necessarily, the deep connection to the Black population that will make this a driving concern.

Essence‘s current Fashion and Beauty page with it’s August 2010 cover, featuring Janet Jackson, in the upper left corner:

The hiring of Placas is disappointing in the sense that it is a lost opportunity to put a Black woman in a position of power.  If, however, Placas is going to have this job, people concerned about the empowerment of Black women need to turn to evaluating her product.  The worry caused by her appointment is an opportunity to insist that Essence do right by Black women.  That is, Essence should be a refuge from racism.  One that, hopefully, does not subject Black women to the same sexism as White women in the name of equality.  Light skin does not preclude Placas from being able to do this, just as dark skin does not protect a person from internalizing and perpetuating colorism.

Ultimately, while having a darker-skinned, Black-identified person in the role of Fashion Director would be good, the production of a magazine that empowers Black women is also very important and this is something that Placas may be able to do.  It is up to us to insist that she does.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.