As you can imagine, Essence Magazine‘s new hire, white fashion director Elliana Placas, caused quite a stir.  Instead of just relying on CNN or the blogosphere for an understanding on the impact of such a decision, I looked to my colleagues.  I have the privilege of working closely with a number of intelligent and creative African-American women at my agency and, as soon the news hit the web, I sat them down to dish.

Their reaction to the news was very considered and not too positive.  Their issue with the decision had nothing to do with racial preference, i.e., a black magazine should support black staff over others.  Rather they felt that it would be really difficult for someone outside of the community to truly understand and capture the nuances of African-American women.

Here’s a snippet from our chat:

Me: “Can’t a white person ‘get’ the intricacies of the African-American community?”

Colleague 1: “We have icons that you don’t know about…there are images, beliefs, expectations that we’ve learned from birth…we have a shared cultural pool — some are in it 6 ft deep and some only 3 ft, but we’re all in it.  You can’t just pick that stuff up.  Now our fashion [referring to Essence] will be dictated to us.  I guess I might as well turn to In Style now for the Zoe Saldana issue to get my fashion tips.”

Me: “So, are you saying the same is true for the reverse, that a black fashion director can’t work for a general market magazine?

Colleague 2: “It’s different.  All minority cultures are asked to assimilate to white culture.

As a white woman in a white world, I was somewhat surprised and maybe even disappointed.  On some level, I believe that our shared humanity can give us all the insight to relate to other communities.  But as a Jewish woman in a Christian world, I realized I can also relate to what they were saying.  What’s normal to the average American — McDonald’s, Christmas parties, Santa Claus, is foreign to me but I’ve learned to assimilate, so to speak.  I may not eat at Mickey D’s but I whoop it up like everyone else at the annual X-mas party, enjoy a long “holiday” break in December and partake of the Easter sales.  But the flip side isn’t true.  The average American isn’t going to understand about the nuances of Jewish (or any other minority) culture because he/she has no reason or need to.

I look forward to sitting with my work buddies again over a few new issues of Essence and see what they think then.  Stay tuned.

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