News Flash: Black Magazines Aren’t Always That Black

Those upset that Essence has hired a white fashion director should not be surprised that white people work at black magazines, too, says this veteran of several not-so-black magazines.

Before I go into the whole Essence fashion-director uproar, some disclosure.

For a total of about four years, I worked at Vibe magazine, right up until the magazine folded (it has since been resurrected under different ownership) in June 2009. I began there in 2004 as a fact checker and writer until 2006, when I became an editor at King magazine. In 2008 I returned to Vibe as an online editor. So when it comes to working for publications directed at a black demographic — and working alongside white people at these publications — I kind of know what I’m talking about.

When I first heard that Essence had hired a white fashion director, Ellianna Placas (more disclosure: I also contribute to Essence from time to time), I wasn’t nearly as taken aback by the move as others. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a role player in similar movies throughout my career. One thing I learned very quickly as I navigated the world of black publishing is that white people — specifically, editors — do exist, and not only is it not uncommon to see one, but it is not uncommon to find that they are very qualified to do their jobs.

Admittedly, I had my own prejudices when I was confronted with white co-workers. Before I started working at Vibe, I imagined that everyone would be black or Latino — and while plenty of them were in the building, there were also plenty of white people, including the woman who hired me and the editor who gave me my first byline.

When I interviewed at King, I imagined the same thing. Then I went to the interview and met with a white woman, who introduced herself to me as King‘s deputy editor. Upon being hired, I met the white entertainment editor, and during my time there, we hired a white person as a senior editor. When I went back to Vibe, I couldn’t help noticing that even more white people were on staff than had been there during my previous stint. And have I mentioned that every single white person I worked with was very good at his or her job? Because if I didn’t, let me be clear: All of them were talented. And I hope that in saying this, I’m not looked upon as a traitor to my race.

Was a part of me taken aback every time I shook hands with a white person who was introduced to me as my new co-worker? Sure. As a reader of these magazines, I’d assumed that the people creating the magazine were like me, at least on the surface. But once I became exposed to the inner workings of publishing, I learned that writing a good story, creating a beautiful design and selecting the most dynamic images had nothing to with skin color.