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.
Even when I disagreed with my white co-workers, race had little to do with it. Maybe there was a different cultural point of view, but those exist even among black people. And most important, never did I think that race made my co-workers less capable of fulfilling their duties. If anything, the white people I have worked with over the years have shown me time and again that what matters most is whether or not a person can complete his or her tasks at a high level.
Because publications like Essence are produced for a specific demographic, members of that group can develop a tendency to believe that because they are the audience, they are also more qualified to be the staff. They may also be more likely to notice editors who look like them working at these magazines, so it's only natural for young readers with dreams of working in publishing to see themselves at places like Essence. But thinking that whatever you lack in experience, you can make up for with intangible qualities like passion is foolish.
It's alarming how many young black college students I meet who believe that, because their skin tone matches those of most people in the pages of a Vibe or Essence, they know more than others about doing a job at such a magazine. I tell them all the time: If you really want a seat at the staff meetings of these publications, you will have to compete with other people who want to sit there too -- some of whom may not look like the magazine's audience.
This is not to say that the Essence move is a non-issue. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Angela Burt-Murray, in a statement she made regarding the issue, said, "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." Her point being, something as trivial (on a global scale) as hiring a white fashion director shouldn't be an issue at all -- or at least, not as big as it has been in the media.
Now, I may not agree with her point entirely (largely because I feel that if it's in the news, it's fair game), but I do think that folks who have never worked a day in the world of publishing should do their best to hold back their anger. As far as I have seen, after six years working at black publications (or publications aimed at the black demographic) alongside many non-black colleagues, when the job needs to get done and get done right, no one cares about the race of the person doing it.
Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem, N.Y. He also hosts his own blog, Until I Get Married.