Will Essence Listen Now?

April 24, 2012  |  

Revisiting Essence magazine’s shift of their white managing editor into a new role after his right-wing views were exposed on Facebook, I agree with readers here who feel the move was an excuse to get Michael Bullerdick out of the position. The swiftness with which the decision was made and the comparably minute articles he’d posted compared to the public blunders of other media personalities who’ve been allowed to keep their jobs suggests the magazine may have been waiting for an opportunity to remove the white editor in a way that wouldn’t make it seem as though it was simply taking it’s reader’s racial concerns to heart when he was hired in the first place, but perhaps they should have.

It obviously doesn’t take a particular ethnicity to be able to tell when someone’s syntax is wrong or their grammar is off, but when we’re talking about a magazine who’s readers are 99.9% black women it would certainly make sense that someone who would read the content themselves would have a better eye for checking for things like tone, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. I can’t tell you how many editorial job descriptions I’ve come across for opportunities with a publication or non-profit that explicitly states the applicant must have significant knowledge of the Jewish culture or Hebrew community in order to even be considered. There’s nothing wrong with us doing the same, although for some reason we seem to have this attitude that we’re not being diverse enough if we express that sentiment despite the fact that we aren’t the ones who need to knock down barriers for other people, we need them broken down for us. I know Essence claims that Michael was only involved in production but he listed his responsibilities on LinkedIn as “Edit stories for tone and style,” so it appears one of the parties was confused about what his true role was. Now, that inconsistency is neither here nor there but I do find it interesting that this issue has sort of been swept under the rug with no response from the publication to its readers about how this was overlooked—and who might even replace him. I don’t think anyone who saw Michael’s wall was personally offended, but I do think it proves readers had genuine concern when they protested his hiring, much like the hiring of Ellianna Placas, a white woman, as the fashion director, a year and a half ago. Opportunities being what they are for black people, you would think the one place someone in fashion or publishing could get a high-ranking job if they so choose would be Essence, but the difference between the publication and some of the Jewish ones I’ve come across is those communities owned their content, and last time I checked Time Warner was hardly led by an African American.

That being said and this situation considered, I don’t foresee Essence listening from here on out. The former editor, Angela Burt-Murray, defended Ellianna’s hiring, saying she hand-picked her herself, and Constance C.R. White pretty much did the same with Michael. Whether they truly didn’t see an issue with the hirings or if they were coaxed into it by corporate politics and the powers that be, we’ll likely never know but either way it’s cause for concern. I know the go-to response around anything Essence-related is “I don’t care, I don’t read the magazine anymore anyway,” but we should care and so should they. It’s candid discussions like this that are essentially a free focus group for the magazine and its corporate leadership to see in plain color what their (previous and potential) readers want and how to make it happen. I’m curious how much further readership has to drop for them to get the point. On one hand the issues plaguing the magazine aren’t unique. The interests of society have become increasingly superficial and if you want to thrive and be profitable you have to cater to that somewhat, but being the innovator that it was when it first entered the market many have been hoping the magazine would find a happy medium without selling out to rathetness or racial pressures but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Hiring a black person doesn’t guarantee that all of their ideologies will be in line with the publication and all black women for that matter but it does significantly increase the odds that the person put in the position will not only understand the issues plaguing black women but also have their best interest at heart with how their addressed and represented in the magazine and no one should want any less. There’s no better way to prove you really are the voice of black women than to have black women be the voice behind the content.

Do you think Essence will finally listen to its readers concerns over its hiring practices as a result of this incident?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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