Saturday, August 7, 2010

Race, opportunity and the Essence of society

In late July, by the authority vested in her as the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, Angela Burt-Murray hired a new fashion director for her publication, targeted at African American women. Ellianna Placas, a white woman, got the job.

“I first got to know and came to respect Ellianna when she came to work with us nearly six months ago,” Burt-Murray wrote in The Grio on July 28. “We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis. I got to see firsthand her creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand. As such, I thought she'd make an excellent addition to our team.”

We’ve seen and heard the fast and furious reaction from the black blogosphere. Blkindustrypro, writing in TheGrio, lodged a typical reaction, measured and passionate: “I don't think people quite understand what a fashion director does. It’s not just shopping the market for clothes ... it’s representing the brand at industry events, it’s interfacing with the community, it’s going on TV, representing the brand inside of an industry that has no other black women when speaking or representing fashion in such a high profile way. ... So with her experience, is she really qualified to physically and philosophically represent black woman? This doesn't seem like a very smart hire or a smart place to diversify.”

Others writing elsewhere have called for Facebook protests and even a boycott of the magazine, which has more than 8 million readers.

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Despite their well-meaning frustration on behalf of black women professionals locked out of fashion journalism, the angry calls for Burt-Murray’s hide because of a hiring preference overlook the irony of their willingness to exclude on the basis of race — precisely what those black professionals, and black Americans in general, have fought against for generations.

The idea that Burt-Murray should have been expected to make a hire solely from the comfort zone of her own race would make her no better than the majority of fashion publications known to have institutionalized the very same biases in their hiring and promotions.

Burt-Murray’s principled stand is, among other things, an expression of how the walls between cultures are coming down. No, it’s not post-racial. It’s not post-anything. It’s a recognition of talent in a multiethnic 21st century.

In a polyglot culture in which behavioral cues of all kinds are exchanged every day across the racial spectrum, many of them subconscious; as expressions of popular culture move outside their target markets and find fans in unlikely places; as black people learn more about white people learn more about Latino people learn more about Asian Americans learn more about indigenous Americans ... the essence of the Essence issue reveals there’s more than one way to come to grips with “equal opportunity.”

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It’s been happening outside the workplace.

In February (Black History Month), much attention was paid to “The Help,” a novel of a black maid’s life in 60’s Mississippi. The book was written — black and white Southern vernacular intact — by Kathryn Stockett, a white writer who lives in Atlanta and was raised in Mississippi. The book, which spent 30 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, aroused controversy from blacks who objected to Stockett’s approach of writing from a black woman’s perspective — objected without knowing Stockett’s personal background, as someone who was herself raised by a black maid in real life.

In March, the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha sorority step dance team, hailing from the University of Arkansas, won the Sprite Step Off national stepping competition in Atlanta — traditionally a competition dominated by black dancers — and were awarded $100,000 in scholarships.

The win by the ZTA crew led to criticism from fans who felt that white teams should be barred from the competition. "They gave us a standing ovation and then turned around and booed us,” ZTA dancer Jessica Simmons told NBC’s Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate.

The matter gained even more attention later, when competition sponsors said “scoring discrepancies” meant the black Alpha Kappa Alpha team, from Indiana University, would share first place with the Arkansas squad.

And we can’t overlook how white youths from the suburbs have for years adopted hip-hop — the product of black urban America — as their own, have adopted it because it speaks to them, their lives and circumstances (Eminem, anyone?). Similarly, successful black musicians like Lenny Kravitz, and racially integrated bands from Living Colour to Bloc Party, have adopted melodies and styles common to predominantly white rock groups.

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And you know what? That’s supposed to happen. In a society in which people of different cultures, languages and traditions regularly move back and forth across the semi-permeable barriers of American society and popular culture, this human form of osmosis is the natural order of things.

We can’t judge our progress as a society, or African American progress in our society, solely by the metric of blacks making inroads into white majority culture. The opposite experience has to be true, too; we’re witness to a fuller, better society when white Americans can interact with black and minority culture, when they learn from black people like black people have been expected to learn from them. That’s when real social progress happens. That’s when the ball truly moves down the field. Job hires like the one at Essence make that possible.

In a pluralistic society, or at least a society that strives for pluralism, the fact of a white woman being named fashion director for a black magazine should be no more problematic than a black or biracial man in the White House, as the president of the United States. And for most of the same reasons.

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The notion that positions of power in African American precincts of the corporate world should be sequestered as set-asides for which “whites need not apply” does damage to the idea of equality blacks have historically embraced. That thinking makes black managers no more enlightened than black people say white managers are about hiring outside their comfort zones.

Equal opportunity isn’t a situational concept, a convenience to turn on and off when it suits the agenda of the moment. Equal opportunity isn’t subject to application on the basis of who we know that looks like us. It’s bedrock. The idea of equal opportunity means something or it doesn’t. Either it’s foundational to our lives or it’s not. And if it’s not, black Americans have more to worry about than one hire at a high-profile magazine.

Sometimes the best one for a job isn’t the person everyone expects. Instead of you or the sister you’ve known from diaper days, maybe the best person for the job, the one with the right skill set, experience and flair is your white colleague on the other side of the cubicle — even if the job’s at a black magazine. That’s the spirit of wide-open possibilities, that’s the fair play at the heart, the Essence, of a democracy.

Image credits: Essence cover: Essence magazine. The Help book cover: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. Eminem: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House.

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