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Essence Magazine defends choice of white fashion director

By Jamie Guzzardo, CNN
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Essence under fire for hire
  • The editor calls Elliana Placas "an excellent addition to our team"
  • Her hiring sparked controversy when a former magazine employee posted on Facebook that the hiring "hurts"
  • Critics cite the lack of black women in fashion as part of their concerns
  • The editor says she remains committed to celebrating African-American women

New York (CNN) -- The editor of Essence Magazine defended Wednesday her recent hiring of a white fashion director -- a first for the 40-year-old publication that celebrates black women.

The hiring of Elliana Placas first sparked outrage when a former Essence employee posted a note on her Facebook page decrying the decision.

"It's with a heavy heart I've learned Essence Magazine has engaged a white Fashion Director," former Essence staffer Michaela Angela Davis wrote. "I love Essence and I love fashion. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally."

Essence editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray wrote in an opinion piece posted Wednesday on African-American news site that Placas initially joined the magazine six months ago to run the fashion section on a freelance basis before being hired permanently as fashion director.

"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," Burt-Murray said. "As such, I thought she'd make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights."

Critics of the decision raised concerns over the lack of African-American women in fashion as part of their outcry over the hiring of Placas.

"The fashion industry is not diverse -- it is an elite, closed world and there is very little place for black women," Davis told CNN. "At Fashion Week, there was one seat for Essence. One. Black women's image and beauty has either been ignored or defiled and that one seat should be filled by someone who can represent the style, history and body type of black women."

Davis is adamant that she is not a racist, but instead concerned that a position where an African-American woman might be able to start and build her career has been lost.

"Essence was the first magazine that says in their brand that it is for black women and their motto when I worked there was 'where black women come first,'" Davis told CNN on Wednesday.

"This is not about being racist, this is about wanting a place where black women can grow and flourish and go out and help diversify," she said.

Burt-Murray said in her opinion piece that she shared concerns "about the lack of visibility of African-American women throughout the ranks of the fashion industry, which is overwhelmingly white."

"I, too, want to see more of us on the mastheads of all the magazines, seated in the front rows of the shows, designing our own fashion lines, and contributing our special flavor and flyness to the world of style," she wrote.

Burt-Murray also wrote that she has seen strong reactions in the past from readers when it comes to matters of race and the magazine. Recent examples of reader outrage included a profile of rapper P. Diddy and his longtime girlfriend Kim Porter, which some readers found promoted having children out of wedlock and a negative image of black couples, and guest columnist Jill Scott voicing her opinion about black men who date outside of their race, which some readers felt was reverse racism.

Likewise, the decision to hire Placas has not escaped scrutiny.

However, despite the outrage, Davis insists that readers not drop their support of the magazine yet, writing in a second Facebook post, "We need Essence today as we did 40 years ago. I don't believe this is the time for a boycott."

Burt-Murray noted that past issues that should have sparked such outrage were often overlooked. She cites several in-depth reports the magazine conducted on issues plaguing the African-American community, including black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools, the increase in sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities, inequities in the health care services for black women or how HIV is the leading cause of death for black women ages 18-34.

"The things that really are the end of our world apparently aren't," she wrote. "While the response to these important stories may not always be as strong as we would like or lead to immediate change, Essence remains committed to telling these stories.

"Forty years ago Essence was founded to empower, celebrate, and inspire black women to climb higher, go further and break down barriers. Our commitment to black women remains unchanged as we continue to stay laser-focused on those principles -- no matter who works with us."

Davis said she feels readers should still support Essence, but says there's no reason why the magazine should be immune to criticism.

"I hate that I'm even having this conversation because I love Essence -- it was my home," Davis said. "But I spoke out for all the black girls who called me crying because what does this say to them?"

Meanwhile, Burt-Murray is standing by her decision to hire Placas.

"We remain committed to celebrating the unique beauty and style of African-American women in Essence magazine and online at," she wrote.

CNN's Julie Cannold contributed to this report.