If She Hollers, Call Her A Reverse-Racist


Esther Armah

The past couple of weeks Black women have been the subject of discussion, not just in the blogosphere, but also on the news. If you’re a Sister, you’ve either been ignoring the news or not turning on your computer if you haven’t heard about the latest brouhaha—or, as some would call it, a hot buttered mess—involving Essence magazine’s hiring White fashion director Ellianna Placas.

If you haven’t heard about the Essence controversy, click here to read the original story in Clutch Magazine.

And click here to read my take on the Essence controversy.

Michaela angela Davis

Tomorrow, Sunday, August 8, Esther Armah is on BBC  and Michaela angela Davis, will be on CBC Canada on Monday, August 9–both Sisters have been vocal about the Essence hire. (I will try to find a link to both shows and post in a few days!) Davis is a former editor at Essence, and Armah hosts an award-winning radio show, “Off the page”.  Both are Sisters who have spoken on subjects affecting Black women and the Black community.

Sidebar: I hate to sound shallow here, but Davis and Armah also have looked fabulous and fierce while voicing their opinions. I take the chance of sounding anti-feminist because sometimes people think that if a Sister voices an intelligent feminist/Womanist opinion, suddenly she stops being cute. And quiet as it’s kept, smart, vocal, opinionated women—of all complexions—are the Certified Dime Pieces on this planet. Recognize.

When I blogged about Essence magazine, I argued that Essence hasn’t served Black women for a long time anyway, so we should just let the magazine go. And cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal wrote that on his blog as well as gave that opinion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Davis and Armah have taken a more complex view, however. Davis has argued that we (Black female magazine readers) shouldn’t abandon Essence but rather, hold them more accountable. Armah has talked about the ways that Black people have not been able to control their images in mainstream America. And both Sisters have used the Essence issue to (continue to) talk about the limited perspective given Black women in media, and how Black women are nearly invisible to the rest of America.

But what has been tripping me out—I can only say it that way—is how the valid statements of Davis and Armah and others concerning the forced invisibility of Black women in the fashion industry—which mirrors the forced invisibility of Black women in the society—have been twisted and thrown back in their faces as “reverse racism.”

Here is version number one of the “reverse racism” accusations: Black women are starting a race riot by wanting a Black magazine to have an editorial board that reflects the demographic that the magazine serves—that would be BLACK WOMEN. And why are we starting a riot? Because supposedly, we Sisters hate White people, and especially White women, so we just want to grind that White-hatred ax.

Or “reverse racism” accusation version number two—the well-mannered, calm version: “Yes, we hear you Sisters about the fashion industry. We sincerely hear you, but if you want to teach us White folks a lesson about racial tolerance, this lesson begins at home. So lead by example and hire a bunch of White folks at your TWO magazines, and then, in a few years, we will hire a couple of Black folks at the DOZENS of mainstream magazines we run because you have shown us your moral superiority. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. would want you to do, after all. And don’t you remember that whole ‘I have a dream’ speech? Because I can recite it verbatim.”

What’s up with people getting attacked and then, when those people turn around and defend themselves—even in a classy, ladylike manner like Davis and Armah—suddenly, the attacked are accused of starting the fight?  This classic bait and switch is happening with this Essence controversy. And further, not only are certain White folks going on the offensive in order to confuse the original issue about Black women in the fashion industry, they are using other Black folks to do it.

We have seen this bait and switch against Black women take place quite recently when well-known media outlets like Oprah, and ABC News Nightline wanted to find an  “expert” to talk about marriage in the Black community, and specifically, why Black women are having “such a hard time” finding mates. When really, what these outlets wanted to do was go on the attack against Black women.

Though I have my suspicions, I have no proof that these media attacks were fueled by the sustained media appearances of Michelle Obama, a tall, good-looking, physically fit, Harvard-educated, dark-brown-skinned woman in The White House, a woman who does not conform in looks or actions to the images of Black women that America previously has seen.

So first, think about how conservative White people are used to thinking about Black women. And now, think about upset Michelle Obama has made conservative White America. But also, maybe–just maybe– consider that she’s made a few liberal White folks uncomfortable, too. Because it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another to be about it.

Did either Oprah or ABC Nightline consult Black female experts on the issue of Black females and dating? No. Did either of these shows consult a Black female without credentials, but who would know better than anyone about the experience of Black women and dating? No. Did either of these shows even consult a Brother with credentials in marriage and couples’ counseling? No. Instead, they asked Steve Harvey, a Black man who has been divorced twice and married three times.

Click here to see ABC Nightline “Face-off: Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?”

I’ve talked about Steve and this Nightline Special before, because it’s been very disturbing to me that, whenever Black women want to air our grievances, we are framed as pathetic or whiny at best, or neck-rolling, finger-pointing crazy women at worst. Thus, when Brother Steve was used as the “host” on Oprah and Nightline and started pushing his tired, male-chauvenist agenda that Black women need to get line with “how men really are,” he spoke in quiet, well-modulated tones.

On Nightline, he used the “palm-down” gesture, while passive-aggressively riling up the two Black women on the panel. The two Sisters got crankier and crankier and “proved” Steve’s point: that a Sister can’t get no man ’cause she can’t stop talking loud to a Brother.

Sidebar: and who wouldn’t talk loud when you are told that some guy’s shadiness is really your fault because you don’t understand his pain as a Black man in this society while certain other women–whose race shall remain nameless–do understand his pain and further, know how to keep their mouths shut, and if you acted like certain other women you might be able to get you a man?

I wonder how long it took for Steve’s second wife—and now ex-wife—to start having fantasies about throwing hot grits on him in his sleep after a few sessions of “I’m a calm Black man and you’re a not-calm Black woman who doesn’t understand my wants and needs,” accompanied by his signature palm-down gesture.

A few days ago, when Michaela angela Davis appeared on CNN’s Anderson 360 to give her opinion about the Essence controversy, Anderson Cooper chose CNN Correspondent Roland S. Martin as the opposing side of the debate. Again, not another Black woman, but a Black man. A Black man who proceeded to smugly lecture Davis about “racial fairness” in hiring practices, when Martin had just made the serious mistake of joining Benjamin Jealous, Black man and head of the NAACP, in attacking a Black woman, Shirley S. Sherrod, and accusing her of racism before the facts were all in.

Now, I have been willing to cut Brother Martin some slack in jumping to speak about the Sherrod issue, as wrong as he was, and as hurtful as his support of the Sherrod attack was to me as a Black woman.  Because it’s a twenty-four news cycle, and who among us hasn’t jumped the gun in forming an opinion on something we read online?

But Martin’s definitely standing on some earthquake-shaky ground trying to “read” a sister like Michaela angela Davis who has a twenty-year career in beauty and fashion journalism about hiring practices in fashion magazines. And in addition, it was very disturbing how Martin was cosigning Anderson Cooper’s White male condescension during that segment—Cooper’s “there is no racism towards Black women in this society and it’s all in your mind” remarks. I thought Martin was going to get whiplash, he was nodding so vigorously in agreement with Cooper. I know that Brother has to keep his job, but, dang already.

This issue of who speaks for Black women is not one that just popped up. Back during slavery times, Black people were not allowed to give testimony against Whites, either, only other Blacks, and this prohibition extended to Black women.

Further, the rape of a Black unfree woman was not treated as a crime against her body, but as a crime against a White man’s property, even those few times she was allowed to testify against her attacker. Thus, this sort of dismissal of a Black woman’s testimony, before or after she speaks– forcing her to check with others before she can truly know how she feels– has a tradition in our country with the law, with the media, and unfortunately, sometimes with our own Black community.

So I am watching this Essence conversation very carefully, because this is not just a moment in fashion, it is moment in history.

9 thoughts on “If She Hollers, Call Her A Reverse-Racist

  1. You know, this was a great piece. My husbands been posting on blogs about making sure we look at the big picture and aware of the midterm elections so we can at least have the opportunity to fight for our freedoms. But I appreciated your sense of humor when it came to Martin. I watched that segment of CNN with Anderson Cooper. And it had me rolling.

    As much respect as I have for Martin, he was squirming in his seat. I truthfully felt sorry for the brotha and couldn’t stop laughing. He’s really dug himself a hole after joining the mens club defending his best friend Jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Jealous too, however . . . Both of them have some serious backstepping to regain respect. This fudging, and stumbling over the words, apologizing then this?! My guess? They’re sitting at a bar trying to come up with the next strategy, avoiding any confrontation with African Am. female population or their wives.

  2. I’ve stayed away from the whole Essence controversy because I, like some of my sisters, have felt that Essence abandoned their constituency a long time ago. While understand it’s about money, this was one of the few magazines that addressed the issues relating to women of color and now, well, I don’t see me or my needs reflected in the magazine at all. First of all, I don’t live in a world where $375 shoes are feasible, but I’m not gonna go there right now. But I will say that this is just another sign that the voices of the people are being lost to the almighty dollar.

    Can we take a look at BET and TV One? Those were two stations that were ostensibly about black people and for black people but all they showed were women shaking their rumps and men spewing their gangsta messages. Where was the message of uplift and support for the community?

    Should we, in the face of all that is going on, be surprised that Essence has finally sold out?

    • I completely hear you and feel you. This is where I separate from Michaela’s and Esther’s very poignant stances. Essence has had white women in their advertisements without any commentary on that change. This was the FIRST sign of an issue. I didn’t hear anyone speak on it. The white woman in question was a freelance fashion director for Essence 6 months prior to them offering the job. Where was the outcry when she was allowed to freelance the position? We are late AGAIN.

      The above issue of reverse racism can’t come from a emotional stance but a legal one. Maybe the powers at Essence knew to have her freelance the gig before the offer because now the conversation does look as if “reverse racism’ is taking place. I’m NOT saying it is but I get the view point. She did the job, she has experience and we’re saying she doesn’t deserve the job because of race. That’s the argument.

      Essence let us go years back. Essence isn’t the bible for Black women’s images as its being painted to be. We DO have to hold “OUR” institutions accountable for empowering new talent and providing space for that.

      All of this is messy to me. There’s no clear cut response.

      Blessings to Michaela and Esther. I’m with Kimberly below…..LOTS of energy given to this. LOTS.

  3. Is it really worth all of the energy that the issue has been given?
    Does Essence magazine really represent black women in our current state?
    NO!
    And it has not represented me for a number of years…..I first laid eyes on Essence magazine when I was 7 maybe 8 yrs old,I am now going on 45 and it’s all I can do to quickly leaf through the publication.
    I must say that the magazine has not evolved the way it should have ….it got stuck in the eighties! and began to age along with the long time editor Ms.Susan Taylor and my mother!…leaving me with nothing to read.
    I grew up in New York AND….I graduated from Parsons School of Design…Major …Fashion Design!
    So I know first hand that we are not represented in the industry as Blacks nor as women.
    Now the black men????? get love and props from both ends …pardon the pun but no where near what their white counterparts get from the Vogues ,Harper’s Bazaar,Elle..these publications create and support their designers( who in time become our designers too), they feature white talent in all areas of design/art/film/writing/food/ ……Essence didn’t!

    Did you know that…there are less then 5 black folks who are food stylist…I personally know one and her work is FABULOUS…her work has been the New York Times,She has worked with Martha Stewart…her food styling is an art form…not to mention that the sister can cook her butt off!!!
    Where is her book ???? where is her T.V show? where is her lifestyle brand of pots,linens table and bedding,cooking accessories,dishes????? what happened to her brand ???????

    What about Shelia Bridges…..Essence didn’t support her but the living well network did….Kaboom! a brand has been created…..I wonder what her brand is worth and what it could have been worth had Essence REALLY gotten behind her and others to prop and push product…..imagine the money ….the career opportunities…..the income into the black community! we could have had ten plus Multi million/billion dollar brands/companies that create things other than clothing.
    Where is our cosmetic brand like MAC?….why do we only have 1 hair care-beauty brand that has crossed over to non traditional retail outlets?
    Not everything that says black needs to come from or look like it came from the 125 Mart!
    We are capable of Bergdorf and Barneys level product across the board!!!!!!

    So what did we get!!!…..terrible,dated and unhealthy recipes made with Velvetta and greens…. 150 ways to cook greens,and articles on the same ole shit….I’m sorry issues!
    Same shit…. different cover …different year.
    So having said all of that…I can’t say that I would miss Essence if it weren’t on the newsstand.
    Maybe it’s time to create a new magazine that is in step with black women as we are and where we are today!
    Had Essence done even half of what’s been mentioned our economic base would not allow for a bunch of white boys to A) Take over and B)TELL the editor of Essence to hire the white women.
    Angela will be out of a job too….if the SEPTEMBER issue is weak…and the white women will be the new editor at the helm of Essence magazine.

    • beautiful reply…

      & so dead on

      i am a black woman, international chef, & that food column was simply an exercise in both disgust & frustration…

      & ps –

      (who is the fabulous black food stylist? – would love to see her work -)

  4. I was very disappointed to hear about the change in editors at Essence. I also wondered they could not have found one black woman that had all the credentials it takes to be an editor. I will not be buying that magazine anytime soon. And by the way, Steve Harvey needs to SHUT THE HELL UP!! GREAT ARTICLE.

    • if that liver lipped bastard opens his patronizing mouth one more goddamn time – & isn’t he on his third disastrous marriage???

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