White Cover Girl On A Black Magazine?

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith asked if white women should be featured on the covers of black magazines. The question sparked a passionate debate about inclusiveness at media outlets. Host Michel Martin talks with Galina Espinoza, formerly of Latina Magazine, and with Kierna Mayo of Ebony.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, we will hear the latest in our series of tweet-length poems that you've been sending us. That's our Muses and Metaphor series, and that's how we celebrate National Poetry Month. That's just ahead.

But, first, we are going to keep the conversation going that we kicked off just a minute ago. You just heard from entertainment diva Jada Pinkett Smith about the debate she sparked on Facebook a little over a week ago. In case you missed it, she posted a mock-up cover of the black women's magazine, Essence, with a picture of actress Charlize Theron, who's white, and a mock-up cover of Queen Latifah - the African-American actress and singer and rapper - on Cosmopolitan.

And she asked the question, quote, "If we ask our white sisters who tend to be the guardians of the covers of mainstream magazines to consider women of color to grace these covers, should we not offer the same consideration to white women to grace our covers?" Unquote.

She received more than 2,000 responses to that question, many of them quite passionate, as she just described. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called two women with deep roots in the magazine world.

Kierna Mayo is the editorial director of Ebony.com. That's a digital offering from the historic Ebony magazine. She's also the cofounder of Honey, a magazine that covered entertainment and fashion with the perspective of black women in mind. Also joining us is Galina Espinoza. She is now a media consultant, but formerly, she was the editorial director of Latina Media Ventures, the parent company of Latina magazine, and she also held high-level positions with People magazine. And they're both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KIERNA MAYO: Thank you.

GALINA ESPINOZA: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Kierna, how do you respond to this?

MAYO: You know, many things come to mind for me. For one, I think it's just so important to note that, at black magazines, we're not not putting white women on the cover because we have a thing against them. That's not really what's at stake or at play. We're putting us on the cover because we're desperate to see ourselves. So I just feel like the positioning of Jada's question - while it's true, conversations like this are critically important as it relates to imagery and media. It's just unfortunate that it's tonal. It's almost directed toward black women as though onus is now ours to begin to move the needle.

And I say I think it would have been awesome for Jada to reach out to her editor friends at, you know, say, Glamour or In Style or, you know, any number of magazines on the newsstand today that tend to speak to young white women's needs and issues and morays a lot more than they do any other group of women, because they are the gatekeepers when it comes to what is, quote, unquote, "known as mainstream."

Now, theoretically, mainstream is supposed to include everyone. But what we know is that, historically speaking, specifically with magazines - and I'm a 20-plus year magazine veteran - I can tell you that it's very far from equal terrain.

MARTIN: OK.

MAYO: So - yeah.

MARTIN: Let me hear from Galina, and we'll come back to you and hear more about this, because I'm sure a lot of - this is stirring up a lot of things for a lot of people right now.

MAYO: Yeah, for sure.

MARTIN: Galina, what about you? What's your take on this? A little different in the world of Latina media because, as I think most people know, Latinas can be of any race.

ESPINOZA: Yes, they can. And yet they are still vastly underrepresented. You know, the whole history of magazines like Latina, like Essence, like Ebony was to show ourselves. That's exactly why Latina was founded, because the woman who came up with the idea for the magazine was so tired of going to newsstands and not seeing anyone who looked like her.

So I do find it very frustrating that Jada would put the onus on women of color to move the needle by being more embracing and welcoming, because the last thing that Charlize Theron needs is more opportunity to be on another magazine cover. There is no magazine in the world that's not going to put her on the cover. I can't say that about any other woman of color.

MAYO: Exactly.

MARTIN: Let me push you on this, if you don't mind. Let me play - I don't know if it's devil's advocate, but I'll just push you on that, and, Galina, I'll ask you first. Why not put the onus on women of color? Because people of color have often taken the moral high ground on questions and have been a moral beacon for people to consider questions that they had not previously.

I think it's well known that, previously, when the white majority was hostile to biracial families, for example, that those families were much more welcomed in communities of color than they were in majority white environments. So why not?

ESPINOZA: Because, again, I don't think that Charlize Theron needs to be welcomed into the magazine world. She's already got full entree and full access. I think the issue - you know, I agree with Jada's sentiment and her belief and her desire to have these arbitrary barriers broken down. I love the idea of integrating the coverage, so it's not a question of, do we need a black person on the cover, do we need a Latina, do we need a white woman, but it's just who do we want on the cover of this month? That absolutely does not happen.

If you look at any of the mainstream magazine covers, Vogue, In Style, no one is casting for an eye to diversity. If you get one woman of color on the cover, you know, once year, it's big news. And the fact that it's 2013 and this is still something that we are fighting for - and it's not just magazines - it's across the media industry, it's on TV. Look at the daytime talk shows, "The Chew," "The Talk," "The View," none of these have a single Latina on. So this is an ongoing issue across all media.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about a recent Facebook post by Jada Pinkett Smith. We talked to her just a few minutes ago. She asked if white women should be considered for the covers of black magazines and Latina magazines, presumably.

We're talking about this with media consultant Galina Espinoza. She is a magazine veteran, had a key post at Latina magazine and also formally at People magazine. Also with us, Kierna Mayo of Ebony.com. She also has deep roots in the magazine world. She's the co-founder of Honey.

Kierna?

MAYO: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Now, don't tase me. But...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Because I'm sure you have strong feelings about this.

ESPINOZA: Be careful, Michel.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But I think people look at the magazine racks, at the moment, and they will see the first lady, Michelle Obama, on the cover...

MAYO: OK.

MARTIN: ...of a number of magazines that are so-called mainstream. And they will see the Beyonce on the cover of a number of these magazines. They may also see Rihanna on the cover of a number of these so-called mainstream magazines. Does that make a difference?

MAYO: Well, extract those three women from the conversation. One, you've got, one is the wife of the president, so that's a singular thing. So it's not as though she, I believe in the minds of editors who choose her as a cover subject, I don't think that she is necessarily representative of black women, even. And I know that's loaded because clearly, she is a back woman. But I don't, again, I don't think that they are saying to themselves, you know, we really want to have a healthy dialogue with an amazing black woman who is doing amazing things. They want the wife of the president on the cover of the magazine.

MARTIN: But she is an African-American woman who is very proud to be one.

MAYO: She is. She is. She is.

MARTIN: And people have made - how can I put it - disturbing comments about her physical appearance - which are clearly related to her being African-American. So forgive me for putting it in this way, but doesn't that count in here?

ESPINOZA: If I can jump in.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

ESPINOZA: I mean I think that for me, yes, it does count, just like when I see Jennifer Lopez, or Selma Hayek or Penelope Cruz on the cover of those...

MARTIN: Or Sofia Regatta.

ESPINOZA: Yes, it absolutely does count. But when you look at the percentages of the population, when you look at the fact that the Hispanic population makes up 17 percent of this country, we are nowhere even close to getting that level of representation in the mainstream media, not even close. You know, what? One cover a year?

MAYO: Right.

ESPINOZA: Sure, it counts.

MAYO: Right.

ESPINOZA: But you expect me to be pleased about that? Absolutely not.

MAYO: Right. So I...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Kierna.

MAYO: I would add to that, you know, I'm saying this, in specific, because what happens when he's no longer the president, though...

MARTIN: Right. OK. Mm-hmm.

MAYO: ...you know, so and she will no longer be first lady? I guess my point is that there are many women of color who are deserving of magazine covers. We clearly do not see that happening and it's not - this is not just a modern occurrence. This is the history of publishing in this country. So it's, in my opinion, more than just a - it's not really a moral issue, because you posed that question earlier. It's truly about representation.

And as Galina was speaking to, I mean even if you were to just take our representation percentage portions in the country, Latino's are not 17 percent of any mainstream magazine on any given month, as African-Americans are not 12, 13, 14 percent of content coverage. It is so critical that we do not buy this argument that we - to me this is really a diversion. I mean even if mainstream publications were to open up in a way that would best serve them - by the way - from a business standpoint. I mean that we are consuming these magazines, and I'll tell you it feels great to see Rihanna on the cover of Elle. It feels great to see an African-American woman on the cover of any mainstream magazine. But it's a diversion, it's a sidebar conversation.

MARTIN: Is this mainly a conversation about women's magazines? Because again, not to be stereotypical, but Sports Illustrated has a lot of black people on the cover. And Latino people too, depending on what sport is dominant in that particular cycle, right? Depending on what time of year you are, which sports are the ones being featured. Are we mainly talking about women's magazines here? And why do you think this issue is as loaded as it is? I mean I can hear the emotion in both of your voices talking about this.

(LAUGHTER)

ESPINOZA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And as Jada Pinkett Smith indicated in our conversation with her earlier, she has a lot of impassioned, very strong feelings about this - evoked by this.

ESPINOZA: Well, one thing that I do want to pick up that Jada said is that she talked about how she posted this to her Facebook page because she wanted to start the dialogue...

MAYO: Right.

ESPINOZA: And how we're hesitant to talk about these things and we need to talk about these things. And I could not disagree with that sentiment more, because the reality is we talk about this all the time. Every year there is a media report card that comes out that evaluates the network's diversity of their new shows. Every year the networks fail miserably. We have talked and talked and talked. We need to stop talking and actually call for action. We need to demand that there are changes. We need to get all of the stuff that we know. We're much more aware of, you know, the need for representation and I think that's why a lot of people feel like, but wait, there are people on newsstands. There are Latinas. There's Sofia Regatta is a huge star. OK. Can you name one other Latina star on a top 10 show on television? There is a real serious complex challenge here, and we need to start moving forward toward actually addressing this instead of just continuing to talk around it.

MARTIN: So it's not just a woman issue, you don't think?

MAYO: Oh...

MARTIN: Or is it because beauty, the whole question of beauty is so implicated in this.

ESPINOZA: Yes. And I think that that's why when you said, you know, is it women's magazines, I think that that has a special resonance because women's magazines are considered the standard bearer for images of beauty and of fashion and glamour. They are aspirational. They're what women want women want to be. And if you as a little girl are looking at these covers and you don't see anyone who looks like you, that's a really detrimental effect.

MAYO: Sure. And they're plentiful, is the point. There's so many of them, so they dominate newsstands if you walk by a newsstand - if there are any remaining.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYO: You can just see, you can take a visual snapshot and you're very clear that women's magazines are leading the pack, and among those magazines you see very few if any faces of color. So, you know, I just, I regret that this dialogue - not this particular dialogue that we are having, but I think some of what Jada was suggesting is somewhat simplistic.

ESPINOZA: Mm-hmm.

MAYO: It's a very naive look at...

ESPINOZA: It is naive.

MAYO: ...at media at large and magazine culture, in specific. And I'm afraid, I always become very nervous when the people who are working hardest to have a space at the table are then the ones forced to explain why they should have a space at the table.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYO: It's tricky.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, thank you both so much for this. Very rich conversation. I did want to ask again Kierna, if - I think Galina answered this on her part. But on your part too, I did want to ask. There are people who will just tune into our conversation and they won't understand why it's a big deal. So I want to ask why it's a big deal. Why does it matter?

MAYO: Well, it matters on a macro level, because imagery matters and what you see and the pictures and the stories that are told really shape our culture, overall. And so, to the extent that there are lost stories and faces that are not seen, voices that are not heard, we're all at a loss. You know, we're not specialty coverage. We're not just for one time of the year. We are Americans. We are women. We are buying beauty products. We are an important part of the "mainstream," quote-unquote.

MARTIN: And Galina, final thought from you?

ESPINOZA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I gave Kierna the first one. I want to give you the last word.

(LAUGHTER)

ESPINOZA: Well, what I'm finding so frustrating is that there has never been more attention paid to the Hispanic population than there is now because people are seeing the numbers in are realizing that the future of their businesses, going forward, is going to be dependent on engaging and attracting and reaching these consumers. And yet, for all of the talk and all of the hand-wringing, I have yet to see any change.

What I do now, is a media consultant, is I go to companies who say, tell us, tell us how to reach Latinos. And I said well, let's start by looking at your images. Step one, start just showing more brown faces in your advertising materials. And they all look at me like this is, oh, my gosh. We've never thought of this before. It seems so obvious and so simple, but the fact that I have to say CEOs shows you how much further we still have to go.

MARTIN: Galina Espinoza is a media consultant. She's the former co-president and editorial director of Latina Media Ventures, the parent company for Latina magazine and Latina.com. She was a previously a senior editor of People magazine. Kierna Mayo is the editorial director of Ebony.com. She's also the co-founder of Honey magazine. They were both with us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you, ladies so much for joining us.

MAYO: Thank you.

ESPINOZA: Thank you, Michel.

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