As a Black person with any legitimate desire to flourish in corporate America, this endeavor can be as daunting as it is challenging. Coming from a Black man who’s worked in corporate America since I was 20 years old, there is an esoteric code of conduct and set of characteristics expected of us to make strides and bolster our chances of “success.”
For someone who identifies with and wholeheartedly embraces their Blackness, it often feels like this pattern of behavior is inauspicious. It can feel like we must make certain core concessions of our DNA to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder. Choosing between one’s identity or desire to excel can feel uncomfortable, disheartening, and scary. While this conversation is typically reserved for members of the Black community, Hulu’s new series The Other Black Girl peels apart all the sinister contents of this conundrum from almost every angle for all to digest and indulge some strange food for thought.
Based on the 2021 novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, the dramedy-mystery series follows the prosaic life of Nella Rogers (played by Sinclair Daniel) and her experience as a young, fresh-faced editorial assistant at Wagner Books. Due to being the only Black woman in the office, she feels overlooked, undervalued, overworked and underpaid. This is a common narrative for those who come from nothing and aren’t the beneficiaries of nepotism. However, all of that changes when Wagner hires Hazel May-McCall, who also happens to be a Black woman. Replete with confidence and residing in Harlem, McCall encourages Nella to stand up for herself in the workplace. From there, things propel into strange territory and severe hysteria.
On the surface, the show has been heavily promoted to be a “suspenseful thriller” among its other genres, which is fairly accurate. While some may perceive adversity at work to be a bit humdrum and relatively normal, this iteration of reality can be a far cry for Black people who work in corporate spaces. For decades, the milieu of the corporate setting has felt treacherous and covertly (or sometimes even overtly) menacing. Underneath all the congenial smiles and fluffy, performative office chatter lies a seed of doubt, cynicism, and trepidation that permeates the subconscious often and exists behind every corner. The lingering unknown of these interactions makes the workplace an indubitably eerie and mysterious place, especially for Black folks. And The Other Black Girl captures the magnitude of that reality. From the ongoing apprehensions Nella has about championing her beliefs as a Black woman to the insurmountable pressure she feels to be a valiant avatar of representation to feeling like she needs to bend over backward for her white supervisor every minute, the young professional is in a constant state of hardship, which can be both overwhelming and debilitating.
The white community doesn’t strictly espouse these feelings and thought processes. Another critical point the show illuminates is the incessant tension between Black people in the corporate work environment. In an ideal world, we would see each other and feel inclined to do whatever is necessary to help each other excel. However, this is never the case. Whenever two or more are gathered, common questions are known to pop up: “Can I potentially trust this person? Is this person with me or against me?”
Throughout the show, Nella is in a state of investigation regarding her new co-worker, Hazel. She’s trying to probe her intention and whether she’s a friend or foe. This game of gauging if you can trust your Black counterparts in the corporate workspace is 100% true to form. As a Black person, you’re not only expected to deal with the burdens of respectability politics and “proper” workplace etiquette, but you must also play this proverbial game of “Can I trust this/these other Black person/s?” This chore can feel exhausting at times.
The concept of “drinking the Kool-Aid” is also a real and tangible thing. That means fully subscribing to the standard behavior of how one is expected to exist peacefully in the workplace as a Black person: small talking, not standing up for what you truly believe in and doing whatever it takes to keep your job in the corporate, predominantly white arena. In this mode, there’s little room for action or mindset outside of this routine. For Black people, this can mean compromising your integrity and core ideals/values to gain acceptance or “selling your soul” altogether if that means taking more steps toward upward mobility.
In The Other Black Girl, Nella grapples with this motif and has to figure out the more advantageous path. Fortunately, she has some solid friends whose perceptions aren’t distorted by their professional ambitions: her best friend Malaika (played by Brittany Adebumola) and her boyfriend (played by Hunter Parrish). They’re keenly aware of how disconcerting Nella’s predicament is, and by their respective distances from the corporate world, they’re seeing the real thing. Moreover, even with the support of her friends, that doesn’t downplay how dizzying and strenuous navigating the space can be at times. In all earnest, she needs all she can get.
In the grand scheme of things, no work environment is perfect, irrespective of whether it’s in the corporate world. And no one asked for it to be a walk in the park because nothing worthy of attaining ever is. While the Black experience isn’t monolithic, being Black in the corporate world can feel like it requires a single dimension of us with zero consideration for the distinct nuances that set us apart. In the era of the #MeToo movement with more DEI initiatives than ever before and many other progressive happenings, the least Black people should be afforded is the genuine space to be themselves at work.