I read this book to assess its suitability as a 2022 summer reading selection for grades 9 through 12 at The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusett.
My conclusion is that high school students will not yet have the life experience and frame of reference to understand the racism and microaggressions that Black women face in the workplace. When people’s biases against marginalized groups reveal themselves in a way that leaves their victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted, that is a microaggression.
The book spoke to the parts of me have been damaged by 40 years in corporate America: I’m consistently one of very few black women in the room pushing against barriers at the intersection of race and gender.
These are my notes.
Nella’s boss when Nella asked for a promotion: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into thoses extracurricular diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.”
Repeating theme: Brown Buttah. Coco butter. Hair grease. Hair types. Natural hair. Not knowing how to do black hair. Relaxed hair. Braids. Scarves. Hair salons. Twisting. “The Kitchen.” Hair Therapist. Hair wraps. Bonnets.
“In her 2021 debut novel, The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris examines racism, microaggression, and tokenism through the lens of the optics-obsessed publishing industry. Harris, who previously worked as an assistant editor at Penguin Random House, brings firsthand knowledge and mindful skepticism to a contemporary psychological horror novel about the industry she knows inside and out.”
Nella Rogers is the only Black employee of a publishing house. When Hazel-May McCall, another Black woman, is hired by the company, Rogers initially believes the woman will be an ally.
“Nella represents a new, younger generation of would-be editors hoping to infuse cultural diversity and equity into an industry that has historically excluded people of colour. She’s been there for two years, and she’s ripe for a promotion. But her boss implies that Nella’s focus is off-kilter: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into those extracurricular diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.”
Listicle ~ a piece of writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list.
“Simon Legree” ~ A brutal taskmaster after a cruel slave dealer in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Act of Editing: sliding words and paragraphs around in a game of literary Tetris.
Ombré is the blending of one color hue to another, usually moving tints and shades from light to dark.
NYC Financial District ~ “a frigid, bloodless neighborhood that held one of the country’s biggest slave markets, once upon a time.”
Parallels to real life:
- characters of color are “en vogue”
- calling out anything that lacks proper representation
- ONE black person at the job (maybe 2)
- diversity meetings as an extracurricular
- diversity is just an item “to check off a list and nothing more – a shallow, shadowy thing with but one dimension”
- Question after every slight: “Do we think it is a race thing?”
- The Black Female Experience is universal
- 9 to 5 world severe hierarchy, homogeneity, and rigidity
- You gotta be twice as good, remember?
- systematic inequality (when the fabric of organizations, institutions, governments or social networks contains an embedded bias which provides advantages for some members and marginalizes or produces disadvantages for other members.)
- One of the good ones – most dangerous phase in English language
- Do you risk your job by telling white people they are making a mistake? “If white people couldn’t navigate political correct waters on their own, that was their own problem.”
- Going to a historically black college blessed students with the ability to forget white people existed, if only for a little while.
- Nobody looks for missing little black girls.
- “The fact that you are black colors every single thing anyone ever says to you ~ pun intended…Whether they admit it or not.”
In the final act of the book, Hazel confesses that she’s part of a national organization dedicated to targeting successful, smart Black creatives and brainwashing them into being more palatable and less “threatening” to their white coworkers.
Book Club Questions
- Why do you think the author set this novel in the book publishing industry? How would the story unfold in another setting? How would it be similar or different?
- Nella is the only black person in an all-white environment. What are some of the micoaggressions she dealt with on a daily basis?
- Why do you think the author wanted to highlight how Black women feel competitive toward one another in white corporate America? How do you think people feel when they are the only person of color at work? Why might people of color feel competitive in white work spaces?
- What does this book say about code-switching and selling out? What, if anything, separates the two? What are examples of code-switching?
- A passage toward the beginning of the book says “diversity becomes an item people start checking off a list and nothing more, a shallow, shadowy thing with but one dimension.” What are your thoughts on this?
Zakiya Dalila Harris spent nearly three years in editorial at Knopf/Doubleday before leaving to write her debut novel The Other Black Girl. Prior to working in publishing, Zakiya received her MFA in creative writing from The New School.