Am I Being Set Up to Fail?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

I think the season of check-in texts is over. At this stage in our moment of racial reckoning, the stream of guilt-tinged texts from white associates asking if I’m, “okay,” has given way to all sorts of calls and emails from people processing the overwhelming whiteness where they work — requests to “chat about a new job opportunity,” “pick your brain about diversity,” or recommend candidates for jobs seemingly meant to create a little room at the table. While the positions, promotions, consultations, and connections seem full of promise and potential, there are the nagging thoughts that haunt many of us: Am I being set up for failure? Will I have the support I need? Do they want me for my ideas, values, and dreams — or to check the box and diversify the company brochure?

I can’t stop thinking about the story of actress and writer Micheala Coel’s big break. I watched the phenomenal speech that she gave before a packed room of high-powered TV executives in 2018, where she talked about being “discovered” and getting the chance to write a scripted show — but without a writers’ room, a script editor, or any form of guidance. “Why are we platforming misfits?” she asks in the speech. “Heralding them as newly rich successes whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility?” Of course, the creator and star of the HBO hit I May Destroy You is not failing, but she recognized early on that she was not being set up to succeed.

The eight Black professionals I spoke to, who work in fields from filmmaking to academia, relate to that experience intensely. Even moments that seemed to signify that they were climbing to new heights in their respective careers — promotions, appointments, new businesses ventures — were marred by feelings of isolation, stress, and, in some cases, retaliation for speaking up about the discrimination they endured along the way. Still, their stories reveal a kind of necessary resilience.

The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity, and some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

“I’m not working for myself, so why am I so alone in everything that I’m doing?” — Ese Olumhense, 28, reporter in New York City

About three years ago, I started a journalism residency where I was supposed to spend two years reporting, being trained, and being mentored before the paper would decide whether to hire me or not. What I found — and this mirrors the experiences of lots of other people — was that I got there, wasn’t paid super well, and was trained very, very minimally. You’re thrown into environments that are literally like, “Someone’s been shot, rush to this place and write up a story.” I think imagining that someone can come to a place and perform at a high level without the necessary training, without regular feedback or mentorship, is not helpful.

It’s really only a justification for paying folks a little less. The sad part is that it was a residency that was created to bring diversity to the paper. It’s tough to be in a place where you know you can work hard, you know what you’re capable of, you know you can deliver and execute, but you don’t have the tools to do it. It’s kind of like being in a boat and needing to get from one river bank to the other side — and not having oars.

Google was not my editor. Google was not my boss. I shouldn’t have had to go there to get information about my job. I’m not working for myself, so why am I so alone in everything that I’m doing? It’s a way to illustrate to a person that they are not valuable enough; I left after a year and two months.

“All these additional ‘minority tax’ or ‘Black tax’ pieces just don’t count.” — Utibe Essien, 35, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh

I’m thinking about all these opportunities that are starting to come up for physicians of color. It’s like, “Oh, can you help lead our diversity efforts? You’ll probably not have a budget. You’ll probably not have support, but you’ll have a title and will now be asked to do this.” No other role is asked to do something — like magic — without money and support.

I was hired to be a researcher, so I’m supposed to publish 5–10 papers a year, see patients, and also get grants. But I’m now expected to also serve on the diversity task force around anti-racist curriculum for our medical school. I’ve also been asked to help support my department in these efforts. I’m expected to mentor Black medical students, because they see so few of us [Black professors] in the classroom. I’m expected to teach in those lectures as well.

I have a role now where I mentor minority medical students interested in research, which comes with a position and title that’s financially supported. But the folks who are in the DMs on Instagram and Twitter are not a part of my job. It looks like mentoring on the weekends, at night, and staying at work after hours. And, in some ways, that energy has been taken away from my main job. So in 5–10 years, when my boss is looking at me and saying,
“Hey, it looks like you weren’t as productive as Dr. X. What’s going on?” All these additional “minority tax” or “Black tax” pieces just don’t count. I think that is why only 1 to 2 percent of professors — the top level of academic achievement in medicine — are Black … because we just trickle off along the way.

“Oh, wow. I thought that was just me.” — Sam Bailey, 31, filmmaker in Los Angeles, California

I came from the theater, and I was doing an Indie Web series. And then when [my shows] You’re So Talented and Brown Girls took off, Hollywood was kind of like, oh, now, now we’re taking notice. I’d only taught myself how to make shows. I’d only been on my own sets. I hadn’t gone to film school. I really had no idea how a TV set worked, how a writers’ room worked. So you get into your, like, hippie way of running things that works well for you and then you’re kind of thrown into the middle of a Hollywood set where you’re a young Black woman having to explain to a set that’s overwhelmingly white and male that you’re the one at the helm of the project. And that is a really difficult thing to do.

I feel like Hollywood holds a lot of different, complicated truths. The industry is incredibly white, incredibly cis, incredibly straight, incredibly hypermasculine. So to me, it’s kind of been a hostile environment for my being. And now we’re in a place where other people are talking about it more. It’s made me feel less alone. It’s like, “Oh, wow. I thought that was just me.” I feel like the gatekeepers kind of keep you separate from each other. So you’re just operating in a vacuum until you’re lucky enough to meet your people. And I was really lucky to find a lot of that [as a producer and director on] Dear White People. The way Justin Simien runs his room felt like, “Oh my god, look at all these beautiful people who don’t have to explain their existence.” And when you don’t have to defend yourself – the reasons as to why you’re there – you’re actually able to do the skill stuff, the art stuff, the work stuff.

“I’m your token when you need me” — Sandra*, 37, attorney in the Northeast

I was the only Black prosecutor practicing law in an all-white County. I worked on crimes involving sexual assault and was respected among the judges on the bench, but when promotions and pay raises came up, I was never selected. I was the one who took the hard cases — rapes, homicides, sexual assaults, sexual violence, elder abuse. I was on-call 24/7, and I still had two children that I had to take care of at home.

I’m good enough to be your token when you need me on a very complex homicide, but not good enough to be named captain of the team? That’s problematic to me. I’m not good enough for a merit bonus, but you want me to try the biggest case we’ve ever had? And then, when I was one of the prosecutors on [a very high-profile trial], I felt like I was set up for failure. There were ceilings that I was just completely incapable of bursting through because of the boys club. Even though I didn’t fail, I was never able to succeed because I was never going to get that recognition, regardless of what happened.

“Who gets to fail?” — Michael Grant, 38, editorial-experience designer in Menlo Park, California

Failure is one of the things that people don’t like to admit to, particularly if they’re ambitious. You don’t want to believe that, despite doing great work, you’re destined to fail. In a past job, I felt more like a token hire as opposed to someone who could bring real knowledge and skill and do their job well. Once the honeymoon period is over, you find you’re not empowered on projects, and the ambitious ideas that you had begin to seem like things you’ll never get through.

Failure can also be super-weaponized when you just don’t jive with the team or you’re not a “company fit” or “culture fit.” If you don’t perform in the way that they expected you to, then your narrative starts to be written by other people about who you are and what you bring. But who really gets to fail? I’ve seen people bomb bad, but there isn’t a cloud over their head after they totally go off the rails on something. I think the way I feel working for myself, the freedom of thought, is what my white colleagues feel when they come to work every day.

“Just let me in” — Audrey Dorsey, 58, executive coach in Atlanta, Georgia

When I went to undergrad — I studied engineering in Michigan at a time when affirmative action was alive and well — the way I looked at it, I didn’t care if I got in through affirmative action or not. I got in. There were only a few Black students in industrial engineering and two of us happened to be in a class together. I can remember that we were waiting at our professor’s office and a bunch of other students in the class were waiting as well. And somebody said that we had it easier because of affirmative action, that that’s how we got in and we passed our classes. Neither one of us said anything. I’ll never forget that because it was so hurtful. And I thought, maybe that could have had something to do with how I got in, but it sure as heck didn’t have anything to do with me passing my classes.

I came from more of that stoic background. Life is hard and you’ve got to rise to the occasion and white knuckle your way through it. I just want the opportunity, and I’ll figure out how to make it work for me. That’s all I need. Just let me in. Say yes, and then I’ll hustle and figure it out. Now I realize that I don’t see that same thing in my kids. They work hard, but they’re much more discerning and demanding. We just wanted in. And work culture was: Do I know my work assignments? And Do I get paid? I wasn’t thinking, Am I going to be accepted here and be valued for my opinion?

I may not have felt supported to succeed, but I didn’t feel set up to fail. I looked at all that and thought, That’s making me more fit for the next challenge. We’re all sort of on this great big game board. And it’s just like … how are you moving your pieces? And how have you decided you can win this game?

“I was quite devastated by what I saw.” — Home*, 32, arts activist in Los Angeles, California

I was hired at a prestigious public university to coordinate an arts-based, health-education program. In less than a year, I was promoted to direct the program as well as lecture. I did not know I was the first person with my identity — Black, queer, female-assigned, gender nonconforming — to be employed in this space. I have so many emails and text messages and notes that people gave me celebrating and appreciating me for my work. Young people who were feeling like for the first time they could see themselves speaking openly about their experiences of sexual assault because I, too, am a survivor.

But even with the “security” of having steady income, etc. I knew that I was only a few [steps] away from abject poverty. There were moments when I had to choose between, like, food and bus fare because I was being so underpaid. Two years into the position, I learned that I was experiencing inequities in terms of pay, workload, and title. Because the university is public, the salaries of the staff members are available online. And so, I looked; I was quite devastated by what I saw.

When I invited a conversation to better understand what decisions led to the disparities, the workplace became hostile for me. I was pulled into a performance evaluation for the first time ever after speaking up about the fact that other people who didn’t hold the same marginalized identities as me were paid more, had better workloads, and had higher titles. Ultimately, the retaliation was terminating my contract.

“It’s not always about what the company wants from you.” — Tiffany Ricks, 33, owner of a bridal boutique in Philadelphia

The thing that stuck with me the most about one of my first jobs was not feeling valued. I was kind of always fighting to establish my worth and my value to the company. It’s just part of the culture in fashion to have a rotating door of young designers who want to have opportunities and make connections. But I was working around the clock for an opportunity and not fully understanding how much that it was creatively draining me.
I said, “If I’m doing a lot of work and not getting a return on my investment from these companies, I think it’s best that I just create my own.” As I look back, there were just so many closed doors that led me to create things that were more fulfilling than I could have ever planned for or imagined.
For young designers, it’s important to understand what you need as well; it’s not always about what the company wants from you. I didn’t blame others for not providing me with the opportunities I wanted, I built up the resilience to create my own opportunities that I didn’t see elsewhere. I really didn’t let failure beat me down or stop me.

Am I Being Set Up to Fail?