You are here because you are cool. You have arrived. You’ve finally landed a career in some transparent millennial advertising agency with the pinball machine and the snacks and the sliding-glass office spaces. After three to six interviews and a probation period that amounted to an extended six-month half-paid internship — so you could shadow the girl whose new position comes with a pay bump meaning she will earn four times more than you — you have made it: a job with health care and vision and dental and sick pay and the opportunity to quit at least two of your four to six side jobs.
You understand you are a commodity. You are meant to keep your hair big, your nails hood, and someone more obscure than NAO on the company turntable. You are here to give your company street cred. You are here to be … not enough so that anyone can get you snapping your neck or popping your gum like a Black-girl-sitcom stereotype but … enough so that your officemates can visit the bar where you DJ on weekends and ask you who to call to cater in collard greens.
And you’ve probably watched a lot of movies. The ones where Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl is at the helm of some transparent millennial advertising agency where she “has it all” and “works hard” and points her finger at things she likes to make important decisions, where the ad campaign she’s developing hints at the romantic mess in her personal life, and by the end she’ll have to choose between a job in Paris — one that she neither applied for nor is qualified to do — and some vapid neighborhood heartthrob. And when that man arrives at her office unannounced, carrying a bouquet of wilted carnations, she throws down the red wax pencil she edits with — the kind no one uses anymore — to jump into his arms. You stay through the credits, contemplating why Hollywood movies don’t want women to have jobs. You lift your feet from the sticky floor, impulse-folding your empty containers of popcorn and Raisinets, realizing that the office where Hudson/Heigl worked had no Black people.
It did. We were all visiting HR.
Your first trip to HR begins the moment you’re paired with Becky with the Massive Inferiority Complex. Becky follows women on Instagram who make their own nut milk, and she adopted her dog from a disaster-relief area because the lead production assistant in your office — a girl Becky Single White Femaled into best friendship — did too. You and Becky are assigned to complete a series of projects that only a natural-haired Black girl and a desperately overestimated, entitled 30-something convinced that becoming a “creative” is going to launch her career as a freelance wedding planner can accomplish.
Becky spends a lot of time doing who-knows-what on her smartphone. She is exceedingly nice and chatty with the other people who share your sustainable reclaimed bamboo workstation. Everybody except you. You accept this.
Much like in middle school, you do the project yourself, assuming that once you’re finished, you’ll walk Becky through it, having left gaping holes in obvious tasks so she can feel like she’s contributing, and make sure you both receive full credit. You know this doesn’t exactly make you a “team player,” but you recognize it’s been a little bit harder for Becky to pass the ball since she’s not used to point-guarding somebody Black. For your half-hour meeting with Becky (which you scheduled), you bring a list of ideas, hoping to assist her down the court to the play you’ve got as your endgame. You put on your “smile face” (maintaining the psychotic steadiness of a Batman villain) and share ideas.
Becky blurts a half-assed idea off the top of her head. You think, That’s a stupid idea, and agree it’s a great idea, directing her toward the list of reasonably executable advertising campaigns you spent most of the night working up, looking for the thought most similar to hers. She says if you’d been working in creative longer, you would know why your idea wouldn’t work. That may be so. You ask her if the two of you can keep cracking at hers. You tighten up your smile face and pull out a new piece of blank paper, diving in to her piece of an idea with a preschool teacher’s enthusiasm. You know you sound pedantic, but past Beckys have made it clear to you that Beckys like to be spoken to this way. It reminds them of The Help. You have spoken to Beckys other ways in offices, and it has always resulted in You made Becky cry or You made Becky feel like she knows less than you do with her associate’s degree and your graduate-school education and her previous customer-service job at Macy’s and your more senior position in this company, and so you bob up and down on the pink carousel horse of Becky’s preferred communication style, holding close to its spiral pole.
She gets frustrated. You do too. You suggest the two of you take a break and reconvene the next day since you’ve both worked hard (well, you did) and you have plenty of time to finish up the project tomorrow (no, you don’t), which she, begrudgingly, agrees to, returning to her nicey-nice conversation with the project manager at the other end of the sustainable reclaimed bamboo table about whether Madewell or REI carries better knit beanies.
You come to work an hour early the next day with your half-finished PowerPoint and, in your pocket, your best campaign idea. When she comes to the table with her latte in a white paper cup, you are brightly typing away.
She opens her MacBook and then pulls up a more than half-completed version of the PowerPoint you two began on her desktop. Apparently, during the night, Becky has come to the same place you did about the best campaign idea to push forward. You are elated. You ask Becky what she wants to “bust out” and then ask her what she’d want you to “bust out,” and you both dive in.
The project idea you present to your creative director is solid. The pitch gets pushed through. You and Becky are set to lead a team that will help flesh out your vision. The mood is all backslaps and high fives. You return to your sustainable reclaimed bamboo-table workstation expecting this will be your and Becky’s moment right out of an ebony-and-ivory buddy movie, but based on the way she slams her MacBook down onto her desk, it appears this is not the time.
“You never let me talk!” she screams. “You are always taking credit for all our ideas.” You distinctly remember the moment in the presentation where you gave Becky all the credit for your ideas, and since this is the first time you have ever worked together, you are unsure why Becky is using the plural. “I have ideas,” she screams. Becky is unstable. You try to dial down this confrontation. By this time, all the workmates Becky plays nicey-nice with are off at barre or SoulCycle. There are no witnesses to Becky’s tirade in your corner of the office. You apologize to Becky although you do not know what you are apologizing for to Becky, and you tell her maybe the two of you can talk about it the next day over a matcha.
You meet Becky at the coffee shop, two blocks from the office, that hands out the sustainable white bamboo paper cups and lids. You buy her a latte (she doesn’t drink matcha) and keep the receipt. You and your maniacal smile listen to stories about her small-town upbringing — her recollections of which sound vaguely racist — and stories from her undergrad days, which you have no interest in. You ignore the fact this bitch just yelled at you. You show you are willing to be all welcomes and fixed smiley faces. You assume that you and Becky have made up.
But it isn’t enough. Having identified that yelling is one way to get what she wants — and recognizing that, as the only Black girl in a glass office, you can’t yell back — Becky begins to yell regularly, at the top of her lungs, her most accessible superpower. She yells at you if you ask her to work late. She yells at you when her disaster-relief rescue dog eats crumbs from your gluten-free muffin off the floor. And if she isn’t yelling, she is cutting her eyes, which means she might yell. She has stopped trying to hide her contempt for you from the rest of the office. But given that you are Black and she is “so nice,” everyone continues their clicking away at their workstations, content to let you two “hash it out.”
“Did you try to ‘hash it out’ with her?” asks Tammy from HR as she pulls out an empty folder from a pristinely organized filing cabinet. She draws a fresh incident-report form and a retractable ballpoint pen from her desk drawer. The actions themselves are comforting, almost Zen.
Tammy’s desk is uncluttered by personal paraphernalia, save for a few family photos that include, but are not limited to, a portrait of a girl relative whom she connects to you. “I know how you’re feeling right now,” she might say, “I have a daughter about your age,” but Tammy typically doesn’t, so “daughter” is replaced in conversation by the word “niece,” or “cousin,” or “Rotary Club sister” to establish kinship.
“Did you try to take her for matcha?” Tammy asks. Yes, you did take her for matcha. This is not your first ride on the Becky carousel. You take out your receipt. “Well, I don’t really know what else you can do then.” Tammy sighs. She clicks her pen and puts a check mark through all the incident-report squares. She reminds you of how important it is in this office to be “collegial.” You consider asking if Tammy might think Becky’s distaste for working with you might be “racially motivated,” but you know this is a transparent millennial office and you would be, essentially, drafting your own termination letter and you have neither hired a lawyer nor gotten your nails done and are too tired to search for a new job.
Becky’s assigned a new partner. You are assigned to no one. In the next fiscal year, Becky will get promoted — the rose that grew from white privilege — and you’ll be out of the transparent creative sustainable millennial advertising agency entirely.
The next time you see Tammy, she comes to you. You are still adrift in the transparent millennial office space, cutting your eyes every now and then at Becky, who seems happier than My Little Pony. You use the time to make yourself as invisible as possible so that everyone forgets you work there. You still have no assignment. Occasionally, you are called into a meeting where you try to convince your British boss the “cool” new tagline he’s developed, Dyn-o-mite!!!, sounds like a derivative reference to the ’70s show Good Times. Occasionally, you shut down an office brainstorm by explaining to the new strategist who created the client brief the company cannot pitch the paid content on a rapper’s Twitter feed to a music company as “woke Kanye West.” But most days, you go unutilized.
You become convinced the company keeps you on because letting its one Black full-time employee go is a millennial-company no-no. It’s not true, actually, that you’re the only Black employee; Tammy’s team has at least one half-Black female employee who is super-awesome but whom you almost never see unless you take a detour on your trips to the bathroom and only talk to if she is not with another employee and only if you two whisper. You should have developed a code language, you reflect. But you don’t need it the day when the first of two Black freelancers start in the office and you lock eyes with Tammy’s protégée as you realize the first of them is a “him.”
Surprising. Because although you are here because the only thing any millennial company seems to be selling these days is some palatable version of Black cool, Black men are scary, so — there you go. But you get it. They’ve decided to take the risk of temporarily hiring a Black guy so he can write about soft drinks or basketball — or both in tandem — for the new “cool” office client and maybe, if they’re lucky, compliment them on their choice of shoes.
If you and the temp pass in the kitchenette, you nod at each other cautiously. Three days before his contract is finished — and not renewed — you finally speak. He recognizes you because he frequents the coffee shop a block from your apartment and you both start laughing — talking about the scones and your mutual friends. Tammy joins in. She wasn’t in the kitchenette but seems to have manifested herself with an expression that reads May I help you? that perhaps she means a bit more beseechingly, like You fine Negroes know you can’t have these white people seeing you laughing and talking like this, which makes sense since Tammy has Black friends — the one half-Black girl on her HR staff.
“What are you two chatting about?” says Tammy. This time, she makes her own smile face.
“Dogs,” you say in unison. “Dogs.” You look guilty about whatever you did — or didn’t do — and return to your workstation to pretend to work.
They place the next Black freelance employee near your workstation. She has an anti-gentrification bumper sticker on the face of her laptop, and she mutes, but doesn’t remove, her Beats headphones when people stop by her desk to chitchat. She is the better version of everything you used to be before you worked here. Before you swallowed down your instincts with big gulps of on-tap rosé and an insurance plan that allows you regular visits to your favorite naturopath. You find this new Black girl enviable and are amazed by her as you sink deeper into your gray wrap sweater, gray scarf, fake work, trying to out–Invisible Man Ralph Ellison.
It’s the day where you are all supposed to convince the new “cool” client how “cool” you are by showing up at another obscenely expensive in-office cocktail party. The party needs a playlist, a task left to the interns and the guy from strategy who gels his hair back and owns a pair of Yeezys. By 3 p.m., the party is a rager. It is loud and there is liquor and the music theme is basically any B-side from any rap album by any artist whose name starts with A$AP or Lil’ and somebody’s put out a strobe light and gunned up the volume. You remain seated at the sustainable-bamboo-table workstation, snuggling into your work scarf. Like 40 percent of the office, you have decided what’s going on in the kitchenette is much too “cool” for you and your plan is to hide out.
Group emails start flooding your in-box from executives, typing on their smartphones. Re: OFFICE PARTY. A lot of “This is not cool, guys” and “Way to show team spirit, guys,” and the importance of being “collegial” in front of the new clients.
Funny, your new Black girl colleague replies-all to the entire staff, all of this talk about team spirit and keeping up appearances when every song on the playlist has the word “n- - - -” in it.
Transparent millennial *mic drop*.
You seize the opportunity; you pack up your bag and leave at 3:25 p.m., crediting the hour and a half you reclaim on your office timesheet to reparations. You watch notifications for the email thread “Re: OFFICE PARTY” pop up on your phone the whole walk home. You only stop to read one, an email from another Black employee — a person who has mastered invisibility so thoroughly you forget he works there. He enters and exits the fray with a one-word reply-all:
The next morning, it is you sipping a coconut-milk latte from an all-white paper cup when Tammy arrives at your chair. You are the first at your desk, already “working.” She is nervously hanging on to a cat mug.
“Yesterday was something,” she says, easing into the conversation she feels obliged to have about “the N-word.” You turn your smile face toward her and keep pounding at the keyboard. She leans into the bamboo. You slide into a state of feigned sympathy. Poor Tammy. All of those diversity luncheons she’s had her half-Black assistant arrange, and now this. What do you think we should do? her eyes ask as she hides her mouth behind the lip of the cat mug.
“Maybe we should stop letting people add whatever they want on the office playlist,” you say.
“I thought of that!” Tammy commiserates, the contents of the cat mug sloshing. “But then [Yeezys] said that would be [racist] because we can’t censor Black artists.”
“Excuse me, what?” you say, your smile vanished. You can’t do this shit anymore.
Tammy recognizes she has stepped far outside the league of her retreat-acquired HR training. She remedies her part in the “N-word” debacle by explaining that she started in the office as a “creative” — just like you — and remembers when making playlists was her full-time job. The glory days. Not all these new young people, she adds. You say nothing and nod. “Thank you,” she says. She knew you’d understand.
The last time you see Tammy, it’s not Tammy, but her half-black assistant from HR. It is the beginning of the new year and you’ve been approached by an executive. He’s been following you on Instagram. He starts relating the grassroots work you’re doing to his time following the British punk underground or starting the first blog for surfers and you think, perhaps, you have finally been seen.
“Hey, we’re starting up a new series featuring employee stories at our Friday group lunch meetings. Would you want to be our first presenter?” Certainly.
“Maybe you can mock up a presentation and we’ll kick around ideas?” Most definitely.
The executive schedules a follow-up meeting on your Google Calendar for two weeks later. He never shows. Instead, Tammy’s half-Black assistant sits across from you on one of the millennial advertising agency’s minimalist Bauhaus couches. She pens down the title to her meeting notes. You have somehow been chess-pawned into giving the featured presentation during a BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVENT.
“What ‘Black History Month Event’?” you say. You two have developed a code language. She shifts her eyes. She looks nervous and resigned. For music, she is thinking Fela Kuti. She has been asked to ask you where to call to cater in collard greens.
“We’re thinking the first week in February,” she says cheerily. You ask when the event that follows yours in the “employee stories” series is scheduled. “There’s nothing on the books yet!” she says. Nothing on the books for the foreseeable future, she says. “Is the first week of February okay for you?” she asks. This is awkward. You both lean in and lock eyes across this transparent black-and-white checkered board, unclear who should make the next move. And that’s the game. You remember how much you used to love playing chess before your coolness became a commodity. Before you took on a career in which your Blackness was something your employer could sell. You pull out your black queen. You slip into your real smile. You think of all the things you would like to say to them in a sharply worded PowerPoint. You open up your Google Calendar.
“How about March?” you say.
Adapted from THIS IS MAJOR: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope by Shayla Lawson. Copyright © 2020 by Shayla Lawson. Published on June 30, 2020 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.
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