These days “diversity” and “inclusion” are all the rage in progressive corporate cultures. As the line goes, “it is not only the right thing to do—it’s also good business.”
Most corporations do need more women, more LGBTQ folk, more people of color, more people with disabilities, and the list goes on. But we need to talk about what most of us who have “made it” to that room don’t talk about in public—the cost to getting in the room and and what we have to pay to stay.
As the one “in the room,” you are othered and then pressured to help the company save money through your insights on your otherness. You are supposed to raise red flags before problematic products go on shelves, like Prada’s monkey keychain, Marc Jacobs’ dredlock wigs and the Sambo sweater that Gucci just had to pull out of stores. You have to save your company from its racist self and it’s demoralizing and infuriating.
Even with the most well-intentioned White folks, it takes a toll to continuously ignore the comments about your hair, the shocked expressions when they find out you went to a “good” school, the constant undermining and second-guessing that takes place when you’re just trying to do your job. It is absolutely exhausting to muster a smile and be pleasant when you’re not having a good day just to avoid being perceived as the angry Black person. The irony is that you have a right to be seething with rage 95 percent of the time.
And it takes so much damn work to even get in the room, let alone take a seat at the table. This is true even if you bring your own folding chair, like Shirley Chisholm said. You are constantly reminded that you’re being allowed to sit in the chair that you brought to their table.
Getting in there means suspending your disbelief in a system that has shown you repeatedly that it does not intend to work in your favor. You have to be hopeful and know your worth, although it is often questioned. And even when you do all of that, when you’ve picked the right battles or you’ve kept your head down and slayed the work without speaking out, you remain “the other.” It remains your responsibility to both suffer the racism and to find the power to speak out against that racism, all while not making your most well-meaning White coworkers uneasy.
Nobody asks—and it’s taboo to share—what shit you had to eat to get there, how much pride you had to swallow, how much bullshit you’re still being being served. This is not to mention that when you’re in the room, you have people counting on you: your family, your kids you put in private school, your mama and the friends that she brags to about your “good” job.
You also owe the people who look like you at your job. You definitely can’t let these coworkers down because you know it’s highly unlikely that they’ll hire another one of you if you mess up.
These considerations are very costly to your psyche, but double consciousness is part of the fare you have to pay to play. Without owning the means of production or distribution, most of us cannot afford to skip the game.
So, to everyone who thinks that one of us in the room will put an end to racist products, I’m here to tell you that one of us is not enough. It’s crippling and unfair to be expected to risk your livelihood to save racist coworkers from their racism. (And, let’s be real, the one who is going to say what needs to be said isn’t the one invited into the room in the first place.)
Until White people stop relying on the one in the room to call foul, until those White folks who know better use their privilege to speak up and out to do better, brands will continue to manufacture racist bullshit.
And until we are ready to say “Fuck your rooms” and “Fuck your tables,” we will be reliant upon those who feast upon our culture without any respect for our people. The cost of that, of course, is just too damn high.
G. B. Saunders is a pseudonym for a P.R. and marketing manager at a major media company who could lose her job if she put her name on this piece.