I remember the last time it felt strange to be one of the few Black people in a very big place. It was my first day of high school. Up until then, my classes consisted of people who looked like me or, at least, like the world we live in. Here, after moving to a new school, I would become the person students nervously glanced at during lectures about slavery; the one answering a barrage of questions whenever her hair was fashioned beyond the familiar ponytail or messy bun; the one deemed “spokesperson” for every other Black person in the world.
At first, it’s unnerving. Eventually, you settle into this existence as both focal point and “other.” You find your tribe, those other Black people having the same experience but never questioning it. “It is what it is,” we would say. This dynamic followed me to college and into my professional life. During my tenure as a beauty editor, it became common practice to commiserate with other Black editors about our accomplishments, our failures, and our frustrations as women of color in predominantly white spaces. It was frequently expected that “Black topics” be delegated to Black people. On one hand, you know and appreciate the significance of, say, advice for natural hair, being given by someone who actually has natural hair. But to that same point, the resentment of being pigeonholed into Black topics grows quickly, even if those very stories are the ones that aid the recognition and promotions you pine for (and probably deserve). Add in a dose of nepotism and unfair pay, and it seems our efforts for a seat at the proverbial table were for naught. Eventually, that underlying but ever-present bitterness poisons your interactions with colleagues, regardless of how they treat you and what they look like.
The fervor of these experiences increased after the murder of George Floyd. Though it wasn’t the first time we witnessed such violence, Floyd’s demise played over and over in front of a world forced to stay home amid a global pandemic. This time, the outrage seeped into corporate boardrooms and multimillion-dollar companies. Millions of Black boxes appeared on Instagram, and apologies, antiracist book lists, and donations seemed to grow by the day. Suddenly, everyone was willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Superficial attempts at diversity and inclusion within the white-collar world were being exposed. It felt as though real change was on the horizon; a horizon that, over a year later, still feels distant to me.
I’ve been critical of my own role at this moment. There have been significant changes for me, both personally and professionally. I left one sector of the media industry for another—not necessarily distancing myself from the allure of capitalism, but to be in a position where I could at least ponder it thoughtfully and challenge myself in ways I hadn’t before. Oftentimes, we fall into a job simply because we are good at it. Sometimes, we keep a job because it becomes our identity and security blanket. There are also jobs, like that of a beauty editor, which come with perks you grow to expect and, of course, enjoy. We all have our reasons, tailor-made according to our individual experiences. But for me, the advantages and job-well-dones couldn’t eclipse the systemic issues (especially within the beauty industry) that often left me frustrated and uninspired by the work I was doing, even if it was deemed “important” or “necessary” by others. I knew there were certain hang-ups that would follow me into my next position, where I’ve been able to nurture my love for publishing in a role that feeds my interest in social impact and challenges my comfort in healthier ways. I continue to challenge my own views of work especially; acknowledging its impact, for better and worse, on my self-esteem and treatment of others. The transformation taking place is far more significant, expansive, and time-consuming than I could ever write.
Above all, I’m confronting my dependence on the institutions I’ve been taught to support and trust, whether they value me or not. What I’ve discovered is that the longer you accept dysfunction as normal, the harder it is to imagine something better. So when you attempt even the smallest change, the discomfort is agonizing. So agonizing, in fact, that you may think you’re better off where you started or that things couldn’t have been that bad before. This is as true for minorities as it is for those who have never been “othered” or forced to compromise for what others get so easily.
If you paid attention to all those books you read, those speeches you’ve watched, the activists you’ve followed in the past year, there lies a common thread beneath the sensational content you’ve shared as proof of your wokeness: Doing what is right should cost you something beyond a change in perspective, especially if you’re in a position of power. Doing what is right requires radical imagination and sometimes, radical action. To assume that you can change the world around you without changing yourself is naive and seeped in egotism. For example, it isn’t enough for me to be the “first” or “only” Black woman in a space that should already be inclusive, and it isn’t enough for others to condone it. It isn’t enough for me to revel in such a title or to complain about it. It also isn’t enough for others to tell me they agree or to factor in their own struggles as “evidence” of their understanding.
It’s a realization I believe corporations have yet to face. Because for every public donation made to a nonprofit is a Black employee—if there is one—privately fighting for fair pay or settling for what’s unfair, because they have no other choice. For every “Black Lives Matter” declaration made by your company is a Black employee bearing the weight of being your proof of diversity, whether intended or not; a weight that isn’t solved by your mere advocacy.
If doing right continues to cost the oppressed within your ranks more than it costs you, then you’re still too comfortable. It seems mindset and action have become so conflated, that some of the dysfunction we rallied against in 2020, was just “normal” on vacation. “Good trouble,” as the late John Lewis once called it, is hard for a lot of us to find.
One of my favorite financial educators and former BlogHer speakers, Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche, asks new creators to evaluate whether their venture is a “bush business” or a “tree business.” A bush business, like an actual bush, is short and wide with many branches extending in multiple directions. Think of, say, an influencer who teaches an online course, sells candles, and designs clothes. None of the pieces can reach their full potential if the trunk isn’t healthy and strong, and adding more branches will only create a heavier lift. In the case of profitable corporations, that lift is usually sustained by people who aren’t in charge.
A tree business, on the other hand, focuses on building a strong foundation and modeling consistency before it branches out. It isn’t afraid to nurture small before scaling big. The person or people at the top of a tree business know that being uncomfortable for the sake of those at the bottom is better for everyone (and the business) in the long run because the weight is being redistributed. Generosity is infectious in every direction if you allow it to be.
To me, a tree business is rooted in reality and imagination. It challenges what has always been done, even if it continues to put money in everyone’s pocket. A tree business will enforce fair pay before preaching about it. A tree business will hire more minorities before voicing their support of minorities. A tree business will check itself before it checks others. A tree business will pursue empathy over optics; not just the CEOs, but mid-level directors and hiring managers too. A tree business will build their infrastructure with equity and inclusion, even if they have to sacrifice the public applause of flashy statements. When every part of the trunk is being treated well, the entire tree is bound to grow branches that extend far beyond expectation.
Doing the right thing shouldn’t feel like such a tall order, even in a capitalistic society, but perhaps those in positions of power can start by redirecting the cost. If you’re capable of scaling profit, then you’re capable of practicing what you preach, too.