What Really Happens When Black Women Are The Majority In A Room
As a black woman in nearly every professional field, you get used to being the only one of your kind in the room. Sometimes you're the only woman, but most times you're the only black woman. After a while, I made a game out of it, of counting how many faces like mine I could see in a crowd of aspiring journalists, because it was always a number small enough to count. But then, three years into my career, I walked into HBO's The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks press junket and, for the first time, found myself in the majority. Between the reporters (all black women) and the Henrietta Lacks cast (mostly black actors), we outnumbered white actress Rose Byrne by, well, a lot. And maybe it's dramatic to say this, but this singular moment restored my faith that journalism is the right path for me.
I felt awed. I felt peaceful. But, most of all, I felt validated.
If you're not a person of color, then it's really hard to describe the intense rush of relief you feel when you walk into a room that has more people of color — your color — in it than not. It's a rare and unexpected gift, like getting into all of your top choice colleges; not impossible, but unlikely. I've tried to explain it before and been accused of reverse racism by white associates that believed I was saying that I normally felt unsafe or unrelaxed around them.
But there was an immediate camaraderie between me and those black women, even in this competitive, male-dominated, predominantly white field, that I've never felt at any press junket before. It's like we looked at one another and understood, without words, that this was a safe space for us where we could Be Ourselves instead of Our Professional Selves. In other words, for once, we didn't have to code-switch.
For those lucky enough to have never had to worry about code-switching, Eric Deggans eloquently explained it in a 2013 NPR article,
For linguists, code-switching describes the simple act of switching between two languages in a conversation. But in today's increasingly multicultural, multiethnic society, the term's deeper meaning involves... choosing your communication style based on the people you're dealing with. It's the reason why some black people speak with more grammatical attention when in all-white settings — especially at work — but let their slang hang out when among friends or mostly black people.
Suffice it to say, we were letting it all hang out. And, when Oprah Winfrey walked into the room leading the Henrietta Lacks cast behind her, she seemed to sense the same thing that we all did. This was a rare phenomenon. This was a safe space. This was a celebration. She asked, "Has this ever happened?" And then she followed that with, "Can someone get me my phone?"
You can watch the event on Oprah's Facebook page, but watching it is no real substitute for being there. Even listening to my recording of the entire event can't replicate that togetherness that I felt sitting shoulder to shoulder with a line of black women, attentive and exuberant, in the presence of Oprah Winfrey, a queen holding court. I felt awed. I felt peaceful. But, most of all, I felt validated.
When you walk from event to event shaking hands with enough white men and white women, you start to forget that you're not the only black woman in the world out there doing this job and having these experiences. Imposter Syndrome sets in. You ask yourself what you're doing here, what right you have to be in this room with these people. You wonder if you're really as good as you think you are, or if the microaggressions that start to add up are little signs from the universe to pack up and try to find success a different field. And, because you can't talk about those little racial things with anyone who will really get it, you wallow and you dwell and you burn out young.
I've felt, for a very long time, like I was on the precipice of burning out. Sometimes, I found myself going through the motions, my mind appeasing my exhaustion with a single refrain: "At least you have a job." Every time I was given a side-eye by an employee at an event clearly wondering if I'm legitimate or if I'm sneaking in, I thought, "At least you have a job." Every time I heard about another instance of whitewashing in media and felt bile rise in my throat at the thought of having to give the film or television show any press at all, I thought, "At least you have a job." Every time I received a promo for something that obviously had to be of interest to me because the actors were POC and I am a POC, I thought, "At least you have a job."
But at the Henrietta Lacks press day, I didn't just have a job. I had a passion. I had colleagues. And, above all, I had fun. I had so much fun that I forgot, for a minute, that I was a black woman in a predominantly white world. In that room, I was just Kadeen Griffiths, Bustle Entertainment Editor, Massive Renée Elise Goldsberry Fan, and Oprah Winfrey High Fiver. And, when I left that room, I was never more sure than in that moment that that's exactly who I was always meant to be.
Journalism isn't just the right path for me. It's the only path for me. Because, one day, an exhausted, insecure, burnt out black woman will walk into a press junket and see me, and she'll remember that she's not alone. That she can succeed. That she can be herself while doing so. And that is what makes my job worth it.