Diversity or Conformity

When you work long enough you will know that you have to constantly adapt to the changing market forces, cultural differences, compromise your expectations, ride along the system and be creative and innovative so as not to be beaten by the system. There are times I cannot help feeling that the system has defeated me, thus I read and write to clear my head and get some kind of perspectives. Many of us are so caught up with day-to-day rituals and demands that unwittingly or wittingly we become attuned to what we have to go through in order to meet deadlines and get ahead. We get our qualifications and equipped with certain skills hoping to succeed in navigating through competitive and challenging market situations. In the current world of algorithms, we are an integral part of the system that is supposedly driving the world to prosperity and most of us would like a part of that. Some people may have rightfully earned their place and privileges through hard work and wisdom of their own but there are others who will do what it takes to spear ahead and without any constraint or batting an eye on whatever they have to do rightly or wrongly to join the throng of the rich and privileged.

In The Other Black Girl by debut novelist, Zakiya Dalila Harris, Nella Rogers works as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, a prestigious publishing house where she is the only black employee. Wagner Books in midtown, Manhattan is the hardest publishing house to get into. Then one day Hazel-May McCall, another black employee is hired. Her dread locks are her most prominent feature.

Hazel says , “C’mon, sis, you can be real with me,” and asks Nella to tell her about what it’s really like to work at Wagner, Nella obliges.

Here is the excerpt:

Nella looked around to make sure no one happened to be lingering nearby.”I ‘ll just put it this way,” she said, widening her eyes dramatically/ “They don’t ;see’color here at Wagner.”

Hazel didn’t respond. For a moment, it was unclear she’d caught the playfulness in Nella’s voice. Maybe she hadn’t even heard her at all.

But then that coolness in her eyes turned up, and a knowing grin overtook Hazel’s face.”Yeah, that’s the vibe I got. It’s always good to know what you’re working with, right? ” She smiled a little, all lip but no teeth, before turning back to her desk and starting to type.

Nella turned her chair back to face her monitor and grinned to herself. Sis , indeed.

The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella has this notion that she and Hazel can bond over their shared circumstances but barely two months later, Nella begins to feel something amiss and isolated as Hazel rises to popularity at the office which is predominantly white. Nella has always been eager to promote diversity and helps make changes at the office but something sinister is going on. She has a rude awakening when she finds out how Hazel is gaslighting her and manoeuvring in every way to outshine her.

Nella has been asked to provide feedback on Needles and Pins, a novel written by one of their favourite clients, Colin Franklin. Amongst the white characters, there is Shartricia Daniels. She understands that characters of colour are in vogue but she cannot help squirming and feeling outraged that Shartricia Daniels is less than one-dimensional. The character is nineteen,a heroin addict and pregnant with fifth child, with a baby daddy and she cannot confirm the identity of the father as both men whom she had slept with had fled town. Nella does not know how exactly to express her true views about her misgivings to her boss, Vera Parini and its author, Franklin. She shares her thoughts with Hazel who encourages her to be truthful so she threads on eggshells by bravely putting forth her views about how she feels about the Shartricia character knowing that she will offend the sensitivity of their prized client.As it happens, Franklin flips and behaves badly when Nella says to him that the colour character does not work as the narratives make one feel like the character is being mocked. Franklin does not take kindly to criticism. He takes offence because he feels that Nella is calling him out to be a racist. Needless to say, after her disastrous meeting with the author who storms out of the office, her boss, Vera appears distant and subsequently asks her to apologize to their client. Nella becomes confused when the bosses seek a second take on the manuscript, Hazel has changed her tune. To add to Nella’s unease, she begins receiving hostile notes telling her to leave Wagner. The first note reads : LEAVE WAGNER.NOW.

Hazel appears more authentically Black than Nella is, and will tailor her identity to her audience without shame or constraint. She tells Nella that all she is doing is code-switching, Nella is certain something more sinister is going on. It becomes apparent that Hazel aligns herself with the very oppressive system that Nella is trying to dismantle. But what exactly is Hazel’s deal and who is she?

Interestingly, this is not just a satire centred on office drama, it is also a science fiction. As the story progresses, we understand that there is a certain ongoing conspiracy that uses Black women’s haircare as a brainwashing tool. The hair grease contains some mind-control chemicals that somehow break into these women’s heads and dissolve their morals and personal convictions. The contents in those hair products will numb your ventromedial prefrontal cortex and make you more amenable when it comes to working for and with white folks and that they’ll preclude any guilt you may feel and you won’t feel like you’re selling out or compromising any part of your ethnicity.

Zakiya Dalila Harris has cleverly crafted a fiction that is speculative but plausible. The story is told in the third person’s voice but interjected with first person’s narratives from three other black women in the first person’s voice. One of them is Kendra Rae, a previous Black employee and an editor of Wagner and she is the mysterious person whose mobile number has been given to Nella to contact when Nella finds that her life is a mess. Nella does not know that the number belongs to Kendra Rae Phillips who edited Burning Heart , a book by one Diana, another Black writer and Kendra Rae has been Nella’s inspiration.

Hair grease is a central part of the story. thus the fiction begins,

The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.’

Nella notices the smell and immediately identifies it as Brown Buttah, her favourite brand of hair grease. When she realises that another Black woman has been hired, she is delighted thinking that all of her campaigning for diversity at Wagner has finally paid off. But she will soon learn that diversity remains a propaganda.

The premise of the fiction is unsettling in that it is about racism, divide and rule, micro-aggression at the workplace, mind conditioning and mind-control. One could feel all that undercurrent and certain sinister dynamics at play from its narratives about the workplace and the main characters. It is cleverly crafted. Definitely a good read. It is a slow-burner, you know something is wrong but you need to keep reading. It is not a feel good kind of book. It is a story about the elephant in the room and how far you will go for your ambitions.

Zakiya Dalila Harris worked for three years at Knopf /Doubleday before writing the novel. I understand that most part of the story is a realistic take of the publishing industry.


7 thoughts on “Diversity or Conformity

  1. Always love your take on things, which is why I’d like to propose a series: Severance. That is if you’re interested. The premise is so interesting—about how life would be if we separated our work and home memories, and all the ethics that are involved. Granted, it’s a series and not a book, but I wonder how you’d see it through your lens.

    And regarding that little trivia about what ZD Harris used to be, it’s pretty interesting how so many authors have their characters be knowledgable in writing or publishing. Maybe because that’s ‘write what you know’ at play, lol. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stuart, Thanks so much for the proposal, I’d like that. How often we bring work back home when we must leave the work where it belongs. While we are who we are , our work does reflect who we are or given enough time we become the work persona that we project, it is hard to say. Indeed , it is something to think about. Severance is when the employer and employee relationship ends, is that why you have suggested the word as the title? Interesting. Please let me know how I could contribute. Just realised I had not sent you a thank you note for your newsletter so I just did. Thanks again !!


      1. Oops I think I may have made it unclear and the comment may seem like I’m asking you to start a new series. But it’s actually a TV show.

        I think the producers chose that word because yeah, it’s a wordplay on ending your job, but it’s also the name of the process the employees go through to separate their work and home memories.

        I’m only on episode two and it’s very interesting how the ‘work’ version of you basically stays in the office forever. Very interesting premise to explore.

        I encourage you to watch the show and write a blog post about it! Would love your take. Though it’s on Apple TV and is not exactly the most accessible platforms.


      2. Hiya, lol . This is just go to prove what you said in your recent post. We relate to what we read differently . I was thinking you want to write about it . This is probably because recently work has been weighing quite a lot on my mind. Sure Severance sounds interesting. I should check it out. Thanks.


      3. Everything okay over there? Hopefully work isn’t stressing you out too much? Letting it out to an internet stranger is good therapy, according to my armchair diagnosis, if you ever need to chat.


      4. Hey Stuart, thanks for your kind message. Have a great weekend.


      5. I just checked out the trailer for Severance, the series does look interesting. Thank you !!

        Liked by 1 person

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