My first proper job in media was as an editorial assistant at a glossy women’s magazine in New York City. I had, until then, during the two years since graduating from college, worked waiting tables at night and as a receptionist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the day. The plan had always been to move to New York after college, but I had some personal business in Boston to take care of first — namely, finding my birth father, who had last been seen there by people who knew him. I did find him, which is another story for another time, and with my main mission for being in Boston accomplished, I began sending out letters in earnest to almost every magazine based in New York that I’d ever read, to inquire about a job on their staff.
The first round of queries went to half a dozen publications, including New York Magazine (to which I would later apply several more times over the course of two decades, to no avail); Vanity Fair (my longheld secret dream); Esquire (because Gay Talese and the art of the profile); the New York Times Magazine (which I’d read the longest, because my parents always got the Sunday New York Times when I was growing up); and Elle (because I love style and fashion). I knew it was likely that none of these magazines had black people on their staff, because I never saw black people on their covers or in their pages. But I also had a lot of experience navigating white spaces — adopted into a white family, raised in an all-white town, all-white grade-schooling, etc. — and there was a very real part of me that felt, however naively, that I could bring a perspective, and be given the agency, to help change that.
Plus, I’d be in New York. How bad could it be?
Exceedingly, that’s how bad. Black women in predominantly-white work spaces, it turns out, very seldom get to be or explore or thrive in the positions we are hired for, without first performing in service of what our white colleagues need or want us to be in order to meet their own narratives of professional ambition. The path to achievement and success for black women is Byzantine by design before we even enter the door.
I graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts with a degree in literary journalism and black women’s literature. My senior thesis project was a collection of edited narrative interviews with black women writers that I’d conducted — which I then sold, to be expanded into a book for publication by a major publishing house, shortly after graduating — so my best guess for a suitable magazine staff position was as an assistant editor. I didn’t really know, to be honest, but I was open to whatever was available. Maybe too open. As I recall, it was Esquire that wrote back with the offer of an unpaid internship, and the only other magazine I heard from was Elle with an opening for an editorial assistant, which come to find out, is very much not the same as an assistant editor.
“This is where everyone starts,” the senior editor said to me, when I told her that I’d been hoping for an assistant editor position, and felt qualified based on the fact that I’d sold a book of interviews that I’d edited. I also had published clips from my internship at Mother Jones magazine. Her response made me feel like I was asking for a handout: “You can write short things for the front of the book, and work your way up to an assistant editor if you put in the time.” Granted, I had not been employed by any mainstream magazines before, but it struck me that an editorial assistant was essentially the same thing as a receptionist, which I didn’t want to do anymore. “We’d love to have you, though.” I wasn’t going to move to New York without a job, and this was the only one being offered, so I accepted it, with a starting (and ending) salary of about $18,000. And sure enough, I was the only black employee on Elle’s editorial staff.
It was miserable. My hips were too wide, and my ideas regularly dismissed. But I was determined to make a mark there, even if it felt like I might go crazy in the process. I pitched and wrote short pieces on then-little-known actress Thandie Newton; author Edwidge Danticat; and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who was still just Jada Pinkett at the time, and it was that interview with her that helped clarify for me what I’d been feeling at Elle, in part. I asked her point-blank, “What do you think is the difference between getting coverage in Elle, and getting coverage in Essence?” This was when she was promoting her 1994 film, Jason’s Lyric, and she responded with something along the lines of, “Elle feels necessary for the game, and Essence feels necessary for the family.”
I accepted the job at Elle to get ahead in the game, not to feel like part of the family. And yet, how do you get ahead when your contributions are not valued and your competence is constantly questioned? “This is not working,” a senior editor said, about the piece on Danticat, a black woman author, a subject I knew a lot about. “What do you mean?” I admit to being defensive, but I also genuinely wanted to know what wasn’t working — I wanted to learn. Not to mention, my book had just been published and the magazine ran an excerpt from it. “I don’t have time to explain, I’ll just fix it myself.” Wait. What? “If you’re going to write for the magazine, and do your job as an assistant, your copy has to be cleaner than this.”
Reader, the copy was clean. Alas, I was just starting out, and I didn’t know enough to believe in myself or my still-developing skills as an editor and writer. It’s taken years and a career filled with incidents exactly like this, and far worse, for me to realize that the copy is almost always clean. For black women in media, it’s never about the copy.
It’s also very seldom about the job title or its attendant description. At Elle, I was hired as an editorial assistant, but with the clear understanding that I was seeking to “put the time in” by writing and learning the ropes, along with the full knowledge that I would also soon be a published author. When I wrote and asked for guidance on how to make a piece work, I was relegated to “an assistant” (dropped the “editorial” entirely), and my questions were uniformly shut down. This, of course, was long before we had use of the term “microaggression,” and while there’s no way of knowing whether or not having language for it would have made the experience any less unsettling, I’m glad to know today that I wasn’t just imagining it then.
Twenty years after working at Elle, I found myself at another women’s media outlet, this one online and almost completely white-staffed. I was hired as a managing editor, but with the provison that I would also write, because by then I had authored five books, and was widely published as an essayist, cultural critic, and profile writer. A few months into the job, old YouTube videos of a regular freelance writer for the site surfaced and exposed her as a racist — using the n-word, among other things. As managing editor, and the only senior black staffer, it was well within my purview to strongly recommend we cut ties with her, because racism is intolerable. My white supervisors disagreed, and not only insisted on giving her the chance to apologize, but decided that I should be the one to work with her in crafting the apology for publication.
“I promise you that whatever apology she issues,” I said, “however I try to help save her from herself, she’s not going to mean it, or learn from it.” No, they said, she deserves the chance to explain herself. Suddenly, it wasn’t my job to point out that racist behavior is racism and that as a media entity, we shouldn’t breeze over it with a doctored apology, but it was my job to doctor the apology? My favorite question when I tell these stories about being a black woman in media, are from (usually) white people who say, “Why didn’t you just leave?” These are people who either do not live in New York City, or were born into wealth, because it has been necessary for me to have a job, and to work nearly every single day of my adult life, in order to have an adult life.
I spent an entire day working with this young white woman on her “apology” — and it very nearly killed me. Both because I made her sound a lot smarter than she was, and because with every exchange between us, I felt like I was being psychologically assaulted. We posted the apology, and guess who doubled down on her racism less than an hour later? On Twitter, no less. “You were right,” one of my white supervisors said, feigning self-defeat, as if she’d just lost a round of rock, paper, scissors over who would take out the day’s trash.
Black women are hired, and then we are all too often used at the whim of our white supervisors and colleagues. Regardless of title, level of entry or established goals for growth and promotion, we are simultaneously unseen and overseen, a token of diversity held to the technicalities of our positions only when we seek to go beyond expectations and assumptions. White co-workers in media spaces, which are already predominantly white: you can do better by listening to your black colleagues, particularly, but not exclusively, on issues pertaining to race.
Because here’s the thing: listening when we tell you that something or someone is racist, is also about respecting our experiential expertise, trusting our earned judgment, and supporting our professional agency. That’s what it means to be a good colleague. To anyone.
Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and host at WNYC. Her essays and opinion columns have been published widely, and her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.