The only Black girl

The only Black girl

I was on page 186 when I knew I was going to finish The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris in one night. The novel is a window into what it is to survive as the only Black girl in a predominantly white space. I found myself laughing and cringing in equal measure so many times whilst devouring this stark and unforgiving look at our industry.

So many of us have eagerly awaited the release of Harris’ debut since its announcement in March. The "Get Out" meets Devil Wears Prada comp drew us in and the proof rollout got the industry talking, and posting, with many of us begging for a copy of this must have from an exciting new voice. The fantastic yellow LEAVE (PUBLISHING) NOW cover, which cleverly nods towards Jordon Peele’s 2017 movie, provoked many boomerangs revealing the hidden message - but as I saw the tweets and squares on Instagram appear I couldn’t help wondering how much of the message packed between that bright yellow jacket would actually sink in?

It has been said time and time again, publishing is an extremely white industry. So white that a recent article from The New York Times could make a clear example of the percentage effect Toni Morrison’s editorial career from 1967-1983 —and her departure— had on acquisitions at Random House. Having a room full of people with similar experiences has a direct effect on our output, and the consequences of it are felt by our authors and readers.

A number of internship schemes, and drives to recruit a more diverse workforce into entry level roles exist, but year after year statistics show publishing failing to represent the wider population it claims to be producing books for. The Other Black Girl exposes the stark reality as to why that is.

There’s a horrible swooping sensation that I always get in the pit of my stomach when I realise that I am the only Black person in a sizeable meeting. It is this feeling of otherness which has been so expertly and precisely captured in this book.

Working in a predominantly white space as a non-white person can feel like you have to be in a constant state of compromise. The book eloquently speaks about the unspoken rule that to progress, you need to fit a certain mould. This can often mean chipping away at your individuality until you fit in and anyone who doesn’t fit that mould won’t survive.

Black employees often feel unable to voice the racism and microaggressions we encounter in the workplace, worried about backlash and any negative impact on careers. As a Black woman especially, you are ever conscious of appearing angry or being accused of not making enough of an effort to fit into the company culture. Speaking out about racism and microaggressions in environments where you’re the only or one of very few minorities is exhausting.

There have also been times when I have been sat at the table, listening to my only perceived ally in the room say something that undermines my point completely because it will curry favour with the majority. Being the least senior person in the room, and simultaneously the only person of colour in the room is a very effective silencer.

It is impossible to claim to want to diversify a system whilst simultaneously maintaining the structures that excluded people in the first place. Within an industry that prides itself on being nice and tends to value the professionalism it recognises, any variance is shut down. 

If I had not learned how to cope and survive in predominantly white spaces long before I entered the workforce, I wouldn’t have lasted beyond my first internship. I have learned to operate with that feeling of otherness – that weird duality of invisibility and hyper-visibility – from a young age. I don’t believe anyone should need that intense training to feel that they can remain in a job in their chosen industry and I hope that this book will be the cultural reset that the publishing industry so desperately needs.

There are so many teachable moments in the novel, and the response to the proof rollout made me sincerely hope that this will be the one that finally teaches the industry to be truly inclusive and supportive. Making sure that we not only send the ladder down at every opportunity we get, but also ensuring that those attempting to climb it have our support on every rung.

Silé Edwards is an agent at Mushens Entertainment. You can find her on Twitter at @sileloquies.