On the surface, publishing is the nicest, politest industry I’ve ever worked in. It is also, by some margin, the whitest.
Over the past 11 years I have never really noticed any issues overtly targeting black or Asian workers in the office environment. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable. It also helps that most people in the industry are women, meaning the machismo associated with male-heavy work environments is, on the whole, non-existent.
What young black and Asian people entering the industry need to know is that the terms and phrases that they are growing up with are light-years away from making it to the ears of the 40-plus-year-old, white middle-classes. Want to talk about being “woke”, about “slaying”, about “reading for filth”? You can mention “cultural appropriation”, for example, and you may have to spend the next hour explaining why something is insensitive. For all the politeness, this is still very much a world in which people are not used to being told: “No, that’s culturally insensitive.”
In the new world, in which communication is shaped around social media, BAME employees (and employers) have access to support networks around the world that help them navigate the working world while also voicing their grievances for the world to see. It’s a sort of power, and it’s an empowerment that workers of my generation (I entered the industry back in 2005) and earlier ones didn’t have. I believe it’s a powerful tool through which those who once felt disempowered can now discuss their views. We can all be polite. But we can also all use social media to further build and shape our opinions and the ways in which people see us. There are a lot of negative things to say about social media, for sure—especially for black and Asian people. But there is also a great support structure if you can find it.
There are very few BAME people in publishing, and you must remember that not all of them share your battles or your concerns. There will always be those who choose to navigate the path of least resistance—and that’s fine, as long as they don’t try and muddy the waters for others who choose otherwise. Everyone has their own challenges and it’s important to remember that not everyone shares your struggle.
Denzel Washington once spoke about a part in a film that he turned down in the 1980s. He remembers turning down the role when Sidney Poitier told him: “The first few films you make in the business will dictate how you are perceived in this business.” That’s the best advice anyone could give to someone of black or Asian heritage starting their career in publishing (or, in fact, in any industry). The way you will be perceived for the rest of your career will be dictated by how you present yourself. Social media just made your life so much easier in that regard.
Samar Habib is a multimedia designer at Simon & Schuster.