TV rarely shows black experiences at work – ‘The Other Black Girl’ is changing that

Ashleigh Murray as Hazel-May McCall and Sinclair Daniel as Nella in a scene from ‘The Other Black Girl’. Picture: Supplied

Ashleigh Murray as Hazel-May McCall and Sinclair Daniel as Nella in a scene from ‘The Other Black Girl’. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 28, 2023


By Janay Kingsberry

Writer Jordan Reddout didn’t just read Zakiya Dalila Harris’s 2021 debut novel “The Other Black Girl” – she devoured it.

Then she instructed everyone in her world to follow suit: her husband, her parents, her sister, her aunt and all of her friends.

“I really connected with it because my life, I think, has mirrored a lot of Nella’s experiences,” she said.

Nella is the smart and ambitious 26-year-old protagonist of “The Other Black Girl”, who is tired of being the only black employee at the fictional publishing house Wagner Books.

So when another black woman appears in the neighbouring cubicle, Nella is thrilled – until she begins to experience a string of eerie and unsettling events, from being followed by strangers to receiving anonymous notes that read like threats (or warnings).

Now, Reddout and her long-time writing partner Gus Hickey have adapted that story into a 10-episode series that premiered on Disney+ recently.

The show, starring Sinclair Daniel and Ashleigh Murray, is a chilling drama that many critics and viewers compare to Jordan Peele’s acclaimed film “Get Out”, which inspired a new era of horror films rooted in black trauma.

“The Other Black Girl” continues that exploration as viewers watch Nella grapple with both supernatural forces and issues that black employees have long navigated in predominantly white spaces: social exclusion, unconscious biases and microaggressions.

Sinclair Daniel as Nella and Ashleigh Murray as Hazel-May McCall in a scene from ‘The Other Black Girl’. Picture: Supplied

“When I read Nella’s journey, it really resonated with me because I saw so much of my own experience in what Nella was going through,” Reddout said.

“Right down to the moment [in the story] where she speaks up for something that she finds offensive and then is publicly cast down and humiliated.”

The show is among the “first of its kind” to centre black workplace issues in television, Reddout believes – and it’s long overdue.

Given what many see as a regression from the 2020 racial reckonings that ignited corporate pledges for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) nationwide, black creators and viewers say there’s a need for more stories that explore their challenges within the contemporary workforce – especially as those issues have compounded in recent years.

According to data from a Pew Research Center survey released in February, black workers are the most likely to say they’ve experienced discrimination or unfair treatment by an employer due to their race.

About half of black respondents say they feel their race hinders their career progression. And, while the majority of black workers endorse DEI initiatives, the study found that a sizable share believes their employers don’t prioritise these efforts sufficiently.

Shows such as “Abbott Elementary”, “Atlanta” and “Harlem” have delved into the nuances of being black in the workplace.

Most notably, in Issa Rae’s “Insecure”, the main character grapples with gossipy co-workers who question her competence.

Her best friend, Molly, navigates challenges such as pay disparities at her predominantly white law firm and advises a black intern to adjust her behaviour, hinting that she might be perceived as the stereotypical sassy black girl and clash with the office’s culture.

Molly’s suggestion to “switch it up a little” refers to what many black professionals have employed in the workplace: code-switching – a strategy that involves alternating to a set of languages and behaviour that white counterparts will find agreeable and non-threatening.

Stephanie Troutman Robbins, a black feminist scholar and head of the Gender and Women’s Studies department at the University of Arizona, commends recent strides in television to depict issues black employees face – but she’s ready for their workplace stories to take centre stage, such as in predominantly white movies and shows.

In the CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown”, the focus was on Murphy’s career in the newsroom and “everything else happened against that backdrop”, Robbins said, adding that such pivotal shows paved the way for other productions like “Ally McBeal” to adapt those themes.

But “I can't think of any show where the primary thing about the black woman is her career and how she navigates that workspace on a regular basis or as the focus of the show,” said Robbins, who co-edited “Race & Ethnicity in American Television: Voices and Visions that Shaped a Nation”, a two-volume encyclopedia published in 2021 that examines five decades of racial representation in the media.

Mercedes Jimenez, a digital content creator who analyses corporate workplace issues on TikTok, said her account was born from her own adversities in the workplace, describing hostile environments where she felt isolated and devalued.

“I’d be on important projects, but I’d be excluded from emails where the decisions had to be made about the project, and sometimes they’d be on purpose,” said Jimenez, who has worked in the corporate sector for more than 21 years as a specialist in instructional technology and distance education.

One show Jimenez said she’d like to see: a reality TV programme based in a corporate workplace.

“Because there's a group of people out there that don’t believe that these things happen,” she said. “They believe that ‘you’re just too sensitive – get over it’.”

The last few years have marked a major shift in the make-up of writers’ rooms.

“I’ll never forget walking in on the first day of ‘Grown-ish’,” said Reddout, who served as a co-producer on the Freeform show.

“Because I had never seen so many black people in a room on a comedy. I was so used to being the only one over and over again.”

She’s especially proud of how the writer’s room for “The Other Black Girl”, predominantly made up of black women, has upheld the same values.

“It was just really exciting … to have all these women talking to each other about their experiences and what they identified with in the story and who they identified with and the way that they would answer the questions that Nella is faced with,” she said.

“It was very cathartic, honestly, it felt like therapy a lot of days.”

Speculation about Nella’s new colleague Hazel (Murray) has dominated conversations on social media, as users have questioned her hidden agenda.

But the series has also spurred deeper questions, including one that is posed to Nella (Sinclair) halfway through the series: “How much longer are you willing to compromise yourself for a paycheck?”

For Reddout, the essence of the show is to provide a space for this kind of introspection: “To give women, black women specifically, but also all people a space to start examining these questions of what you’re willing to sacrifice to get ahead in life and in a system that is not built for you or what your relationships are with other black women in these spaces.”

Overall, Reddout said, she’s heartened to see the show’s resonance with a broad range of viewers.

“I’m just thrilled by it because we were just making a show for us and now, thank God, it's also a show for a lot of people.”

∎ “The Other Black Girl” is streaming on Disney+.