‘The Other Black Girl’ Exposes the Horror of Being a Black Woman in Corporate America

They Say I'm Different - Credit: Wilford Harwood/Hulu
They Say I'm Different - Credit: Wilford Harwood/Hulu

Zakiya Dalila Harris rarely saw another natural-haired Black woman in the office. But one time it did. She was an assistant editor at Knopf Doubleday, a publishing group within Penguin Random House, and a woman stepped into the bathroom. Instead of a serendipitous smile, though, Harris received the cold shoulder from her colleague.

“I definitely thought we’d have some kind of, ‘Hey,’ the nod, and that didn’t happen,” Harris recalls. “I ended up going back to my desk and started writing this book.”

More from Rolling Stone

Since publishing The Other Black Girl in 2021, the New York Times bestselling novel has been adapted into a Hulu original series and captures the experience when Nella (Sinclair Daniel), the only Black woman at Wagner Books, befriends Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), a new hire who is also Black. What seems like a harmless friendship turns sinister when viewers learn more about Hazel’s intent. In the 10-episode series, executive producer Harris and first-time showrunners Gus Hickey and Jordan Reddout pry into the toxic work environment within non-Black spaces and show the intimate, yet insidious nature behind a familiar beauty product.

Like Nella, Harris grew up in Connecticut and worked in predominantly white spaces. But she wants viewers to know they are not one and the same. After a competitive bidding war in 2020, Tara Duncan, a former Netflix executive who oversaw Orange is the New Black, struck a TV deal with Hulu for the book adaptation. Rashida Jones, who co-wrote and helped develop the series, was a mentor to Harris, and the crew encouraged Harris to be involved in the writing process. In the writers’ room, Harris gave Reddout and Hickey, who both worked on mixed-ish and Will & Grace, many liberties when it came to deepening characters and expanding new storylines, like her friendship with Malaika (Brittany Adebumola), who is suspicious of Hazel.

As an author unaccustomed to outlining or writing with a word limit, Harris says working on the series was a humbling experience.

“In the book, I can go on and on about Nella’s past and her history, growing up in Connecticut, and her dating history but in the show, it’s like, alright, we have her desk, we have her Zora Neale Hurston mug, we’re figuring out times when you show and don’t tell or when you tell and don’t show,” Harris says.

There’s a sprinkle of magic when you bump into another Black coworker on the job. But for Nella, who is dealing with regular microaggressions, a racist book author (The Office’s Brian Baumgartner), and pitted against her only Black work friend, the magic quickly fades. Harris says she has heard from a number of readers who have experienced similar situations.

“It’s so upsetting but it’s also I think pointing toward a larger problem of not just diversity but again intentionally making an office feel more inclusive,” Harris says.

Depicting a workplace drama through the lens of horror was her plan all along. Harris grew up watching horror shows The Twilight Zone, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and reading Stephen King novels. By using eerie music, uncanny-valley grins and flickering lights, the series mirrors the unsettling emotion associated with identifying what you’re worth. (Think when Nella sees a mirage of her editorial idol Kendra Rae Phillips, played by Cassi Maddox.)

“Anything can be horror if there’s truth to what’s happening,” Harris says. “In terms of her, it’s her boss and whether or not she’s actually being valued.”

But what if the burden of trauma and systemic racism could be washed away? The series reaches a crucial turning point when hair grease, a product often applied in intimate settings by family members and trusted stylists, is used to convert Hazel’s friends into well-dressed business elites. Sounds good, right?

To showrunner Reddout, who has worked in mostly white spaces as a classic musician and Ivy League graduate, the new wardrobe and job promotion that come with the makeover are meant to seem enticing, but overall, the decision is supposed to be a difficult one.

“They become this sort of perfect plasticky Barbie-like entity where on the outside they appear to be the woman who has it all, she can do it all,” Reddout says. “But then on the inside, they’re not themselves anymore.”

The Other Black Girl -- “Don't You Want Me” - Episode 105 -- A leak of Colin’s book causes pandemonium at Wagner, and tensions boil over between Nella and Vera. Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), Nella (Sinclair Daniel) and Kiara (Amber Reign Smith), shown. (Photo by: Wilford Harwood/Hulu)
Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), Nella (Sinclair Daniel), and Kiara (Amber Reign Smith) in ‘The Other Black Girl.’

Black women have an undeniable bond to their crown, she says, which made the paste-like hair product such a powerful weapon. It’s the smell. It’s the color. It’s the texture that creates a visceral response.

“You know exactly what it feels like on your fingertips,” she adds.

But then comes the compromise. When the slick grease is applied to the scalp, it slaps a metaphorical band-aid on the racial and societal barriers within a workplace, rather than attempting to find solutions, says showrunner Hickey.

“We also wanted to present the question of, ‘How much are you willing to compromise about yourself in order to succeed specifically in corporate America?’” Hickey says.

It’s a murky question with differing answers, depending on who you ask.

Although she’s not The Other Black Girl, Harris wrote the novel for the Black girls who feel awkward and ostracized. Developing a Hulu series was all new to her, she says, but she now looks optimistically to the show’s next chapter.

“There’s a lot to explore, hopefully in other seasons, about whether or not people want to be saved,” Harris says. “Because the world we’re living in, sometimes, you do want to just be greased.”

Best of Rolling Stone

Click here to read the full article.