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New TV shows take on the hazard of Working While Black

Sinclair Daniel (center) plays Nella on Hulu's T<em>he Other Black Girl</em>.
Wilford Harwood
Sinclair Daniel (center) plays Nella on Hulu's The Other Black Girl.

(Spoiler alert: There's a few details dropped here about Hulu's The Other Black Girl and Dreaming Whilst Black on Showtime.)

Hulu's The Other Black Girl kicks off with an uncomfortable scenario familiar to many who have experienced the tension of being the only Black person working in a mostly-white office — otherwise known as Working While Black.

Nella, played with a deft earnestness by Sinclair Daniel, just wants to get through her duties as a frustrated, underappreciated editorial assistant at Manhattan publishing house Wagner Books. But she's interrupted by a well-meaning white colleague who has texted her a link to a column titled: "The Token in the Corporate Machine: Being Black in a White Workplace"

"You know, I'm always looking for ways to be a better ally to you," her coworker says, with an unsettling, overly energetic chirpyness. "You should read [the column], like, right now! And share if it resonates."

Sinclair Daniel as Nella on Hulu's <em>The Other Black Girl</em>.
Wilford Harwood / HULU
Sinclair Daniel as Nella on Hulu's The Other Black Girl.

One look at Nella's face shows what's really resonating: another disappointing encounter with tokenism in her workplace with someone who doesn't actually see her. Instead, they see some image of her shaped by their own presumptions – someone who can help fulfill their desire to feel socially progressive and impactful, regardless of what Nella actually needs or wants.

This is the delicious anxiety explored by The Other Black Girl and another Black-centered series which dropped on Showtime earlier this week, the British comedy Dreaming Whilst Black. Both shows talk about race, class, gender, upward mobility and lots of other issues in compelling ways.

But what stuck with me was how each show speaks incisively – and asks solid questions — about what it means to be a Black person moving through a mostly white world, especially in work/office spaces. And how those spaces can pit Black folks — indeed, all marginalized people — against one another, often when they need each other most.

An ally who becomes something else

Sinclair Daniel as Nella, Ashleigh Murray as Hazel on Hulu's <em>The Other Black Girl</em>.
Wilford Harwood / HULU
Sinclair Daniel as Nella, Ashleigh Murray as Hazel on Hulu's The Other Black Girl.

In Nella's case, she thinks a true ally has arrived when the company hires Hazel, a new editorial assistant who talks earnestly about growing up in Harlem and her graduation from the historically Black college Howard University.

But when Nella decides to confront a problematic white author about a character in his new novel named Shartricia – the book's only Black character, who has a child by a man she doesn't know and zero friends who aren't struggling with substance abuse issues – Hazel does not have her work sister's back.

"I think Shartricia has potential," says Hazel, given a sneaky, yet sophisticated charm by Ashleigh Murray. "I'm excited to read it again with a specific eye on her."

As the saying goes, all skinfolk ain't kinfolk.

Hulu's The Other Black Girl is based on a book by Zakiya Dalila Harris, who also co-wrote some episodes, serves as an executive producer and is sister to our own Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris (who had no input on NPR's decision to cover the show). The program wears its influences and messaging on its sleeve — so the pressure that comes from Nella realizing she works in an office which values symbolic diversity over actual progress is rendered with ominous music and horror movie tropes.

Still, those tropes signal a bracing truth – when one other Black person makes him or herself look good in the office by sabotaging another, it can feel like that moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson's character finally turns on his family.

A lighter look at tokenism and microaggressions

Alexander Owen as Adam, Adjani Salmon as Kwabena and Toby Williams as Tom in <em>Dreaming Whilst Black</em>.
Anup Bhatt / Anup Bhatt/Big Deal Films/A24/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Anup Bhatt/Big Deal Films/A24/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Alexander Owen as Adam, Adjani Salmon as Kwabena and Toby Williams as Tom in Dreaming Whilst Black.

Now on Showtime, the British comedy Dreaming Whilst Black takes a lighter approach. It features co-writer Adjani Salmon as Kwabena, an aspiring film director stuck in a dead-end office job who realizes his white co-worker has asked him for film recommendations for an upcoming date – not because he's a deft student of the industry working on his own short film – but because the white co-worker is dating a black woman.

"I've been Googling Black Oscar films...The Color Purple?" the office mate says. Kwabena, ever tolerant, says, "I feel like, for a first date, you might want to choose something without rape?"

The office mate then moves to the next film on the list, 12 Years a Slave, prompting Kwabena to say, "Bro, that's slavery AND rape."

As the show progresses, Kwabena notes he and a South Asian woman are the only people in the office pressured to eat lunch away from their desks over the smell of their food.

Adjani Salmon as Kwabena in <em>Dreaming Whilst Black</em>.
Domizia Salusest / Domizia Salusest/Big Deal Films/A24/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Domizia Salusest/Big Deal Films/A24/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Adjani Salmon as Kwabena in Dreaming Whilst Black.

Later, when he's dragged to a lame karaoke bar by his co-workers and winds up facing a bar full of white people singing the n-word in a song and expecting him to join in, he quits the job on the spot. (A touch that I love: when he tells a friend who is also Black about it, she wryly notes that some rappers have made a fortune to say the n-word around white people.)

It's true enough that lampooning earnestly clueless white people can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But, as someone who has been that sole Black person in an office, I was really touched and entertained by the sour truth behind the easy punchlines in both shows.

Both Dreaming Whilst Black and The Other Black Girl have a lot more to say about a lot more things. Kwabena faces all sorts of complications – many self-inflicted – while trying to get his short film made. And Nella uncovers a larger conspiracy centered on co-opting Blackness which sometimes feels like the sequel to Get Out.

Underlying it all is a spot-on depiction of the wryly humorous and downright horrific moments perpetrated by white people often blithely unaware of how much power comes from simply being in the majority.

It's the bittersweet icing on a sumptuous cake – incisive moments from two series whose insights on race and society speak powerfully to this modern moment.

Audio and digital stories edited byJennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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