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paid off vs. laid off

March 11, 2019

The conversation between my labor and I has always been that in order for me to succeed, I’d have to choose between my own voice and my capacity to support myself. The risk of dying penniless has always been what has been communicated to me about my own capacity to dissent: if I do anything too radical, too dissonant, too Black, my economic safety will be challenged.

In the 1960s, integration happened and white flight soon followed, but there was a gap between the bankruptcy of resources and integration which created a hope — however fleeting — that we’d be absorbed into an American dream. This was soon revealed as false. Before the breadth of post-Jim Crow racism truly manifested in many people’s lives — through events like the war on drugs, the crack epidemic, horrendous political policies; and through cultural events like Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD — there was a segment of Black people that were sold hope. It was in The Cosby Show and the idea that equality can happen through capitalism: in patronizing shops you were once excluded from, buying items that were once out of your economic range; and in working at places that would once refuse to even consider Black folks. Inclusion and representation went from ideas that, perhaps to some, had revolutionary potential to being considered the revolution. This mode of living and resisting created a class of Black folks that made exceptionalism, tokenism, and participation in white institutions as the only viable way to live and work in America as a Black person. This was especially true for writers, or anyone interested in telling Black stories.

As I navigated through my own career, gaining success as a freelance writer, I noticed that I was welcomed with warm and open arms to white institutions and platforms. These are places I still have good relationships with today, yet I couldn’t help but recognize how seamlessly my talent, energy and imagination was being invited to be absorbed into these bigger platforms and brands. I quickly realized that although I was dreaming of creating new possibilities and vocabularies for Black folks through language, art, and communication strategy; at these institutions, I was simply a cog of a bigger machine, applauded for my rare perspective, and disregarded for the next byline or project with an even sexier story or background. Simply put, there are few media spaces invested in hearing — and growing — Black voices. Most places because of economic realities and because it is the most profitable, want a stagnant Black voice that critiques whiteness enough to feel dissonant and representative of a something outside of the mainstream without doing what Black voices do when listened to and obeyed: transform.

Bill Cosby is in prison and the world has changed since those moments when Black exceptionalism felt for some like Black radicalism. We’re beginning to see plenty of media companies employing Black talking heads for branding purposes, and which speak — and maybe even practice — a certain type of radicalism in order to make the brand appear relevant and progressive. But the proof of their undervaluing of talent is in the layoffs, and Black folks are always impacted the most when talent is being undervalued. Black talent is often laid-off first. Black talent is often the worst exploited, signed to horrendous contracts, owning neither their work nor their likenesses. We find Black talent unable to explore ideas and curiosities outside of the narrow topics they’ve been assigned to cover. And when all of that is still not proven to be profitable enough — they will let you go.

A layoff or any type of economic exploitation of course has individual and personal reasons why it is toxic, but it also illustrates who is in control of the Black narrative and conversation. The exploitation can disrupt a life, but it has also disrupt a community relying on stories and perspectives in the media to understand the world through a global lens. When you ask a storyteller — which is what everyone who works in media essentially is — to stunt their curiosities or recreate the same conversations with no pedagogical value, we see a circular and stunted conversation especially for those that rely on media for their stories.

The choices for Black people in mass media who are interested in doing Pro-Black work, are limited — and we are starting to see the negative impacts of those limitations to both our business and creativity. We are in this unique moment to spread and connect Pro-Black stories and ideas that are complicated, intra-communal, and provocative. And we can do it more quickly and more potently now, than ever before. This can’t be realized if we’re being disempowered economically, when a company wants to create a paper magazine but needs room to create more profit. This can’t be done when Black artists and public intellectuals are being flattened into tokens and reductive representational politics, instead of challenging and engaging audiences with their ideas and work. We can’t grow a Black culture and media if we still believe the lie that creating Black work for white institutions is a radical or Pro-Black mode to be in. At the end of the day, people of all cultures only have their art, stories, and the recordings of the terrors they’ve lived. These things can not be compromised if we’re interested in something truly delicious like revolution, or a good story.

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