While researching the leadership journeys of Black women in academia, psychologist Kecia M. Thomas, now dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, noticed an unsettling theme repeating itself in the interviews she conducted. At the beginning of their careers, the women she spoke to said they believed they were well liked, if tokenized or overprotected by colleagues. But as they began to push for opportunities to grow or expand their roles, the benevolent tolerance they had enjoyed transformed into pushback, if not outright hostility. Thomas dubbed that transformation the “pet to threat” phenomenon. In an interview with Zora magazine, she explained that the inflection point most often came just as the women she spoke to were in a position for promotion or leadership. “That’s when women are probably most vulnerable to getting recast as threatening, because their colleagues are pushing back on the person legitimately exerting their influence in the workplace,” she said.
This kind of experience—which results in justified paranoia and hypervigilance being layered on top of the “double consciousness” W.E.B. Du Bois described—is just one aspect of what Black women in predominantly white workplaces of all kinds endure. Cultural differences and unspoken norms can create the sense that colleagues are speaking on a frequency that requires a lobotomy to tune into. The hypervisibility that comes with being “the only one” can lead to constant second-guessing of our instincts. One unexpectedly chilly interaction or terse email can suddenly reframe an entire work relationship, slipping you into a parallel inverse universe where every kindness was actually a veiled attempt at sabotage. This anxiety-inducing, disturbing experience is fertile ground for horror, and would make the perfect basis for a thriller novel. That’s why it’s so disappointing that two recent books that attempt to unpack the unique dilemmas faced by Black women in the workplace fall flat.
These novels, Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl and Wanda M. Morris’ All Her Little Secrets, do include familiar office microaggressions—subtle slights like being forced to engage in code-switching, or being mistaken for another Black colleague. But they both miss an opportunity to explore, through the eyes of a character who has an awareness of the chilling nature of her experience and her interactions with white antagonists, the deeper levels of mundane yet terrifying psychological warfare that Black women experience in white workplaces.
All Her Little Secrets tells the story of Ellice Littlejohn, a Black woman raised in poverty who has become the assistant general counsel for Houghton Transportation Company and is having an extramarital affair with her boss, Michael. After finding her lover’s dead body and failing to call the police, she’s offered his role. Despite her many misgivings, Michael’s still-warm body, and the fact that her promotion is clearly a ploy to appease the protesters who have been decrying Houghton’s discriminatory hiring practices, she accepts the offer.
It’s in the executive suite that Ellice realizes how deep the rot at Houghton goes, though fascinatingly enough her status as the only Black person in the entire legal department didn’t previously offer her a clue that something may be amiss. From there, All Her Little Secrets offers a fairly straightforward, race-bent take on a typical legal conspiracy thriller. Anyone who’s read a John Grisham novel will be familiar with the broad strokes. There are shady dealings at Houghton that Michael was murdered to cover up. There’s blackmail. There are at least two other murders besides Michael’s. And there’s also a white supremacist brotherhood dedicated to “recruiting pure race executives and leaders.”
Ellice, despite having a law degree and being a Black woman in white corporate America, displays a stunning lack of self-preservation that veers into the fantastic. When one of her (smarter) friends asks her if she’s safe at Houghton, Ellice responds, “I’m their token Black person in the C-suite. Nobody will touch me, at least not until they can get off those protestors. I’m safe.” This is quickly and predictably proved to be false. At one point, a young Ellice—a Black woman who grew up in the South in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement—says of her abusive white police officer stepfather, “I don’t understand how he can be so mean if he’s supposed to be a police officer.” Her naïveté about the ways in which racism operates in her workplace and the larger world isn’t just unrealistic—it denies the reader the experience of feeling horrified by it.
The Other Black Girl has similar flaws. It’s the story of Nella Rogers, an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, who begins to suspect that her new Black colleague, Hazel, might not be who she says she is. The sense of being a fraud in the face of Hazel’s “more authentic” Blackness is one of the book’s more interesting themes. Nella grieves the fact that she didn’t have a close Black friend until after college, asking herself whether she should’ve tried harder to join the Black Student Association. But the reader can’t help but notice that Nella seems to cherish her status as the “only one,” even as her bosses’ tone-deafness occasionally frustrates her. It’s never clear if we’re supposed to sympathize with Nella’s plight, or if lines that describe her soul as “sounding a lot like Angela Davis” are intended to endear her to us or make us cringe.
That lack of clarity extends to the plot, which can be described, at best, as politically confused. Quickly after Hazel’s arrival, Nella receives a note that reads “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.”* As Nella grapples with the threat, Hazel begins to ascend through the company ranks, primarily by undercutting Nella. Subplots, including the story of two Black women at Wagner decades earlier, quickly reveal that Hazel’s actions aren’t driven by a simple crabs-in-a-barrel mentality, which might have made for a more thoughtful conclusion. Instead there are murky (and underexplained) forces at play here, forces that ultimately deny Hazel her agency. “No Black woman would ever do that to another Black woman,” Harris writes, wrapping a broad, ahistorical generalization in the seductive logic of solidarity. “Not without being deeply, deeply disturbed. Not while seeming so down. So human.”
Those same forces eventually offer Nella a choice: her career or her identity. The choice is a false one, but it’s unclear if the author is aware of that. While Nella and Hazel contend with impossible decisions, the structure that made those decisions necessary remains the same—if not more powerful, with its tokens safely secured.
Most of all, neither The Other Black Girl nor All Her Little Secrets has much to say about escaping what Tobi Haslett has called the “shivering, conflicted existence” that Black professionals, and Black women especially, face. And both books are entirely uninterested in perhaps the most important element for a Black office novel: white antagonists. Both Ellice’s and Nella’s colleagues are painted in the broadest possible strokes, spouting off lines that seem pulled from a viral tweet that starts with “You won’t believe what my white co-worker just said.” The lack of depth defangs any tension that arises, stripping these stories of the layers of fear and anxiety that could make them truly scary and leaving the readers with what is at times boring. Of course, racism is often boring—a white man wants to say the N-word, a white woman considers her plight the same as her Black counterparts’. Wash, rinse, repeat. But the feeling that every single interaction holds the potential for harm can be terrifying at the same time, as can the ingrained knowledge that your hypervigilance still can’t save you. I’m still waiting for a thriller novel about a Black woman at work that makes readers feel that.
Correction, Nov. 8, 2021: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misquoted the note that Nella receives.