On Performing Gratitude

On Performing Gratitude

I never planned on telling this story publicly. But what was once a private humiliation has become public media gossip after I wrote about some of my experiences at Cosmopolitan.com on Twitter earlier this month, in solidarity with Black and brown writers who have been exposing racism at their workplaces. The outpouring, which began after Black New York Times reporters risked their jobs to protest a dangerous op-ed published by their employer, has led to a reckoning of long-ignored and overlooked racism that is pervasive across the entire industry—including in many progressive, feminist spaces that built their brands on inclusivity.

I was inspired by the bravery of Khalea Underwood, a Black beauty editor at the Zoe Report, who wrote on Twitter that she was treated horribly at women’s website Refinery29, where she was hired as a “natural hair writer.” Underwood’s perspective was valuable to the website to the extent it allowed Refinery29 to brand itself as intersectional and feminist and pro-Black. But white editors mechanically detached these perspectives from Underwood and molded them to conform to their own expectations of blackness. Meanwhile, she said she was denied the same access to opportunities her white colleagues had, and in her words, she felt like a kid who “was allowed to play in our front yard, but only within the confines of our gate.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude—mainly, how Black and brown people are expected to feel it and express it in white spaces; about how I often did—and still reflexively do. Looking back at my own experiences, I was valued to the extent that I helped make white institutions appear more diverse, yet the perspectives I brought were devalued: they were often sidelined as either “niche” or too controversial because they did not support the dominant narratives of white managers or editors. I was welcome so long as I didn’t demand much, and so long as I continued to demonstrate how thankful I was to be there.

As a teenager, I never saw glossy women’s magazines as aspirational. I understood, implicitly by whose experiences I saw reflected, that I did not belong in those pages. To me, these magazines were a portal into another dimension, one in which I didn’t exist, and reading them helped me understand the world of affluent white women: what they wanted, what they aspired to do, who they were, and how to fit in with them.

But then, one day, I was invited into their world: in 2015, I was offered a job to cover the election for Cosmopolitan’s website. I was elated. The interview process took several months and included multiple pitch memos, interviews, and a month of freelancing before I was hired full-time. I felt immensely grateful to Cosmopolitan.com and to Hearst, the publishing behemoth which owns Cosmo, for taking a chance on me, someone who had no prior experience covering politics and no formal training in journalism. I had somehow made it through the doors of the largest women’s magazine in the world, and it felt incredible. It felt significant, too, to be an Indian-American woman covering politics for a national magazine that reached millions of young women every month. I was determined to prove that I belonged; I wanted to show that the risk they had taken on me was worth it.

There is a pattern that has emerged from these accounts around the expectation of gratitude and the culture of deference that exists in legacy corporations, and what happens when a person of color stops demonstrating it in the ways that are expected of them. (I do not want to rehash the events and series of racist microaggressions I experienced—you can read them here. Jazmin Jones, a queer Black femme, has spoken out about racism at Marie Claire, also owned by Hearst, as have other Black women in the past.)

My job was my life. I loved it, and my experience was largely positive: Many of the white women print editors went out of their way to be mentors to me and encouraged me to voice my opinions. I was given access to tremendous, career-making opportunities, including interviewing Michelle Obama in Qatar. After about one year of consistent work that included—as it does for most political reporters in an election year—many nights, weekends, and even a few all-night shifts, I felt that I had finally proven myself. My work helped Cosmopolitan.com win Hearst’s 2015 Digital Innovation Award and boost the Cosmo brand nationally.

The perspectives I offered were especially important during an election stoked by fear against immigrants—many women of color confided in me that they felt safer talking to me specifically because I am a brown woman and daughter of immigrants. As Donald Trump became more prominent, I believed I could use this platform, and my reporting, to counter some of the false and dangerous narratives spread by mostly white commentators on TV. But when I began to ask for equal benefits that reflected my labor—when I asked for comp time equivalent to what my white colleagues already received; when I attempted to negotiate a raise; when I sought to promote the work I was doing on TV and Twitter in the ways that political journalists did, I was reprimanded. I was called into a meeting with the site’s then-editor. The calendar invitation called the meeting “2016 publicity/coverage.” Instead, it was an ambush.

Among the many things said in that meeting, the site editor told me that I was lazy, that I was rude, that I developed a bad reputation at Hearst and that I was sabotaging my career. She told me that I needed to ask for my editor’s permission to eat, and if she said I couldn’t, then I was not allowed to eat. She told me that I was not allowed to ask for comp time or attempt to negotiate it; she told me I should have been thankful for the two percent raise I received, which had been decided without a review or discussion that included me, and to my knowledge, put my salary just shy of what my white woman predecessor had made years earlier. When I attempted to seek clarification or to defend myself from these personal attacks, she told me that I should be thankful for the feedback that I received, and to say nothing else. During the litany of verbal abuse, I cried, and then I apologized for crying and said I knew it was unprofessional of me to do so.

According to the notes I took following the meeting, she also told me: “You should be grateful you work here. It is a privilege to work here, and don’t forget that.”

And there it was: I was expected to bow in front of the powerful white woman, of about my own age, who had allowed me—a previously unknown, irrelevant, nothing brown woman without a prestigious pedigree—into the golden doors of Cosmo, and I was no longer sufficiently exhibiting gratitude. I had responded to this same editor’s weekend texts and late-night orders without hesitation and I had quietly endured racist slights and microaggressions, because despite it all, I still loved the work and wanted to do it well and knew what it could do for my career and for other women of color in journalism. But when I began to advocate for myself in the ways that Cosmopolitan.com encouraged women to do, I had stepped out of line.

I felt like I was crazy. Reporting the incident to HR felt useless, as I feared that it would have been interpreted as whining, or that I would have invited further retaliation and verbal abuse. I didn’t know how to explain to my white friends that this treatment was racist, but none of my friends of color needed such an explanation. I decided I would leave the company within a few months—with or without a job offer. (I eventually left for a Senior Reporter position at Jezebel, which I held from 2017-2019.) I wasn’t just up against a mean boss, I was up against a system that was not meant for a woman like me. (After I published my Twitter thread, Hearst HR reached out to me to seek more information).

After hearing about the experiences of Black women and women of color in recent weeks, I know that stories like mine are exceedingly common (and many experience worse), but have been discussed only as whispers behind closed doors in the company of other brown and Black people. In fact, as many Black women working in feminist media told Vox recently, there is a name for this phenomenon: “pet to threat,” coined by University of Georgia senior associate dean Kecia M. Thomas, where a Black woman is tokenized and tolerated until she begins to ask for more responsibility or equal rights. “I think in every career trajectory there comes an opportunity for a promotion or leadership, where the individual has a level of influence or power to make significant changes and to rethink how business is done,” Thomas told ZORA Mag. “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.” This pattern helps explain why women of color make up only about eight percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, despite diversity initiatives and recruitment events—even when hired, we are often systematically pushed out.

Legacy institutions across all industries operate on a model and culture of prestige: stats like “only 10 percent get in” or “there are only a handful of positions are available” convey an image of excellence; that only the best and brightest thrive there. These corporate cultures often thrive on cutthroat hierarchies, where everyone privately endures some level of humiliation and drudgery until they ascend to the top. But the reality is that such prestige often thrives on exclusion—specifically, the exclusion of Black people, who hold only 3.2 percent of leadership positions at major companies. White people who put up with mistreatment will eventually rise to the top and reap the rewards for their hard work. Non-black people, particularly Asian-Americans like me who benefit from being perceived as “model minorities,” can more easily assimilate to whiteness and sometimes thrive—as I briefly did at Hearst—too.

But when marginalized people do manage to break through these golden gates, we are there as houseguests; we are rarely, if ever, handed the keys. We must constantly perform and exhibit gratitude to the progressive white folks who let us in. Constant deference is the price of a seat at the table and it protects a white person from ever having to see a person of color as equal.

After that meeting with my supervisors, I became numb and detached from work. I stopped pitching ambitious ideas. I stopped asking questions or voicing opinions. I used more exclamation points in my emails. I said “thank you” to an excessive degree. I was servile. A few weeks later, my direct editor, a white woman who was also present in the meeting, casually turned to me and said that I was taking the feedback well; that I had really improved and she was impressed by how much I took it to heart. I wondered if I was supposed to feel grateful for that feedback, too.

After I tweeted about my experience, the Hearst Union reached out to me to ask if they could stand in solidarity and send a message to management that racism is unacceptable. Thanks to my former job at Jezebel, I am a member of the Writer’s Guild, and I’ve seen the power that unions have to reform a workplace. I agreed, and when I saw their statement in support of myself and Jones, who had spoken out about issues at Hearst before I did, the feeling that overwhelmed me was, again, gratitude. I wrote on Twitter that this acknowledgment meant “the world” to me. I am so used to white people responding to charges of racism with defensiveness or outright ignoring them that for a moment, the simple, unquestioned acknowledgment of my experiences felt radical.

But then I felt shame for this gratitude: white people acknowledging racism shouldn’t feel so radical or validating—it should be a baseline expectation. On social media, Jones criticized the statement, noting that it did not make any of the specific demands that she had called for: setting up recurring donations to Black organizations on par with the company’s pledged commitment to covid-19 relief, calling for transparency around staff demographics, making a commitment to hiring more Black people in leadership roles, and offering protections for people who speak out about racism within the organization.

I stand with Jones in asking Hearst to implement these changes, and, frankly, see them as a bare minimum. But I am caught in a torrent of emotions that shift from feeling proud of speaking the uncomfortable truth, to immense guilt and shame for again appearing ungrateful to the white women who so graciously welcomed me into the doors and gave me a career-making opportunity. Even now, a part of me yearns for their validation.

At the height of the MeToo movement a few years ago, I remember having conversations with Black and brown people about how it seemed unfathomable that racism could ever have a similar public media reckoning. Now, it feels like that moment might be here. But the journalism industry is broken—not just broken, it is crumbling. As it descends into a wasteland, I keep thinking about these tweets by New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham, who lamented that the media reckoning “feels way too late” for Black journalists. Even if there was “a wave of awareness and meaningful reorganization to de-center white voices and perspectives,” she opined, “there are so few places left to work it barely matters.” I wonder: Who will benefit from this outpouring of Black anguish and pain?

The reality is that history has answered this question, time after time. When Tarana Burke, a Black woman, started the MeToo movement in 2006, it was a way to help the most marginalized people in society talk about, process, and address the sexual violence they had experienced. But in 2017, white feminists co-opted MeToo and the media ran with that version of the narrative, ushering in a new era of accountability for sexist behavior in corporate America. The reform has undoubtedly benefited American culture and raised national awareness on sexual violence. But the reckoning has largely excluded the industries and exploited workers for whom reform is needed the most. About the media’s coverage of the movement, Burke told the Harvard Gazette: “I think that the media doesn’t focus on the trauma that people of color experience. The work that we do in the movement centers on the most marginalized people. And so if you only define the MeToo movement by what you read in the media then no, there is not enough representation or even conversation about how sexual violence affects people of color, queer people, disabled people, anybody who is marginalized.”

As corporations scramble to show unity with Black people after decades of actively shutting them out, silencing them, and systematically pushing them out, Hearst has, so far, issued a bland statement and pledged donations in the name of Black lives, but has not announced how exactly it plans to address institutional racism within its walls. Whatever reckoning they do face, and whatever reforms Hearst’s nascent union eventually calls for, I cannot help feel a little bitter about who it will benefit—its overwhelmingly white staff—and those who bore the cost for those reforms to get there—Black and brown people, who are now risking their livelihoods to speak out. Even now, the work of reform is still falling on those who exist on the margins—not on the white people who disproportionately have the security and power to change this industry. White people need to actively create safer work environments that allow for Black and brown people to thrive, to enable us to come forward about racism, and to use their privilege to escalate these concerns instead of relying on Black and brown people to face the double burden of doing that work, too. As Desus and Mero writer Heben Nigatu, who recently called out Buzzfeed for her treatment there, tweeted recently, “Dear white people, I want to see you be brave.”

So, what happens now? I don’t know. I am angry for the Black and brown writers who deserve to thrive in this industry, but feel like they cannot. I am angry for the Black and brown writers who have been laid off or pushed out and have left the industry all together. I worry that this outpouring of Black and brown pain will amount to little more than salacious gossip to carry nervous white managers through the next news cycle. Maybe a few more marginalized people will enter the media than before, and this will be celebrated as progress. But I wonder what burden they will bear: Will they be expected to show even more gratitude for the minimal progress that has been made in their name? I fear what consequences await them if they fail to display appreciation in the ways that progressive white people expect it.

I am trying to be grateful, but my gratitude can no longer be a performance for white peoples’ acknowledgment. Instead, I am grateful for the Black journalists who have given me the ability to imagine something different—something better.

Prachi Gupta is an award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. Her first book, about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is out now via Workman Publishing.

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