The Highs and Lows of Life as a Black Editor-In-Chief

From all of my closed-door talks over the years with successful people of color, female leaders, young innovators, and especially Black female bosses, it seems there is a universality to some of the challenges we face in the workplace.

When we achieve something big, we are often told we are “too much.” “Threatening.” “Intimidating.” “Entitled.” “Bossy.” We are told we “take up too much space in the room.” We are asked to “tone it down.” To “be grateful.” I heard all of these things directed at me, either to my face or behind my back, in the stormy months leading up to and following my promotion to editor in chief of Teen Vogue.

Some days demanded a strong sense of humor to pull through: I recall arriving early to a boardroom one day as executives filed in. We were chitchatting, waiting for the meeting to begin. Finally I said, “Are we waiting for anyone else?” To which the woman next to me turned and replied, “Yes, we are waiting for the editor in chief.” Clearly, with my big, curly hair and youthful take on executive-realness office style, I wasn’t the image of a boss she had in mind.

“Oh. Great. Well, then let’s get started. I am the editor of Teen Vogue.” I smiled back at her, letting out an easy laugh that defused the discomfort in the room.

One of the brightest silver linings of my promotion was being welcomed in by high-profile, high-ranking female executives of color who’d all faced similar trials and slayed similar dragons. For the first million-dollar deal I helped broker for Teen Vogue, I tapped Bozoma Saint John (aka Boz), a powerful, well-known Black female marketing executive. Before our first formal meeting, where our teams would discuss a potential partnership, I met with her one-on-one for what she called a “pre-meeting.”

Boz schooled me with a boisterous belly laugh. “Girl, this is what White men have been doing on the golf course for decades.”

Rather than putting tiny white golf balls across sprawling green hills, we were doing a business kiki in her plush office, with fur throws, myrrh incense burning, and Jill Scott playing (turned up a little louder than elevator friendly). This was my colorful induction into the POC C-suite sisterhood. I felt like the Black Alice in an all-new corporate Wonderland, just taking it all in.

By the time our teams finally met, Boz and I had already aligned on the major points of the deal I had in mind. She and her number two, also a Black woman, reacted positively and bolstered my ideas in the meeting. They spoke without code switching, centering our voices in a way I had never seen play out in a business setting. These were subtle gestures that redirected the power dynamics in the room.

I felt like the Black Alice in an all-new corporate Wonderland, just taking it all in.

Meanwhile, in that meeting, I observed a change in the White advertising executives from my team. Out came the Black vernacular, the awkwardly inserted “girl,” the high fives. It was an instinct I understood — anyone who’s ever worked in a male-dominated space or has experienced being the minority in the room at least once understands this pressure to fit in. While I cringed through parts of that meeting, I walked away with more tools and some fresh insights on how race, gender, and power intersect in business.

The next day, one of those colleagues and I had a dinner meeting with Kenya Barris, the creator of the hit television sitcom Black-ish. The big idea was to, hopefully, get Teen Vogue woven into an episode where Yara Shahidi’s character Zoey lands an internship at the magazine.

When my business lead and I arrived at the restaurant, I was ready to pitch the new mission and ethos of Teen Vogue to him. Just as I was about to whip out all the covers that demonstrated our commitment to celebrating diversity, Kenya interrupted me.

“As a Black father to three Black daughtersI just want to thank you for the work you’re doing at Teen Vogue.” I was stunned into silence. I was shocked he even knew what we were up to at Teen Vogue.

“I have a favor to ask you actually. I promised my daughters I’d get a selfie with you since they are mad I didn’t bring them with me to meet you,” he continued.

We all laughed.

When I pitched my idea, his response was “This is the easiest ‘yes’ I have given. Yes. Let’s do this.”

That meeting was a slam dunk. We should have been popping champagne bottles. Yet on the way home, my business lead was staring straight ahead, slouching in her seat, seemingly weighed down by something.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “That meeting could not have gone better.”

“This is your ticket. I saw it in their eyes,” she said. “They would do anything to support you. It’s just, that would never happen for a White girl like me.”

I was so taken aback and confused that I asked her to come again. That this was her takeaway from our successful business trip together was baffling to me.

In that moment I felt as though her comment had just reduced all the years of hard work I invested into building my career from scratch — and this early success in my new role that directly benefited both of us — to the color of my skin. As if she had not benefited from her fair share of race-based privilege in America throughout her entire life. As if Black people in leadership positions aren’t almost always the only ones of color in decision-making rooms, working twice as hard to overcome the cultural bias that cannot be stripped from any interaction in the business world or otherwise in this country. As if I had not had to work twice as hard for the equal respect throughout my life.

I might never be able to adequately decode that comment, though the sentiment stung deeply. But I also couldn’t allow it to slow me down. In the moment, I chose instead to bite my tongue in order to stay focused on all the positive momentum underneath us.

Ironically, when I received the Black-ishscript for our episode, the working title was “Black Nepotism.” (You can’t make this stuff up.) In the episode, we see Zoey’s father, an ad exec, observing the egregious ways in which his White colleagues enjoy the benefits of nepotism. But when he finally has enough power to give his own daughter a leg up in the working world with an internship at Teen Vogue, he grapples with mixed feelings. When we operate the way White power has operated for generations by opening doors for our own, is it considered nepotism? Or is it just leveling the playing field?

“This is your ticket. I saw it in their eyes,” she said. “They would do anything to support you. It’s just, that would never happen for a White girl like me.”

I shot the episode and after it aired, I organized a screening and moderated a panel discussion with the show’s creator, Kenya; the lead actress, Tracee Ellis Ross; and, of course, our cover girl, Yara Shahidi, to unpack the nuanced themes this episode introduced. We discussed the shifting power dynamics at play when more people of color are working their way into leadership roles than ever. With these decision-­making seats, diverse leaders — like us — have an opportunity to level the playing field in a world that has for generations been rigged by the dominant power structure, which, at least until the norms change, is indisputably wealthy, White, and male.

They say art imitates life. Would an idea like this have been greenlit and executed with such ease if Black people had not occupied our respective decision-making seats in media? Serendipitously, our Teen Vogue episode of Black-ish had a comedic way of underlining a new seismic shift in the media zeitgeist — and some of the myopic perspectives I was grappling with in my own office.

Culled from More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth

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