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A Conversation with Best-Selling Author Zakiya Dalila Harris

Zakiya Dalila Harris

NOTE: We are aware of a few audio issues in parts of this conversation, but we couldn’t bear to cut any of it out! We hope you enjoy this unique and authentic conversation between two true role models as much as we did.

Former editorial assistant Zakiya Dalila Harris became an instant best-selling author with the publication of The Other Black Girl, her debut novel about a Black woman navigating a nearly all-white company rife with subtle — and often unintentional — discrimination.

This episode,  a replay of an extraordinary session from the March 2022 California Conference for Women, features Harris in conversation with Target’s EVP and chief external engagement officer, Laysha Ward.

Together they discuss the novel, navigating the workplace as a woman of color, and how we can create a greater sense of belonging at work and in life.

 


Zakiya Dalila Harris

ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS is the author of the instant bestseller The Other Black Girl, her debut novel that has been named a Most Anticipated Book of 2021 by Time, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly, The Millions, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, CrimeReads, Goodreads, Fortune, HypeBae, BBC, and more. It will also be adapted to a television series for Hulu, with Harris serving as co-writer and executive producer. Described as Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out, The Other Black Girl is a whip-smart commentary perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace. Harris’ writing initiates eye-opening and candid discussions that highlight the microaggressions, racism, and hierarchies that often develop in the workplace, especially in overwhelmingly white industries. Prior to working in publishing, Harris received her MFA in creative writing from The New School and her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. @zakiya_harris

Guest Host Laysha Ward:

Laysha WardLAYSHA WARD is an accomplished C-suite executive with thirty years of leadership experience at Target. In 2017, Ward was named executive vice president, chief external engagement officer, overseeing Target’s enterprise-wide approach to engage and deepen relationships with cross-sector stakeholders to drive positive business and community impact. In 1991, Ward began her career with Target as a member of the store sales and management team of Marshall Fields in Chicago. In 2000, she was named director of community relations and promoted to vice president of community relations and Target Foundation in 2003. In 2008, President Bush nominated, and the U.S. Senate confirmed Ward would serve on the board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the nation’s largest grantmaker for volunteering and service, which she continued to serve as board chair under the Obama Administration. Later that year, she was promoted to president of community relations and the Target Foundation. She serves on the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Advisory Board and the Stanford Center for Longevity Advisory Council, is a member of the Executive Leadership Council, the Economic Clubs of New York and Chicago, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, The Links, and serves on the boards of Greater MSP, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Northside Achievement Zone, and Denny’s Corporation for-profit board of directors. She received a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She and her husband, Bill, reside in Minneapolis, MN.

 

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Episode Transcript

 

Laysha Ward:

I’m so excited to speak with bestselling author, Zakiya Dalila Harris. If you’ve ever been the only woman on a team or the only person like you in a meeting, then you know the challenges of workplace isolation and underrepresenation, and the importance of creating more equitable opportunities. Zakiya knows what it’s like to be the only, and rather than keep quiet about workplace racism and isolation, she wrote a bestselling novel that is being adapted into an episodic series for Hulu as well. Zakiya, I’m thrilled you’re here. Welcome. Great to have you with us today.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

I’m so excited to be here, Laysha. Thank you so much.

Laysha Ward:

I am a huge fan and I’m really excited to be in conversation with you today. Let’s jump in.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Sounds great.

Laysha Ward:

Your book, The Other Black Girl, which I love by the way, pulled back the curtain on the experience of black women in the workplace. And it’s a topic that affects me personally, having been the first, the only, or one of a few, my entire life. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading your book yet, would you tell us about the story and what led you to write it?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I can say I can very much relate to being the only, which is really where this story came from. So The Other Black Girl in a nutshell is about a young black woman named Nella Rogers who’s been the only black person working at Wagner Books for the last two years. As the only black person, she has to deal with a lot on her own. She’s really excited when another black woman named Hazel starts working next to her, but it’s not all hair braiding and fun time, of course. And strange things start to happen in the office and Nella starts to wonder about Hazel’s true intentions. And there are a few other black women as well, who are also tied to the world of publishing who are all navigating being the onlys in the field.

            And so, as I mentioned, the story really comes from my experiences, the immediate event that really sent me to my desk while I was working in book publishing to write this though was being in the bathroom, washing my hands at work. And another black woman came out of the bathroom stall. And I was like, “Who is this woman?” Because we do this, we count, all the other black people in the room, in the space out of safety, out of X, Y, Z. And so I have that moment where it was like, “Oh, this is awesome.” I can be very shy. I kind of tried to make eye contact with her in the bathroom, kind of wanted to see what’s up, be like, “We’re here.” I gave her the look yeah, the nod. The nod. And I didn’t get anything back.

            And there was nothing, there was no yearning. I know. But then, I mean, I go back and I’m like, “Well, it was the bathroom. It’s the morning, it’s corporate,” but those thoughts going through my head turned into, “Why was I so desperate and thirsty for this friendship? Why did I think this might turn into something?” And I went back to my desk and I started writing this book about these two black women who are in this very white space and things are expected to go a certain way and then they don’t.

Laysha Ward:

Right. Wow. Incredible. And I could relate to what you were talking about, the nod. I would just call that good home training, acknowledging that I see you and not having someone respond to that would sort of shake me it as well. But that turned to something quite extraordinary for you, which ultimately is this phenomenal book that you have graced us with that I hope everyone takes the opportunity to read. Going from being the only one to not the only one is really central to Nella’s story. And in the book, you explore friendship and expectations of friendship among black women and how predominantly white industries and spaces influence those dynamics. Tell us more about that.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Absolutely. I mean, I have to really go back into my own experiences of being an only one because it really felt there are these two sides of it, of being able to walk that walk, talk that talk. I was raised in a very particularly white neighborhood in Connecticut. Didn’t really have black friends for a while as a young person, similarly to Nella, there’ll be a lot of similarities in this conversation you’ll see between me and my protagonist. And so once Nella gets to this space where she is the only one, she feels very proud, because she’s been able to kind of climb over that wall to get this position because it’s very hard to get any kind of job in publishing, especially as a young black person, you have to know the right people, all of those things. And so for Nella to get there, she feels this sense of pride.

            And it’s like I earned this, but of course being the only one she’s craving that kind of contact with someone like Hazel. And so when Hazel gets there, she expects for them to speak the same language, like I’m here, you’re here. We must have had to climb over the same hurdles. We must have the same kind of partner. We must have the same beliefs when it comes to what’s best for black people. But that pressure is not just internal it’s something that’s impressed upon us by outside people. There are of course different things we say to each other, depending on where we are and who’s around us, who’s listening and in the world of publishing, those eyes just feel so strong on Nella, how she’s navigating this friendship with Hazel, that at first she thinks she wants, she knows she wants it because again, she’s craving that.

            But then there’s something strange about Hazel that doesn’t quite align with her. And she feels guilty for not necessarily being excited about Hazel’s presence. And a lot of that comes from, again, this pressure for us to always be one active kind of, what’s the word, we’re supposed to be …

Laysha Ward:

I think there’s this expectation that we are all the same and we’re not monolithic. No people are monolithic. And I think you do an incredible job of showing the unique side that we all have, even within the context of a community or a race or a gender. And I think it’s so powerful. Now your two main characters, in fact, Nella and Hazel, they represent really different approaches to tackling racism and isolation in the workplace. And one is very direct and the other is more subtle. What are the pros and cons of each that you explore in the book?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. Well, Nella and Hazel really came from my own kind of thinking about, and this is something that not only, I think about that all black people think about, I think all the time of what’s the best way for us to succeed. And so Nella of course moves through the system. She’s agreeable, she’s kind, she doesn’t want anyone to dislike her. And the pros of that is that once she’s able to climb that ladder, she’s able to say I did this, I put my sweat, my blood, my time into us, this is what … I know for me personally, relatives that I’ve had, who’ve worked in these kind of spaces who had to say yes agreeably so that we, our generation, can push the envelope a little bit more. All the people who came before her, Nella’s honoring those people who worked and kept their head down. But of course the cons are that it’s exhausting. It’s so exhausting.

Laysha Ward:

I feel like I can say amen right there. It’s exhausting.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes. I just sighed as I said it too, I was just thinking about 2020, I was thinking about 2016 every day, really of seeing what’s happening in the world, on the news and having to then go to work the next day, having to go be happy and pretend to be happy as though the world is not sometimes just terrible. And that kind of pressure for Nella, someone like Nella, who just wants to kick butt at everything at work all the time. It’s something that’s just really wearing down her. We also see how it affects her friendships, her outside life, as she’s being pulled more into this kind of competition with Hazel at work. The pros of Hazel’s approach, I won’t give too much away, but the pros of Hazel’s approach is that she seems happier.

            She just seems like she’s been able to let go of that kind of pain exhaustion in a way that Nella can’t for various reason, but the cons of Hazels are they don’t make me feeling as proud. This is something that I haven’t decided yet. I didn’t want to answer this question in this book, but is suffering and is adversity inherent to the black experience, that what makes us black culturally. All of those things are things that I’m always constantly thinking about.

Laysha Ward:

Okay. I think you’re tapping into another book here.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes.

Laysha Ward:

This intense sort of trauma and struggle that leads to us grit and resilience and grace. I think you’re onto something there that I think we could continue to dive into. I really appreciate your perspective and I know that our community here will as well. I found that the need to be either direct or subtle actually varies based on the situation or the circumstance. And it’s just good to have different tools in our tool kit that we can apply as appropriate based on the situation or circumstance that we are going through in that moment or at our varying life stages. And I think that’s really what’s useful for us to think about it’s not often either or there are and situations that require different approaches based on what’s coming at us and what we want to give in that moment.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Right. Exactly. It’s all creative.

Laysha Ward:

It is. Your lived experience clearly informed this book. And you’ve said that when you were working as editorial assistant you dreamt of being the first black female editor, but ultimately you decided to leave the publishing house. What was the decision making process that led you to leave to pursue your dream?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

I mean, I can trace that back also to a moment where I’d been there for about two years and I’d been promoted to assistant editor, which was a big deal because that was the trajectory for me, that I had hoped when I first started there. And I remember one of my bosses giving me a book to work on that would just be my own book. And it was a very important book. Would’ve been a very good one for me to work on, I would’ve learned so much, but I remember getting that news that I would be leading the charge on my own book and then going back to my desk and crying and a lot happened at my desk, clearly, it’s like where I lived my cubicle.

Laysha Ward:

Tell us more about what led to this cry moment. Was it a good cry or a bad cry?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

It was a realization that if I took this path, I would not have time to work on my own writing. I had started working in publishing because … First off, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. That’s where I started off when I was five or six. My dad’s a writer. My older sister is a writer, loved it. But I also knew that’s hard. And I did an MFA program that then led to this job in publishing and I was really excited about that idea of being the black editor, but also it’s hard. It’s like we said, it’s exhausting. I’ll also add that this book I was going to work on was not by a black writer.

            And there’s just so many factors about being in that space that I loved, but also did not love it all. And I think knowing that every time another assistant left, every time someone left the person who filled that space nine times out of 10, was a white person or someone who was already connected to the world of publishing is very insular, which then of course everyone’s talking in this bubble of experience that everyone does not necessarily experience outside of that bubble. And it’s very white.

Laysha Ward:

And instead of feeling like you belong, you felt like an other in many ways, like you didn’t belong and you weren’t included.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

I did and I didn’t, because that’s the thing, that’s a strange thing about it. Having grown up where I did and having been so used to being in those kinds of spaces, I did feel like I belonged, but then there were moments where it was like, and this wasn’t just me to be fair, it was also other entry level employees, young people like my age, where’d be like, “How is this happening? Are we living in 1955?” That kind of thing. And then of course, sensitivity reads would sometimes come up. That question of, who’s heard of this writer, who’s heard of this celebrity, when it’s like, obviously like I have, but a lot of the white, older people have not.

            It was this weird thing of feeling like I belonged and then realizing like, wait, but not quite. The path of the house at the time was just not going necessarily where I wanted to go. That absolutely contributed to it as well. And then I also had the idea for this book right around that time that I mentioned when I was crying at my desk. And so a lot of those things really just culminated in me deciding to put in my notice a couple months after I started the book and my mom was like, “What about insurance?”

Laysha Ward:

Mom was doing what moms do and what dads do and what your community, they just want to make sure that you were successful and healthy and happy and safe and that you had insurance.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Totally. Exactly. And now my mom of course is very happy.

Laysha Ward:

I’m sure your mom has always been, your parents have always been proud of you. I have no doubt. And you are living out your dream and manifesting that in so many extraordinary ways. But I think many of us feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And so those tensions can exist in the same space. And so it’s I think really inspiring and illustrative of what’s possible when we hear your story and your unique story really reminds us that we all have a story to write and to live and to share. Thank you for sharing that, it’s really inspiring.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Thank you.

Laysha Ward:

On another level, you also explore the psychological impact of racism and isolation throughout your book. For example, you portray microaggressions in thought provoking ways. And I’m often struck that microaggressions might imply that small aggressions are really inconsequential and, spoiler alert, they’re not. And your book really suggests that there is a great deal more weight and heft to the negative impact of microaggression. How do we help people who underestimate the impact of microaggressions and what they can say and do and what they shouldn’t say and do?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. I mean, the thing about microaggressions that is really important to understand is that they can be so hard to put your finger on. Like that scene when I was trying to explain to her white author why there’s something problematic about this black character he wrote in this book. Sometimes it can be a feeling and people just need to trust that feeling. It is something that you feel, it’s something that is very specific to different people. We are not all of course homogenous when it comes to what affects us, what triggers us. That’s another thing to take into consideration. Some people can tolerate more or feel differently about different things. And just the horror of microaggressions too. I mean, a big part of what inspired this book for me just creatively was get out and how it was able to really comment on well-meaning white people in a way that I don’t feel like people were really talking about yet when it came out.

            And I really just wanted to look at that from the publishing angle of what it’s like to be this young black woman who’s listening to middle aged white bosses talk about vacation homes and basically how much money they make you don’t make, or having your name misspelled or mispronounced constantly by people who work with you and should know you. All of those kinds of things, they differ again by different people for different people and they just matter so much to address and frankly, not everyone’s comfortable calling people out on them either. That’s another thing. If you have a work environment that is like Wagner Books and unfortunately a lot of corporate industries, you have to have spaces where people feel comfortable really talking about these things in meaningful, impactful ways.

Laysha Ward:

Absolutely. I think I often refer to being comfortable being uncomfortable. And if you get comfortable being uncomfortable, you’re often willing to have really courageous conversations and those courageous conversations, hopefully that are built on trust and an environment where people are willing to learn and suspend judgment and truly move into a conversation ideally it opens up a lot of learning and growth for everyone. And I do think sometimes people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. So they say nothing instead, or they just keep saying the things that they’ve always said, because to your point, no one’s been willing to educate them and bring them along the journey. And when there are power dynamics at work that can be difficult to do, but ideally we’re all beginning to open up conversations and be in a culture that allows us to be on that learning journey together.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. And hopefully, I mean, I’ve heard a lot about how black people are really preferring to work from home now because they feel more comfortable there than in those actual workplaces, which is a shame but I also hope it means that I think everyone’s at home right now or not everyone, but a lot of people are, and maybe that’ll help break down the walls even further of all of us just talking to one another in this way could do a lot.

Laysha Ward:

We all want to be in a culture where we have psychological safety where we feel like we are seen, like I see you, I value you, I respect you for all of who you are and what you bring, and that we’re not trying to create a narrative that is comfortable as opposed to the one that is actually representative of who we are. And I think your book is opening up a conversation that will help us all as we make progress on that journey of equity. And there is a lot in your book about code switching, which is widely thought of as changing how you speak and act to navigate environments that are really dominated by majority culture, which is a tension in all [inaudible 00:21:19] that I’ve experienced my entire life and career. And there’s a psychological cost to this as well. Let’s dive into that a bit and talk about the impact of code switching and what we can do about that as well.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. Well code switching, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot too, and really wanted to have these kinds of conversations about it because I don’t necessarily think it’s always negative. I do think, I mean, selling out is definitely negative, but I think some people have a different-

Laysha Ward:

Selling out is negative, period.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. But the line between those things can be so fine. And so I think that everyone changes the way that they speak and act depending on where they are, who they’re around, but when it’s for a reason like, oh, my job will not accept me that’s why I can’t wear my hair like this to work. That’s why I can’t say this kind of thing at work. That’s where it gets very not good. And I really wanted to also play with, I mean, again, going back to where I’m from, I got comments like I talk like a white girl in high school all the time.

Laysha Ward:

I’ve heard the same for many years and all of the ways in which I talk, represent who I am, I am all of those things. And so it’s interesting how people will try to say I’m not black enough or I act too white. I am who I am. I’m still certainly in the process of becoming, but people can’t sort of define us and put us in boxes that make them feel safer or more comfortable, which is not their right.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah, exactly. I think often too about my own kind of code switching and like, “I’m I code switching when I’m around black people are white people?” I drive myself crazy thinking about those things. And like you said, the end of the day, we’re all just imaginations of all the pieces that we’ve picked up. But again, making sure that the reasons why we’re doing it are coming from just, I want to be … Or not even I want to be, I’m actively being, just I am multiple selves. I can be this way. And also if that part comes into work, it should be okay. And that’s where, again, it becomes complicated. And hopefully, ideally I think it starts the beginning of companies like publishing houses and other corporate spaces starting from scratch and really looking at who they’re hiring, making environments feel more inclusive, not just visually, but actually doing the work of making sure these environments feel comfortable enough where people don’t feel like they need to do those kinds of things.

Laysha Ward:

They can be their authentic selves because the culture and the values are being lived every day and people can show up as their full selves and feel valued and respected and have the opportunity to, not only be hired, but to be developed and promoted and advanced in ways that allow them to be the very best versions of themselves that they can be quite frankly.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes.

Laysha Ward:

That’s the goal. That’s the goal. Okay. Girl, we have to talk about hair.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes.

Laysha Ward:

Our hair has long been a subject of conversation and debate. And in fact, I did an article recently about my personal hair journey on LinkedIn called the crown that really created a lot of discussion and buzz. I’m really curious to hear what inspired you to make hair such a significant part of your book?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. First of all, I loved your hair journey. I’m also tender headed so I was like, “Yes.”

Laysha Ward:

You read the article the crown?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes, I did. And I loved and I hadn’t been in the corporate sphere for very long are writing this book really publishing was my biggest kind of splash, but I’ve had my own similar journey of really figuring out what works for me. I really wanted to have straight hair when I was nine or eight or nine or whatever. Beyonce, she had the straight, straight blonde hair shanty. Yes, I love talking about hair. I loved your piece on your hair journey because I am also tender headed. It’s a blessing and a curse, mostly a curse, but I have so many memories, just early memories of myself, really not loving my natural hair. I really wanted to have straight hair ponytails. I remember drawing little pictures of me with ponytails because that’s what all my white friends had.

Laysha Ward:

Why did you want that versus natural hair?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. I mean, it seemed so much more manageable. That was the thing. I hated that my mom always had to do my hair because that was just something that she would do. And so now of course I’m still learning. I’ve been natural six years now, but I really wasn’t doing my own natural hair and I wanted to be able to just get out of bed, put it back. I was playing sports and stuff, all those things. And I also wanted makeover time would come. All my friends would be doing each other’s hair. My parents were like, “Don’t let them touch your hair.” So I didn’t, of course like good parents. And I was just like sitting in the corner though and it’s been a journey and it got to the point where 2015, 2016 happened.

            I had moved to the city for MFA. A lot of protests were going on. I was figuring out where I fit into all of it as someone who was not really politically active and was just now kind of … I mean, I’d started reading Baldwin and really getting into Hurston and all those things in college. But now I was really suddenly feeling that kind of not weight, but just the power and how much of my experience had been lived. And I thought about what it was like to now suddenly feel like a black person moving through the world, knowing who I was, knowing how I talked, all those things, but knowing other people would just look at me and see a black person and what that would mean if they’re a cop, what would that mean if they were a white shop owner.

Laysha Ward:

You were evolving and that’s okay. You were evolving and coming into your own and you were able to sort of express that in ways that felt good for you at that moment.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

It did. And that led to me watching a Black Panther documentary, the one by Stanley Nelson.

Laysha Ward:

And it is fabulous. It’s really great.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

So good. And Kathleen Cleaver is talking about natural hair. And in that moment, she’s talking about why they wear it natural and how it’s pleasing to them. And I just remember thinking my natural hair was never before pleasing to me and weeks months, I’m not sure how much longer after I decided to chop all my hair off. I went to a Dominican barber shop in Williamsburg or Bushwick, I can’t remember, and had it chopped off and it was the best experience of my life. And so I really wanted to explore that.

Laysha Ward:

It was really empowering for you. It pains me when I hear you say that it wasn’t what you wanted for yourself. It wasn’t how you saw yourself in anyway and so this inflection point that was created that allowed you to have this freeing moment sounds like its quite pivotal for you.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

It was so pivotal. And this is to say black women relax their hair for their own reason like do you, I get it. But I know for me, I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. And when I cut my hair off, I felt part of this community. I just felt so beautiful. And so that was-

Laysha Ward:

You are beautiful.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Thank you.

Laysha Ward:

Inside and out. And I’m so pleased that you feel the energy of your beauty and that you’re manifesting that in the world. And hopefully it encourages and inspires others to see their beauty as well. And that’s what it’s really all about. When I had my short, relaxed do, I was rocking that and I loved that style. And now that I have braids, natural look, I love that too. And so it’s really about being unapologetically you and helps people explore the importance of that. When I was a little girl, I love the Afro puff girl. I would just rock those and think that they were so beautiful, but I too struggled with fitting in when I was in a mostly white environment, given how my hair looked in comparison to theirs. Today’s a different day and I think how we see beauty, express beauty and power and our agency has evolved and you are a manifestation of that evolution in a way that gives me a great deal of pride and hope about the future.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Thank you. You’re going to make me start tearing up just listening to you.

Laysha Ward:

I love that. I just love it. I’m going to ask us to kind of pivot a bit because you’ve talked a lot about Nella and Hazel and their story is so compelling, but there’s also a male character in the book that I’d like to explore. And he wasn’t my favorite, by the way. Richard Wagner, their white male boss he tries to come across as ally. But clearly he isn’t and you described him as engaging in opportunism disguised as open-mindedness. There’s so much to unpack in that. Why was it important to include Richard in the story and how do we encourage authentic allyship at work?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. Richard was a few things.

Laysha Ward:

Richard was a whole lot of things.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes. He came out of my own idea of the publishing white male prototype, the people who are able to just kind of coast through didn’t really have … I mean, he started this publishing house from scratch, had no experience and is now successful present day in the book. So he represents that kind of entitlement, but also-

Laysha Ward:

Entitlement and privilege. To me he represented entitlement and privilege on staff.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes. Definitely privileged. And coming off in this way of right being an ally, being helpful, that also came from … I mean, people ask me, “Did you write this book in 2020 or with a 2020 in mind?” And I was like, “No, it’s from years and years of being set up feeling like we as black people, people of color are getting close to having change and then from all the companies tweeting about things and okay, well we’re going to put this black person here. We’re going to do this initiative now.” And then everything goes back to normal. All of those waves over and over again, Richard really represents just another wave of, “Oh, well we have to look good. We have to make money because diversity is en vogue.” Those are the kinds of thinking that I think are unfortunately very relevant. And a lot of it is cosmetic. A lot of it is performative.

Laysha Ward:

Performative. That’s the word I always used was performative. Richard represented the challenge I’ve certainly put out to folks. It cannot be just about statements. It needs to be about action and progress and outcomes.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Exactly. And just through Richard, I mean, Nella, when we start off the book, Nella is kind of intrigued by him and is drawn to him because he is this man of power, but what’s beneath that, a lot of that is, it’s so, again, unfortunately prevalent today and people who seem like they mean well, but are actually causing the systematic problem. But also I didn’t want him to be the only person culpable in this book either because I think just blaming it on the white man at the top, he’s a huge part of it and has so much hand in why the industry there, Wagner Books, the book industry in the book are so problematic at the core. But the things that he’s doing are not only harming people like Nella, they’re harming a lot of other people as well.

Laysha Ward:

And I’m sure you to see someone like Richard, you also appreciate somebody who is doing it right. When I saw Richard I was like, “Well, thank God he’s not my boss.” When I think about my boss, who is Target CEO, Brian Cornell, he’s doing the opposite things that I saw Richard doing. And so it also does allow us to talk about what is possible and what you want and what you don’t want to see in both leaders and in companies. There are alternative paths. And so we can’t use Richard as an excuse to do the wrong thing. There are pathways that do lead to real outcomes, real work being done that, again, that has to be sustained over a multiyear time horizon to have the kind of impact that we actually want and deserve in this country and around the world. But man, Richard made me hurt girl.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

I know with his silly hats.

Laysha Ward:

Made me hurt. I think we’ve intrigued our community here at the conference and they’re going to want to read about Nella and Hazel and Richard, but I think they’re also going to want to read about just again, these wonderful relationships and the tensions in these relationships that you explore. And building on this theme of support, it’s just really important, I think for women to support other women. And yet we’re often put into these situations where we’re compared and forced to compete with one another in ways that are, I don’t know, detrimental and unhealthy like Nella and Hazel were in many ways, but your book also explores really supportive and affirming relationships like between Nella and Malaika. What can we learn from these relationship dynamics that you can share with us?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. I love that too, because I was thinking in my head, I was like, the other black girl is part cautionary tale. Don’t be like Richard, don’t be like ABC, but I also wanted it to be that the core to be relationships and uplifting one another and why that is still so important and Malaika really came from a lot of my own relationships with my black friends that I found in college thankfully, and then have still today. And that’s just so important to have that space. We’re talking about being your full self at work is it possible to ever do that? Maybe not depending on where you are, but you need to have that base.

            You have to have that foundation of someone to say to you, you are not crazy. You are so right. I hear you. I see you. You can be your weird wacky self referencing all these things that nobody else at your job’s heard of. I am a safe space. And I had that. When I started writing this book at my cubicle, I messaged my good friend, my MFA friend, black friend on Hangouts or whatever, and told her about my idea for this book. I still have a screenshot of it. She was like, “Yes, girl, I love this?” And we were just talking about it.

Laysha Ward:

Talking with your cheer section like, “Go, go go.”

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Exactly. And sometimes I think especially over the last couple years, you have to be really proactive about doing that. There are groups out there. I know Slack had a black girls in publishing a group. I’m pretty sure I’m hoping there’s one for every BIPOC person. And also just anyone, women working in tech.

Laysha Ward:

And if there isn’t one for whatever it is you need, particularly for those folks, listening to our conversation, we should feel empowered to create that community and I’m really blessed to be a part of a group of women. We call the Mocha Moguls and the Mocha Moguls are 10 black women who are executives in corporate America and very different industries all across the country, different life stages. But I’m also connected inside of Target to this amazing group of women called sisters connecting. And we are there to lean on and lift up one another. I’m also in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and a member of the links organization. There are these very spaces where I am able to both get and give support. And so I think whether it’s individuals or through a collective, there are places and spaces that either exist and if they don’t exist, we create them. The table’s not there and the chair’s not there. We either bring up our own chair or create our own damn table.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

I loved what you said about bringing up your own chair, starting that group. That’s the most important thing too. And I didn’t have that kind of, for lack of a better word when I was working in publishing and I wish I had, but there were so many people around me who did, and in other industries and it’s so important to use your own voice and to start those initiatives yourself. I love that. Thank you.

Laysha Ward:

Well, we’re in this together, we’re in this together for sure.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes.

Laysha Ward:

Zakiya, what do you hope that readers will take from your book?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

So many things. I mean, the conversations about hair that I’ve been having with non-black women have been wild and so interesting of what people are Googling and didn’t know. I mean, I didn’t write this book to teach necessarily. I’m happy and so happy that these kind of conversations about workplace inclusivity, all of those things are happening, but I was really just writing it for that kind of “blerd” in me, who loves Insecure when it came out and loved all the different kinds of black people that I was seeing and Insecure and Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Key & Peele, all of those things.

            I’m just excited for this to present four, five, six different ways to be a black person in this world. It’s like we are not homogenous. We are so different. We were saying earlier, Kendra Ray has her reasons for doing things. Diana has her reasons for doing things. We’re each unique and we all deserve to be heard and seen. But I also want this book to be fun, like the Malaika conversations, I wanted that warmth as well and so just hopefully just a few things.

Laysha Ward:

It’s a really interesting story. It is a story that has a range of story lines and emotional highs and lows. And so I do think that people will be really engaged and taken on an interesting journey as they dive into the book. So I don’t want to give it all away, but you did a beautiful job with your first novel. Thank you. It’s really quite extraordinary and the best is yet to come I’m sure. Before we close, I want to ask you to reflect on the theme of this conference, which is renew, reconnect, reignite. What have you discovered that helps you renew, reconnect and reignite that can inspire us throughout the year?

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yeah. I mean, mine, isn’t so much of a tangible thing, but I think for me, just allowing myself more grace of I really was not able to read as much last year as I wanted to, because I was, of course, the book was happening and promoting and I’d be like, “Ah, I should be reading more. I should be on social media,” all those things and really just taking it one day at a time and knowing how much I can do and really connecting to what makes me happy. And now I’m doing that and I’m getting back into reading at my own pace. And I’m listening to music and really thinking about the music and not to sound spacey, but all of those things, that’s like really just being patient with myself and mindful of what’s coming in.

Laysha Ward:

I love that. It feels almost like it’s a call to self care and wellbeing.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Yes.

Laysha Ward:

And self care is so essential. I’m inspired by what you shared, and I’m sure that our audience will be able to really think about that and apply that in their lives as well. I’m just energized, Zakiya, by our conversation. This has been absolutely amazing. And I often say-

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Same. You are so inspiring to me.

Laysha Ward:

Stop girl, stop. I do often say that the true measure of our success should be how we use our influence and our voices and our power to create more equitable opportunities for everyone, especially women and girls. And I just feel like your book does a phenomenal job of elevating that discussion. Thank you so much for that. I’m just really looking forward to knowing your journey.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:

Thank you so much, Laysha. This is a dream and such a pleasure. I really appreciate it.





Registration Opens June 9

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