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Go Where You’re Celebrated, Not Just Tolerated

A revolution is happening. I’ve been seeing it for a while, but it burst into bright, brilliant bloom last week thanks to Nikole Hannah-Jones.

If you’re living under a rock (or you’re outside the U.S. and busy reading pandemic updates in your area), Nikole Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times journalist who created The 1619 Project. It should be required reading.

In May she was denied tenure as a UNC journalism professor because some people (read: white people) took issue with the project’s framing of American history to (rightfully) center Black American narratives and the painful legacy of slavery.

When she was finally offered tenure after protests and a national controversy, Hannah-Jones declined. She is now set to join the faculty of the historically Black Howard University.

There are fantastic takes on the whole tale, which is a sad study in racism, anti-Blackness, misogynoir and white fragility. I won’t rehash them (please prioritize reading Black women when you do. Fortune’s Ellen McGirt is a great place to start, as well as Karen Attiah who first surfaced the quote about going where you’re celebrated).

But the saga also illuminates the strong and consistent pushback I’m seeing from women of color against being forced to work in places that will barely accept or (if you’re lucky) tolerate you.

Somewhere in the past few years, I too said I’ve had enough. I refused to work with people who couldn’t make an effort to get my name right. I refused to work with people (of all genders) who made sexist jokes, or white people who said overtly racist things: “How come your English is so good?” I refused to work for clients who underpaid or mistreated me. When in doubt, I began to prioritize my health and joy over $.

My refusal came with a big pay cut at first. It enrages me when I think about all the money I and others like me lose when we refuse to merely be tolerated.

But I made a commitment that I will always choose spaces where I’m welcomed.

I know I’m not alone.

Inclusive leaders will notice that more people from marginalized backgrounds are saying NO to half-hearted invitations. Rather than bringing folding chairs to a table where there’s no seat for them (thanks, Shirley Chisholm), more women of color are building brand new tables:

  • Rather than join the “pale, male and stale” accounting firm to help the company tick a diversity box, they’re setting up a women of color-run CPA firm.

  • Instead of bearing with yet another trans-toxic boss, they’re collaborating with LGBTQ-owned companies.

  • Instead of just putting up with exclusionary colleagues, they’re creating whole institutions to nurture the next generation of students from underestimated backgrounds.

Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ example is a large, visible one. But there are many all around us. Can you spot the quiet, brave revolutions taking place all around you? Seeing more people move courageously to where they’re celebrated, not merely tolerated?

Pay attention.


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