To be young, gifted and Black is a decades-long mantra, thanks in large part to the legacies of Lorraine, Nina and Aretha. To be gifted, Black and a woman is a different legacy, earned at an intersection often filled with contradictions, microaggressions and challenges to your very legitimate and hard-earned wins; a trajectory illustrated by Chief Marketing Officer of Netflix Bozoma Saint John in a recent op-ed for the Hollywood Reporter.
“There is at once validation and real anger in finally being celebrated in your career,” wrote The Root 100 2020 honoree (among other years), who has previously led the marketing teams of Pepsi-Cola, Apple Music, Uber and Endeavor. “But that moment is preceded by years of trying to express my ideas without being looked at as odd, trying to shape-shift and code-switch and find the ways to make others feel comfortable with ideas that were simply reflecting my own experience,” she continued. “So finally getting to that moment of recognition feels like reaching nirvana, but people only acknowledge the fact that you arrived. No one acknowledges what it took to get there. And that is where the anger shows up. And then, guess what? Can’t even express that, because then you’ll be the angry Black woman.”
Saint John’s essay reportedly was penned in response to a controversial article published by Ad Age last December, in which the marketing guru was dubbed “the CMO most likely to jump jobs in 2021.” Many readers rightly came to her defense, alleging bias on the part of the publication and compelling the outlet to apologize and revise a story which provided “no context or exploration of the myriad ways in which race and gender impact the workplace experience,” THR notes.
Part of that experience is that due to the lack of access and resources typically afforded to aspiring Black execs, c-suite success stories like Saint John’s are a rarity. Tellingly, this year marked the ascension of only the third and fourth Black women to lead Fortune 500 companies in history (Roz Brewer of Walgreens and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA, respectively). But as Saint John points out, that rarified air means that our wins can never be our alone.
“The other piece of it is that when we win, it’s a win for the culture, which of course is heroic and noble, but sometimes don’t you just want the crowd to cheer for you? Sometimes don’t you just want them to say your name? We’re not afforded that. We are uniquely asked to be magnanimous in our win.”
Conversely, our losses—or even just the fear of taking career risks—are more devastating. “If you fail, it’s everybody’s failure. The pressure that comes with that can be crushing. You have to be perfect,” Saint John writes, also rightly noting that while the capabilities of white men are never called into question when one fails, the stakes remain unrealistically high for Black women who even come close (and to be fair, the Black race, at large). “If you lose this job, then perhaps the next person won’t get the shot to do it.”