HBO’s Insecure & Navigating Invisible Blackness in the Nonprofit World

Issa Rae in Insecure
Issa Rae, Lisa Joyce. photo: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO

A lot of Black women are in a perpetual cycle of being “the token with all the answers.” We are expected to work hard and complain quietly. The invisible racial labor of Black professionals in predominantly white nonprofits continues to permeate our careers. 

Housekeeping was my first job. I worked at a small hotel and I had one task: clean all the rooms. I was a teenager making little more than minimum wage and there was no room for growth. My first nonprofit job made me look at the world differently. I was part of an at-risk violence prevention program where my supervisors were hyper-focused on gang deterrence. But while the mission statement was inclusive, the practices and policies were not. I was into Star Trek and afraid of guns, so imagine my surprise when one of the program mentors asked me to be honest about my “set” affiliation. At the time, I didn’t even know what a set was. (In case you don’t either, a set is a gang…I think. Honestly, I’m still fairly clueless about gang life). I naively went into the situation thinking I’d be surrounded by people who cared about keeping me safe from gangs and police brutality. Instead, they just assumed that every kid from the projects was a threat. 

It is because of this and similar experiences that I loved the HBO series Insecure. Issa Rae started the show in part to highlight the experience of a Black woman working in a nonprofit that embodies the problematic white savior. Her job at We Got Y’all is eerily similar to way too many real-life organizations. Insecure presents a much more smooth and sexy version of Black womanhood than the web series on which it was based, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (hello—it’s HBO). But it similarly reflects a pressing issue for Black women even in supposedly “progressive” non-profit organizations: the longing for safety in a predominantly white workplace. 

They Don’t Got Us

photo: John P. Fleenor/HBO

While things like implicit bias, microaggressions, and racial discrimination can exist in both the corporate world and the nonprofit sector, many people of color accept nonprofit positions with the expectation that these organizations ‘get it.’ We expect more since nonprofits are mission-driven and have pillars of social responsibility woven into their policies and procedures. Corporations, on the other hand, are clear about being driven by profit. However, like we see in Insecure, just because a nonprofit is focused on exposing, reducing, or even ending injustice doesn’t mean that it is immune from racist practices. What is especially damaging is that these “progressive” organizations are very often reproducing white supremacy while pretending that they’re doing something good for the world. 

When I got my second gig at a nonprofit, I was a few years older and well-equipped with corporate work experience. There was so much potential in this new job description and I felt lucky to be in the role. In the beginning, I got all the praises. Even though I was surrounded by white co-workers, I didn’t feel isolated. The constant remarks about how much they enjoyed my “Afrocentric style” were awkward, but mostly positive and well-meaning. 

Within a month or so, I felt confident enough to take on leadership roles and join committees. That’s when I felt the shift. On more than one occasion, our director referred to grown Black men as boys. There would be condescending side jokes about me trying to become a supervisor whenever we had collaborative projects. The worst part came when my direct supervisor (a middle-aged white woman) made a joke about having white history month. I called her out in a team meeting. She looked at me as if I had betrayed her, then proceeded to tell me “calm down” and not to make it into a “race thing.” Shortly after, I stopped being invited to happy hours and folks would shuffle out of the break room when I walked in. My semi-annual staff evaluation presented me as a combative, unapproachable team member. It was like night and day. Shortly after, I applied for corporate roles until I landed a decent position.

Issa Rae’s work constantly challenges the problematic white-centric notions of Black womanhood that I had to deal with at my own job. Her ongoing critique of the white gaze offers space for public dialogue about why Black women are undervalued. In particular, Insecure’s main character Issa Dee has to deal with a common struggle between identity and employment. Erika Stallings’ article about going from Pet to Threat resonates with this sentiment. Essentially, Stallings breaks down a historical trend in the white collar world where Black women are first seen as cute little diversity mascots. Once we stand up for ourselves or file a grievance, or call out injustice, or outperform our peers, we are then criminalized in the workplace. 

Much like thousands of Black women in predominantly white work spaces across the country, Insecure was all alone. It was the first time on television since Girlfriends that a diverse group of Black women had the chance to just “be.” Insecure is not about traumatic instances of racial discrimination. Issa Dee is not some comic-relief-asexual-bestie for a white lead character. That’s likely why her internal season one battle with her career resonated with so many of us. 

Can white people say the N word?

I mean, obviously the answer is no. For me, though, I’ve heard several white people say it to my face. The first time, I was a kid and it was this girl named Amanda. After she called me a dirty n—–, I had to dog walk her at the bus stop as a micro-crusade for my people. The last person was my boss. He said it casually as one would say good morning, which let me know that he was comfortable enough to say it often. He didn’t just say it once either. He sprinkled it in conversation three or four times within the span of five minutes. I didn’t respond or react and I still regret that. Instead, I resigned a few weeks later.

Whitney, another nonprofit director, had a similar experience. At an office party, she overheard white coworkers using the N-word. “They weren’t singing along to any music. They were not reading dialogue from historical texts. They were just casually dropping N-bombs in reference to one of our vendors.” Whitney was enraged. She stomped to the restroom to type a detailed email from her phone. As she re-read it for typos, she thought about Danielle — the one-woman HR on their 10-person team. Danielle was fervently anti-Black. Think of Angela from The Office, but with an overbite and glasses. Danielle was a liberal who didn’t vote because she thought Hillary wasn’t “ladylike.” In order to avoid seeming like “that” Black person, Whitney never hit send. Instead, she posted a vague status on Facebook and let it go. A month or so later, she left the nonprofit world and went back to a corporate position.

Insecure deals with more subtle instances of white obliviousness in the face of racial insensitivity. You won’t hear violent racial slurs or see a lynching or other white supremcist violence. Instead, Issa Rae’s narrative illustrates the often overlooked nuances of microaggressions. Further, the show doesn’t boldly announce its critiques, instead choosing to depict seemingly slight episodes of racial trauma that are damaging largely because of their recurrence.

Both the show and real-life experiences offer evidence that we do not, in fact, live in a meritocracy. Molly, though brilliant and beautiful and ambitious, seems like a diversity prop for the law firm. Issa starts off as a convenient Black token until she challenges the norm. Her boss, Joanne, is a caricature of wokeness. She is a white woman who offers condescending African scriptures while wearing a dashiki. Aside from her daydreaming clap backs, Issa is silent through most of these events. It’s the same professional survival strategy enlisted by women of color throughout the global professional community. 

In season two, Molly finds out that her less ambitious white male coworker makes substantially more than she does at their high-powered law firm. More surprisingly, he didn’t even seem to work that hard to make that salary. She realizes that the pay difference has less to do with what she does and more to do with who she is. Her gradual divestment from the meritocracy myth is a call to action for all of us. Having our labor exploited for everyone’s benefit but our own is not the move.

These kinds of problems are uniquely challenging for those in small nonprofits where there is no HR department or grievance process. Ultimately, we don’t get to develop our skills and attain the accolades that put us in senior level positions. Many of us switch careers or move out of nonprofits altogether depending on the severity of the circumstances.

Can feminism save us?

If the “us” is Black women, then the answer is no. 

In season 1 episode 2, (Messy AF), Issa’s white coworker Frieda starts a conversation by saying she doesn’t want to step on Issa’s toes, then immediately launches into her unsolicited ideas for how to improve Issa’s presentation. Granted, Issa didn’t fully prepare for the presentation, but Frieda was out of line. Frieda then goes on to offer a suggestion that the poor Black children of their program should clean up wealthy white neighborhoods. 

Herein lies the problem with most iterations of feminism: Black women are expected to do the work, but our issues usually get put on the back burner. A similar thing happened in real life to Latalya, a woman I know who is a proud mother and senior benefits analyst. Throughout her career she was taken aback by the actions of other women in the workplace. Specifically, she was seen as the help rather than a boss.

She told me, “These United States of America prefer that men be in high level positions over women. I believe that a great number of women buy into that male dominance nonsense as well.” Despite Latalya’s experience and business acumen, she dealt with the same issues time after time: “A white female colleague, who was very new in her position, shadowed me throughout the day.  She accompanied me to a union representative meeting as our department was preparing to go into negotiations. We arrived early. Before the meeting got started, one of the union members, noticeably, ignored me and focused her questions to the newbie who was shadowing me for the day. I said nothing. I was being treated as though I wasn’t there.”

While most women have likely experienced some degree of invisibility, Black women are particularly impacted by erasure in predominantly white work spaces. While some white women claim to be allies, many are simply perpetuating the same tropes as their male counterparts. As Latalya put it, “if one must continually prove their worth, then how will they ever be free?” Each time one must prove herself, it’s like starting from ground zero.

Latalya left that position after years of being slept on, and could easily find work with another firm, but she knew it would be more of the same. Much like Issa Dee, she created her own path.

Why Can’t We Just Let It Go?

Most days, it seems like it would be easier to just suck it up. All the documentation won’t matter if the head of HR is friends with the employee who says dreadlocks are all dirty. When your supervisor is a woman like BBQ Becky, how far up the corporate ladder can you even climb before having it knocked over? But that’s exactly why we can’t let it go. I know another woman, Molly Carter, who is much like Yvonne Orly’s character on Insecure. She is smart and determined and experienced, but her white male coworker made substantially more than her. It’s a tale as old as time—except very few people get to tell it. We do our jobs, we do the work to educate white coworkers on racism, we keep quiet, we serve as counselors to the white folks who feel attacked because they were called out on something racist. There are tasks outside our job description that seem to prevent whole race wars. Black employees tend to withstand onslaughts of microaggressions before resigning. Like Molly, it is important to recognize that the pay gap for Black women still persists

We can’t let these things go, because talented, hard working Black women fought too hard to be passed over for promotions in favor of mediocre white boys. We can’t let it go because progress requires the power of angry Black women. We still long for safety in a world full of racism so we can’t just let it go.

Back in the day, Joe “Corn Pop” Biden harassed, dismissed, and suppressed a Black woman for the sake of toxic masculinity. That Black woman is Anita Hill. Like her, I call on our collective to declare that “the statute of limitations is up on apologies.

The Legacy of Insecure

photo: Merie W. Wallace/HBO

With Insecure, Issa Rae has created something so simple that it is breathtaking. Instead of a dream job, we find a nightmare. She shows how when we contradict the romanticised “mammy” role in their heads, white colleagues often conjure up a version of “angry Black woman” to reconcile their racism. This is a collective narrative across nonprofits in the U.S.

It is this “legacy” that helps us understand why Issa Dee often struggled with knowing the right time to speak up or shut up. Both the character and the actress herself have spoken out about being the only one in the room. Most recently, she called out the lack of diversity among Oscars nominees. Ever since Awkward Black Girl first graced my life, I knew I had found a woman I could follow into battle. The first time I saw character Issa repress her repulsion from her white female boss’s frequent microaggressions, I was hooked. I felt seen. 

And that is the missing nuance within the nonprofit industrial complex. Black women’s invisible labor is constantly discounted and devalued. Insecure—specifically its depiction of Issa Dee’s professional  trajectory—offers a blueprint for real diversity recruitment and retention efforts. Until Issa Rae and Anita Hill are running a presidential campaign, I’ll have to throw my energy into being vigilant about our space. Our time is now and time is to be respected. Our pay should actually be commensurate with experience. Above all, our invisible labor must be made visible.

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