Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) and Nella (Sinclair Daniel) in a scene from The Other Black Girl. Mariama Diallo, 2023

Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) and Nella (Sinclair Daniel) in a scene from The Other Black Girl. Image Credit: Mariama Diallo, 2023

In the first episode of Hulu’s The Other Black Girl (2023), a Black editorial assistant walks into an empty office that, from its wall to its decor, is completely white. Even as the day kicks off and her white colleagues fill the building’s emptiness, Nella Rogers (Sinclair Daniel) can’t help but stand out: at New York publishing house Wagner Books, she’s the only Black employee. 

Based on the bestselling novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2016, The Other Black Girl dissects the horror of insidious racism in white workplaces past and present. A horror that eventually builds to a fever pitch following the arrival of, well, the other Black girl: Hazel-May McCall (Ashleigh Murray). Multiple mysteries that date back to the company’s early days begin to unravel in the show’s 10 episodes. The audience learns that Hazel is part of a secret society of Black women called OBGs, as in “other Black girls.” Led by Nella’s favorite author, Diana Gordon (Garcelle Beauvais), the OBGs use magical hair grease to become more compliant with—and palatable to—their white workplaces. 

Being the only Black person in any space can lead to awkward and uncomfortable situations, and the series leans into the satirical side of the scenario, with scenes as likely to entertain Black audiences as they are to provoke discomfort. I generally found moments of performative white workplace allyship, such as Nella’s boss Vera (Bellamy Young) yelling “Diversity matters!” or another colleague sending Nella an article titled “The Token in the Corporate Machine: Being Black in a White Workplace,” to be humorous rather than painful.

At first, Hazel brings a chance of kinship for Nella. The two bond immediately over their similar goals and taste in entertainment, while together they roll eyes at the daily microaggressions and cringe-worthy attempts at allyship from their white co-workers. But Hazel also makes Nella uneasy. What begins as camaraderie becomes competition as Hazel begins to eclipse her in office popularity. This shift in Nella and Hazel’s dynamic happens in tandem with increasingly strange events: threatening notes, flickering lights, and daytime visions of Kendra Rae Phillips (Cassi Maddox), the Black editor who has gone missing. 

The suspense and mystery heighten the horror in the series, but the driving force is the workplace drama. For Black women, even fictitious ones like Nella and Hazel, working in corporate spaces often requires shrugging off prejudicial slights and microaggressions, often while working in industries with little upward mobility. Black Women Thriving reported that 66 percent of Black women don’t feel emotionally safe at work, while Gallup found that Black individuals, more than any racialized identity group, are most likely to experience microaggressions at work.

Hazel’s arrival catalyzes Nella’s realization of her fraught and fragile position in the workplace. That’s a good thing. Indeed, the true horror of The Other Black Girl is in its depiction of structural racism, the near-impossibility of upward mobility, and a reality where the only Black women sharing a workplace are pitted against each other.

Harris, who co-wrote the series with Rashida Jones, based her novel in part on her experience while working as an editorial assistant in the publishing industry for nearly three years, as well as her own imagining of what it would be like to not be the only Black girl in her own workplace. In an interview with Public Seminar in 2021, Harris explained that Hazel comes from “a lot of my anxieties but also just the worst-case scenario. Like what I think my own nightmare of finally seeing someone else who looks like me in a space where I had for so long been the only one, only for them to throw me under the bus. I thankfully did not have it as bad as Nella did.”

Since finishing the series, I’ve continued to wonder how different it might be if a white co-worker had truly been an ally to Nella. But the lack of allyship at the fictional Wagner conveys a larger message. According to Lean In’s 2020 report The State of Black Women in Corporate America, more than 80 percent of white women and men say they see themselves as allies to people of color at work. At the same time, less than half of Black women feel that they personally have strong allies at work—and barely a quarter think it’s mostly accurate that Black women have strong allies in their workplace overall. There was a pivotal moment where Vera could have stepped in and been that ally for Nella. It didn’t happen. But I really wanted it to, in part, because it would signal growth from an unwitting agent of oppression in an oppressive system—which is needed for real, lasting change to happen in any industry. 

I do think the genre-bending drama of The Other Black Girl wants viewers to take away the message that change will only come from within. Instead of our protagonist meekly accepting the magic hair grease, as she does in Harris’s book, the final scene of the show sees Nella, now an editor, appear in the office visibly changed: her natural hair replaced with a weave and her style turned loud and proud. She’s given a corner office, and it seems she’s now a ringleader in the larger scheme that led to Hazel’s rise and the disappearance of Kendra Rae. But in private, Nella uses a burner phone to call the members of a resistance movement against the publisher and the systemic racism of its status quo.

When I think about the series as a whole, I think of Nella in that corner office and what it means for her to be there, with the decision-making power and executive-level resources to hire a slew of other Black girls so that, as Nella puts it, “a nerdy little Black girl who didn’t grow up with kids who looked like her could imagine a bigger world.”

Kelby K. Clark is a Brooklyn-based poet and fiction writer whose work explores topics of Black identity and the myth of suburban bliss.