Whose permission are you waiting for?

March 17, 2021
a bright blue outline of a body falling downward on a background of red swirls
Art by Kim Salac

“Why do you think you still have to stay there, after everything that’s happened?” my best friend whispers, her concern ringing out in this childhood bedroom. Nestling my head into the crook of my arm, I struggle to open my eyes, puffy and bloodshot from the evening. The phone rests dangerously warm against my cheek, still damp from this hours-long teary conversation. The question lingers, between her waiting, static, and the thick silence of doubt crawling its way into my twin bed. It creeps in like clockwork. I cling to its cold silhouette. “Sometimes I feel like I haven’t earned the right to walk away,” I finally make out, trembling at my own raw confession. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that.”

 

“Sometimes I feel like I haven’t earned the right to walk away,” I finally make out, trembling at my own raw confession. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that.”

 


 

The living room TV is humming its daily background programming when the Bon Appetit bombshell first hits social media. Emboldened by a resurfaced photo of then editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brownface, many BIPOC employees begin exposing rampant instances of racism and unequal pay at the publication. A chorus of colleagues demand his immediate resignation. Sinking into the couch, I take in the chain of posts, processing an unbridled storm of unsurprised anger, exhaustion, disappointment. In a series of Instagram stories, Sohla El-Waylly, a beloved personality of the hugely popular Test Kitchen video series, further unravels the magazine’s deep, sprawling underbelly. “I am 35 years old and have over 15 years of professional experience,” she writes, “I was hired as an assistant editor at $50k to assist mostly white editors with significantly less experience than me.” She was not paid for any of her video appearances. The revelation arrives like countless others: the motions are no less painful, and its beats drum a familiar, grotesque rhythm. 

With every thread corroborating years of mistreatment, the allegations take on an uglier, more ancient face. Bon Appetit marks only a fraction —  though nevertheless a painful symptom — of a tired, drawn out story. Responding to a “get-to-know-you” about waking up one day with whatever ability I could choose, I tell my supervisor that I wish I felt more comfortable in the rooms I’m in. “You should learn to take up less space,” my supervisor offers, shortly before ending our phone call. Sitting dumbstruck in my office chair, exhaustion sleepily curls around my body. Worn down, I treat it as an out from confronting his “advice”. The phone pings, jolting me out of my daze. I scroll past my string of hurried messages down to my best friend’s reply: a single screenshot, an excerpt from a research study: “The ‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace.” In a corporate vagueness, the diagram details the pseudo hero's journey of a woman of color navigating a non-profit, from the “honeymoon phase” to the reality check of racism at every step. I am struck by its resonance, capturing an experience common enough for a single graphic. It ends in the woman’s exit from the organization. “Send this chart to him,” my friend jokes, “say ‘this will not be me!’” I laugh at my own twisted foreshadowing.

 

I tell my supervisor that I wish I felt more comfortable in the rooms I’m in. “You should learn to take up less space,” my supervisor offers, shortly before ending our phone call. Sitting dumbstruck in my office chair, exhaustion sleepily curls around my body.

 


 

The lingering heartbreaks, just small and incremental enough to deem excusable, can feel like a tempting price for a sense of safety, in mind, in space. When fellow contributor Priya Krishna is mistaken for El-Waylly on a BA panel, both women must work to ease the tension. The latter bows her head, chuckling, while Krishna corrects the slip quickly, shaking her head before moving on, her white colleagues escaping unfazed. The charged moment retreats back into the affable facade of basting tips and hot takes on egg yolks, but a small part of me cannot resist imagining the gnashing teeth beneath the airy laughter. It embodies a broiling split-second tension, the measure of daily battles against the worth of my own peace, my mind an amalgamation of scar tissue and speculation. I recognize closely the mirror image of a practiced shrug, nervous laughter, the anticipating silence. I know too well the labor of this embattled routine, grating slowly at my crooked bones. The interrupted topic had something to do with the best way to cook an egg, but Rapoport’s off-handed apology, lazily thrown out with a smirk, betrays the more haunting questions swirling beneath.

 

The charged moment retreats back into the affable facade of basting tips and hot takes on egg yolks, but a small part of me cannot resist imagining the gnashing teeth beneath the airy laughter.

 

Not long after his departure, much of the on-screen talent walked away from the Test Kitchen, some staying on only as editors on the publication, others leaving entirely. In a profile for Vulture, El-Waylly reveals that she was amidst renegotiating her contract for her on-camera work when she ultimately decided to cut ties with the series; the exhaustion and breadth of it all too much, and too late, to forgive. Talking amongst my fellow team members, we approach our supervisor with a modest request to work on creative projects alongside our technical workload, seeing as that was what we were originally hired to do. Shocked at our organizing, he begins singling each of us out, slashing at our collective effort. I feel myself suffocating, visibly trying to hold myself together in my tiny Zoom square. “I don’t know if I can have a proper conversation with you right now when you’re getting all upset like that,” he says, nonchalantly, like he doesn’t know it would shatter me. I finally hang up on the harrowing call after an hour of interrogation, chest heaving, desperately searching for my friend’s number. I’m about to burst, emotions bubbling over when she answers on the second ring. 

“I don’t know how to do this,” I say, the sadness and rage finally pouring out. She patiently listens as I sob through the static, reliving the last hour with me in detail. “You’ve been dealing with all of this for free,” she urges, “You have every reason to leave - and you should.” Hours later, I somehow find myself drafting my resignation, anxious and heartbroken the whole way through: the woman of color exits the organization. The notion of it —  of leaving, of choosing myself this time — still terrifies me to my core. 

 


 

The sun is setting on my apartment when I find myself spiraling down yet another exposé on BA. Months out from the scandal, the Reply All podcast takes aim at the internal strife within the walls of the Test Kitchen. Though, with only two episodes out, the popular radio show suddenly found itself in the same hot water that had unraveled BA’s wholesome reputation. Former host of The Nod podcast, Eric Eddings, took to Twitter to explain the hypocrisy with which the team had reported the story. Describing anti-union rhetoric and the disrespectful treatment of unionizing Gimlet employees, Eddings snapshots an actively hostile environment created by the team, whose podcast popularity had bolstered their untouchable status. The cyclical dance remains as pervasive and insidious as before: a familiar, grotesque rhythm. “It was so triggering to hear the words of people who have suffered like me,” Eddings confesses, “from people who caused that suffering to me and others.” I’m on the phone again with my best friend, both of us once huge fans of the podcast. “It’s whack, my guy,” she sighs. I can feel her shaking her head across the line. I flip open my notes app. Tucked beneath my many, disparate ramblings, I find the note in question, a singular list of “why I left,” and suddenly, I’m reminded of an hours long, teary conversation, months ago.

 

Eddings snapshots an actively hostile environment created by the team, whose podcast popularity had bolstered their untouchable status. The cyclical dance remains as pervasive and insidious as before: a familiar, grotesque rhythm.

 

“Sometimes I feel like I haven’t earned the right to walk away,” I confess quietly into the thick, hanging silence. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that.”

“Whose permission are you waiting for?” my best friend asks, simply and in earnest. 

Heart racing, ringing out in this childhood bedroom, I decide, in the quiet of my own peace, that I was finally done waiting: I hit send.

 

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