In This Episode
DeRay, Myles, and Kaya cover the underreported news of the week— including prison’s ban of the Spanish and Swahili language, the troubled legacy of feminine care products, and a public feud between Mo’Nique & D.L. Hughley. DeRay interviews author Deepa Purushothaman about her book The First, the Few, and The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode. It’s me, Kaya, and Myles talking about all the news that you don’t know from the past week, the news that you didn’t hear. And De’Ara’s not with us recording, but she’s always here in spirit and her news is too. And then I sit down with the author of the new book “The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.” We chat about the impact of corporate America on women of color professionals, the impact on their career, family life, even their mental and physical health. This one is deep and insightful. I learned a ton in this conversation and you will too. My advice for this week is love the arts. Go to a play y’all, go see, like movies are cool, but go to a play, go to a performance. Like now that the world is opening back up a little bit, I’ve been to, I’m actually on the way to go see a play right now. And, you know, the play, still got to wear masks and stuff, but that is A-okay because we’re in the middle of a pandemic still. But go see a play. Go do the arts. Like go, go see something. It’s time to see something.
Kaya Henderson: Hello, family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. My name is Kaya Henderson and you can find me on Twitter @Hendersonkaya.
Myles Johnson: My name is Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @pharaohrapture.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
Myles Johnson: Unfortunately, we have more existential, miserable news in the world of there not being any gun control. As of yesterday, 3 dead and 12 injured after a shooting in South Street in Philadelphia. It seems as though we are getting more and more of these stories, more and more of these situations, and I feel like people, and we’re continuing, some of us are continuing to miss the opportunity to use this so people don’t have these guns, don’t have access to this type of violence. How do you all feel?
Kaya Henderson: I mean, I’m just stunned at how every single day there is a shooting somewhere, from hospitals to churches to grocery stores to whatever. And it makes me really self-conscious about where to go, and it makes me angry that for the most part, outside of Mr. Biden’s, you know, speech, I guess, this past week, we’re not seeing movement on this at all. Like any place else would be outraged, would be doing all the things, would be introducing emergency legislation, would be going, filing, you know, whatever lawsuits against these gun manufacturers like. I mean, I feel like we’ve just decided there’s nothing that we can do about this because the Republicans are intransigent on it. And so we’re just like, Huh, it’s just another day at the Okay Corral.
DeRay Mckesson: I think too, you know, this is one of those moments where we can move people, where people are interested, that want to know solutions, and part of the part of I think the responsibility of organizing in this moment is to give people the tools and a language that they know what to do. Because I do think that people think this is inevitable, but, you’re like, no, it is the people and the guns people–the people who are wild and hateful and that can’t do it if they don’t have access to guns. And it is still wild to me that there’s any legislator who tries to rationalize that you need an automatic rifle. It doesn’t make sense. I saw an old white guy legislators say that they need automatic rifles to, like, clear away the squirrels, the raccoons. Come on. And somebody was like, what do you mean? He is like, For the raccoons. And, no, the raccoons might be a euphemism for something else, but it’s not actually the raccoons, right? So I do think that we got to place people and I do think in some ways we’re like a victim of the simplicity of the solutions. That people especially–I think and totally push me if you disagree–I think when we come from heavily-regulated communities, you can’t imagine that something like this is not regulated because everything else in our communities is regulated. So like the thought that a child could walk into a store and get an AK or AR-15 and a thousand bullets, and it’s like no alarm, no one goes anywhere. That just feels so wild, when like, you can’t even go buy ten packs of cigarettes in some places. Like you can’t even you know, there’s so many of the restrictions.
Kaya Henderson: And if you look at the proliferation of guns over the last 5 to 10 years, there’s a direct tie. First of all, we have more guns than like you could ever do anything with. But there’s a direct tie to marketing from gun manufacturers who market specifically to exactly the kind of people who are doing these shootings by telling them that their manhood and their masculinity will be reinforced, “Get your man card back” and all of this stuff. And this marketing has been absolutely effective and strategic and targeted and we’re just like, Oh well, oh wow, like, this is so crazy.
DeRay Mckesson: The last thing I’ll say is that remember that the Republicans get it, because at their rallies guns are banned. They get it. At the last big Trump rally, guns were banned, right? Like they understand that this is a problem when it’s their lives on the line.
Kaya Henderson: Well, but part of the marketing is really around getting people to be able to defend themselves against the heathen horde, Black people and Latino people, who are coming for them, right? The Black lives, there was a proliferation of of gun purchases after Black Lives Matter protests, because what these gun manufacturers are marketing to people is they are coming for you. Nobody is coming for you in Montana, I promise you. But these people are suited and booted and ready for, you know, the race war. They won’t say it out loud, but this is what people are selling, and folks are buying it.
Myles Johnson: And with all this stuff going on, it doesn’t feel like getting prepared for the race war. It feels like there is a war, and it’s raced, and it’s happening, you know, and the guerrilla war tactics are being used. It’s really scary. And again, like I said last last week, I don’t see how anybody can see witnesses, witness that and not in their head just understand that they’re siding with evil. Villainous behavior.
Kaya Henderson: Well, in other terrible news, my news today is about women and the men who love them and have sometimes expectations around a very sensitive issue. My news is about the legacy, the troubled legacy of feminine care products. Now, the big question at hand is why are women, especially women of color, continuing to use feminine care products? By feminine care products, I mean, wipes, washes, douches, powders, etc., that are widely considered to be unnecessary and potentially harmful. Now we are going straight into The Honey Pot, friends. We are all grown-ups. We can have this conversation. But why are women continuing to use these products? Three things: racism, tradition, and targeted advertising. I thought this was so fascinating because like many Black women, traditions around feminine care or intimate care were passed on to me by my mother and my grandmother. And in fact, that is one of the problems. One of the problems is we have institutionalized in our beauty culture intimate cleansing in particular ways that are not only not helpful to us, but are quite harmful, harmful to us. Studies show that Black women use intimate care products more than any other demographic, and it’s in part because of the racism that comes from, I guess, sexism first, because historically women’s bodies have been seen as unclean because we menstruate. You can look back at biblical times where women were sequestered when they were having their period. But then also the negative olfactory stereotypes wielded against dark-skinned people. So y’all, the white folks told us that we smell and that we are lesser people because we smell. In fact, several experts note that the evolution of common vulva and vaginal care routines observed within a Black community have a fraught history that’s tied to racism, because when they were constructing race, right, one of the things that they one of the phenotypic differences used to distinguish Black people from other races included smell. And this shaped our ideas about cleanliness and deodorize-zation because we were workers, right, and so we were sweaty and we smelled, and we started to associate cleanliness and odor-freeness with personal progress and racial assimilation. And so we have all of these ideas about what it means to be clean and fresh as Black women that are harming us. From a health perspective, literally, like that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not recommend using douches, washes, wipes, or other similar products at all because the female reproductive system takes care of itself. There are lots of folks who are like, Yeah, no internal products, but external products, you know, wipes and whatnot–but external products cause skin irritation and other harmful issues for us. You know, a while ago, we learned about the harmful effects, the cancerous effects of Johnson & Johnson baby powder on Black women, and I’ll talk about that in a second, because the advertising piece of this ties into it. But, you know, we are harming ourselves, so, it is the racism, it’s the tradition, but it’s also a result of targeted advertising. So just like menthol cigarettes, which we learned were targeted towards, advertising was targeted towards Black people, there there’s strategic advertising in the feminine care industry targeting Black people. The article points out that no commercials for a vaginal deodorants were in Life magazine, but Ebony had more than one feminine deodorant commercial per issue. In fact, Johnson & Johnson continued to market its powder to Black people, to the Black community, well into the 2000s, even though there was evidence that it caused cancer. Janice Mathis, who’s the executive director of the National Council of Negro Women who brought suit against Johnson & Johnson said what I think sums this up best “This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh. Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer, and we taught our daughters to do the same.” So this is, it’s you know, I don’t think many people question the practices that their mamas and their grandmoms and their aunties have passed down. Primary care physicians and OB-GYNs are not talking about this to women, and so Black women continue to be at risk because of systematic racism, even into our intimate cleansing routines. At the end of the day, a little gentle soap and some water will do everything that you need. And if we don’t understand our history, if we don’t have these different conversations, if we don’t challenge white beauty norms and love ourselves exactly as we are, we’re going to end up smelling fresh but being hurt.
DeRay Mckesson: Preach the word this morning, Pastor Kaya.
Myles Johnson: Listen, I mean, obviously, you have the authority in this conversation so not going to add too much, but I did see the whole Honey Pot thing. And my biggest critique is I think it’s pretty disgusting that somebody would gain the trust of Black people, specifically somebody in the community would gain the trust of Black people and then change the ingredients. Because I do think like 100, whatever, everything that you said, but as somebody, like just my position as a male at birth, femme nonbinary person, right, I still enjoy beauty and self-care and most products that I have wouldn’t be underneath necessities, to put it lightly, So, you know, so I do think that there’s space for maybe a reclamation or a different understanding of these products. And I think that Honey Pot was that thing. Not only was honeypot something cute that you call it, and it’s a colloquialism. Also, honeypot was something that was dignifying people of spiritual African communities of Oshun, who’s seen as the divine feminine flirt, and all these different things, so it really created, it really created trust within our community, and I think it’s really disgusting to leverage that word for corporate game. And I think for a lot of times a lot of the answers to these things, when I’m being honest to myself when I think about beauty and self-care and all the things that I really love, is transformation. Probably not stopping, like not stopping it, but creating a new normal, because there’s always going to be somebody who, even if you weren’t, for whatever miracle that is, maybe if you weren’t socialized, you’re like, Oh, I like the idea of that smelling like honey in a pie. You know what I mean? It’s more interesting than what God gave me. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do think when you are a Black-owned company, it is your responsibility to maybe do things slower or differently in order to keep the trust of your community. And that’s what I left with is kind of a big critique for Honey Pot and where they decided to go after getting our trust and our in our dollars.
Kaya Henderson: I thought the Honey Pot thing was, was interesting because my, I think I generally assume the best, or I try to assume the best about our folks who are providing goods and services in our community, especially when it’s a need. Like, you know, we got all of this fraught around intimate cleansing and here is a Black-owned company saying, We’re going to do it differently, we’re going to do it more safely, we’re going to do it plant-based and chemical-free, and I do think that the backlash–so when they changed their formula, you know, my assumption is you probably cannot, whatever you are cooking up in your kitchen or in your first batches when you’re producing at scale and shelf life and all of those things, you know, maybe you have to come up with a different formula–I think what was interesting to me is that there was a conversation in the community. We are okay talking to Black-owned businesses when we are not satisfied, but we’re not blowing up Johnson & Johnson, right? And they been killing us. We’re not blowing up Summer’s Eve and that stuff is unnecessary for us. But we go after the Black people because we feel like they are accountable to us. Why can’t we, why can’t we make the white people who make these products that are harming us, why can’t we hold them accountable in the same way?
Myles Johnson: My push on that Miss Kaya is I think it’s, I think we’re accountable because they made themselves accountable to us. And I think just like they’re, like rainbow washing–it is June–rainbow watching the thing. I think the vegan washing is a thing. Sometimes there are ascetic cues that make you think that it’s healthy. Sometimes I look at the nutritional facts or something, I’m like, Oh, how would you put the farmer picking this grass on top if it’s just salt and sugar? You know? But we know about that. And I do think, and this is something that I think I was trying to give language to even last week, I think there is this commercial pro-Black washing of stuff. So you so you entice us, you seduce us. That’s why even use the fact that part of the Honey Pie brand is using African–
Kaya Henderson: Our language.
Myles Johnson: Excuse me, using our language. She has, when she was talking about her success, she had literally out of her mouth, called on her ancestors and used all these coded languages that make that, seduces us and makes me want to support you. So I think that if you do that there’s going to be a specific type of critique that comes at your door because you using our orishas, you’re using our language, and you are transforming our trauma into profit. So I think it’s deserved. But yeah, I agree, I agree with you. I think we can go at two people at one time. Because my mother did it. My mother did it, and I’m a believer. And I do it.
Kaya Henderson: That’s fair.
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t know anything about this Kaya until you until you brought it. It makes me think of, there’s a new documentary that’s coming out about birth control that Ricki Lake produced, and the thing that made me think about that is not only the issue related to women’s products, but how everything comes back to race. It really does. Like is one of those, you know, people joke about this idea that it all comes back to race, but it does all come to race.
Kaya Henderson: They think we’re conspiracists, but this is the conspiracy.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. And what I didn’t know about birth control is that it was tested, they were having trouble testing it in the United States, so they went to Puerto Rico with like no approval really, tested it on Puerto Rican women. A lot of women died and they just underreported the deaths. And that’s how they got it approved. That’s how they got through the trial phase. And you’re like, it always goes back to race, right? Like it literally always goes back to race. And that’s what made me think of here’s, like how many other stories do we not know? And shout out to the big public–you know your article’s in The Washington Post, right?–shout out to big platforms using those platforms to tell the truth about what’s happening and about how we got here.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Myles Johnson: This is so serious. Everything is going so well and here I come with my news. My Black circle was entertained, dumbfounded, and talkative over D.Hell–I said D Hell–D.L. Hughley and Mo’Nique getting into a very, very, very public argument. The argument which I soaked in, I think, I canceled a lunch date I was so fascinated with that. And I just have a really big fascination with Black public conflict. I love it. It is juicy to me, is interesting. And I love that is recorded. I love that it happens in a lot of different spaces. And I think although it might not be comfortable in the present moment, I think history is going to, I think it’s going to be valuable in history. And I think and I even think about like James Baldwin’s critique of Native Son and how that conflict really is the bouncing place of growth, in certain types of conversation, I think it’s necessary. Mo’Nique got on stage and lit D.L. Hughley up. Lit him up about apparently he was supposed to be, he wasn’t supposed to be headlining, that he kind of slowed his flood so he would end up headlining, and said, You know what, I’m not going to perform if I don’t, if if I don’t headline. And then Mo’Nique said, Well, okay, well, if I go out there right now, I’m going to say some things. And she said some things and somebody pressed record and there is, I’m like was looking through I was like, there’s nothing that I can say besides she said that is appropriate for this podcast, besides that, she said that he opened for The Kings of Comedy and she closed for The Queen of Comedy. But I thought it was, and then after that moment went viral, there was a back and forth of “show your contract to prove it” and, you know, D.L. Hughley produced a deal memo and then she produced a signed contract, and there was this all like big back and forth. And I think why, So in my own person, me and DeRay will have these conversations about like whose team I’m on, but I try to be as objective as possible when I got a microphone in my hand to like get like add some more value than like binary, like morals–even though I’m team Mo’Nique. So, this is not, so this is not a moment like Chris Rock and Will Smith, right? This is not a moment where somebody was at a ceremony and they slap somebody because they said what they said. This is a conflict that happened in a Black comedy club–or excuse me, a theater–with Black comics, and she expressed herself and she did what she does. And I’m wondering you all that opinion about when is it appropriate to do what Mo’Nique does if we’re always going to say, well, you can’t do that there and you can’t do that there? But I’m like, if there’s no place to light somebody on fire verbally, like, it has to be the Black comedy club. And I just have a different, maybe just even generationally, I have a different relationship with Black comedy, listening to Richard Pryor, watching Comic View way past my when my mother told me I can, you know, watch it, and really knowing that comedy is a space where people say their most provocative thoughts and express their stories and tell their point, and do it. Now, granted, there were some other things that were said in Mo’Nique’s act that were, just that no doubt were homophobic, and she weaponized queerness against the man in order to make her point, however, I think that there is like a–I don’t want to say there’s a space for homophobia in comedy–but I think that, I think that no matter what she would have said, if she did not say that, we would have still been uncomfortable with how she was acting. And I just was curious, like, where is it appropriate to express yourself, specifically in this way, nonviolently, about what’s going on with you? And why does it make it so make it so uncomfortable when somebody does it?
Kaya Henderson: First of all, I marvel at Mo’Nique’s ability to keep us talking about her. I was like, Wait, what? Who cares who was supposed to headline the thing? What’s that got to do with me? But we reading articles and we going back and forth and all I hear is cha-ching, cha-ching, in Mo’Nique’s pocketbook. So she has some kind of strategy. And I think the other people are hating because they’re like, Why do we keep talking about this lady? But she’s chit-chatting straight to the bank is my guess. I you know, I think in comedy, I do think there’s a lot more latitude for people to see and be whoever, say and be whatever they want to be. And I think we all have the choice to decide whether we want to listen to that kind of comedy or not. I feel like a hit dog hollers, right? Mo’Nique would be so far off my radar screen. She could say whatever she wanted to say about me, and I just keeping moving. So I don’t know if this is, is I love that, like you’ve elevated this to Black public conflict and when do we say? Like, this is a very intellectual conversation that I want to participate in, but I got nothing because this is so low-rent to me, this is so low rent.
Myles Johnson: Child, I love when the rant is low. [laughs] I like real estate, I like intellectual real estate there. And I think I’ve said like a couple of times, I do think that we, look, I think I definitely said this around but not reported on like Ti like a few like a few weeks ago–I do think that the things that happened in these places that we kind are like we may put our nose up, or you know there’s some separation are kind of where to me the more interesting conflicts are because they’re visceral, and they, and there’s no splitting hairs, that you really see where people are at. You know, and I think sometimes we could be in this bubble of even, as Black people, and maybe even this class of Black people we can be in this bubble of, Oh, yes, we have no LGBT problem anymore, we’re really working on the on the women stuff, and we’re getting this together, da, da, da. And there was something about that conflict where I’m like, okay, patriarchy came in the room, homophobia came in the room, capitalism came into the room to really, I’m the headline, I’m the headline, I’m the headline. I’m like, Y’all are 50-something.
Kaya Henderson: Say it. Myles.
Myles Johnson: We have to, we really have to get over by. But I do find it really interesting, Miss Kaya.
Kaya Henderson: I find it interesting to I just don’t know what to say intellectually about it.
DeRay Mckesson: I do you think this conversation, Myles, about when is it okay to disagree, I have very few regrets in movement land, but if I have any, it is that like I don’t think that we disagreed enough in public. I think that we did it all behind the scenes. And I do think there’s something, and I think in education, too, Kaya, I think some of the conversations that I heard the superintendents have, like when people find out about teacher eval and da, da, da, like, we people think that the conversation is not being had. It’s being had. It’s just not being had in public, right? I think about the conversation I’ve been in recently about like teachers unions and about the beauty of unions and about some of the parts of teachers unions where you’re like, Y’all, this ain’t about the kids. And like the conversations become so heavy to talk about in public and people get worried, and that’s definitely not what’s going on with this Mo’Nique and TI thing, but I do think this conversation about like when is it okay to disagree, and I toon regardless of what Mo’Nique saying, I am fascinated by people’s response to her always being, Not now. And it’s like, well, if she actually is right about any of this stuff then when is she, like, what do you say when Tyler Perry, when she’s saying Tyler Perry, Oprah, Lee Daniels, like when she’s saying these big people are do something to her, like what is she supposed to do? Just take it? And like, we would never tell our kids, Just let somebody do something to you. Like we would tell young people, go say something. But when people say something in public, Black people, it’s becomes like a thing. And I’m still trying to figure out figure that out. She is, you know, some of it, like, you know, she was so intense, then DL, they posted this stuff on Instagram–like, can I get an essay, somebody just report on this, please so this can–? Like, there is an answer here. This is not an unanswerable thing. So can we actually stop going back and forth and just get an answer? Do you know what I mean? But I am interested in the question about like what happens, how do we disagree, and what does disagree? And I say this too because there’s this incredible essay that I want to send to all of you about, it’s from an old movement guy. And I say it, because it’s a critique of the organizers back in the ’60s, and this man was on it! And I’m like, I wish we were having these sort of intellectual conferences. He has this point that’s like, I hate when people say the unorganized masses. He’s like, it was the unorganized masses that started every uprising in this country, it was the unorganized people who–like this critique of the way people talk about leadership in moments like this. I was like, that’s actually beautiful. And I’ve read a lot of the movement stuff that comes out and it’s like, it is not helpful in that way. And I do think that we have learned so much from the last set of organizers and activists from disagreeing in public. And it was Black power. It was the Pan-African people. It was like, we saw their fights in real time and not these random Twitter battles. Kaya said low-rent rent, low-rent!
Kaya Henderson: I mean, just because like I’m on some, I’m on some, What does got to do with me, right? Everybody getting their money. I’m not getting my money. I don’t care who was the headliner, who ain’t the headliner, whatever, whatever. But it is wildly entertaining, so uh . . .
Myles Johnson: And I told the way like, when we were discussing it because you know, the Memorial Day and I said, What else should I be doing but informing DeRay that this is happening? And it’s a big deal in my, in my world.
Kaya Henderson: I love it. I love, I always learn, I always learn something.
Myles Johnson: But I do think this started happening at a time, just like personally, it’s happening at a time where professionally I was seeing how I wanted to communicate, at the old job that I was at, about the way that I was communicating, showing up, and being, just speaking my mind, and different intersections, like transness and Blackness was really being, you know, vilified. And I think I saw Mo’Nique happening, that happening to Mo’Nique at the same time. So I do think there’s a personal investment that I have in this. I am a Mo’Nique scholar. I have followed her. I don’t agree with everything. I don’t support everything. But I do think it’s really, really interesting because she is a older Black woman of a certain, you know–she says she’s a fat Black woman over 50–so I do think that in my head, no matter where those screams are yelling, if they feel that close to your identity one day, hopefully, you know, you got to listen to them until, because you don’t want to start listening–in my head, I’m like, you don’t start listening until you’re like, Well, well, hold on, this person isn’t a nice person. You know what I mean? Or this person does have that domination in mind. And I’m not interested in vilifying the people who she is talking about, but I do think there’s something interesting about it because a lot of us are going to feel the things that help us be powerful and a lot of us are going to have opinions and want to stand up for ourselves. And I think that in her comedy, you know, cigar-smoking, cursing, vulgar, rude stage routine, there was a little bit of space, I felt like it was a little bit of advocacy where it’s like, No, I’m not, I’m not doing that. And I think that sometimes I see that and I’m like, Oh, I’m not doing that either, in my way.
Kaya Henderson: I mean, I also I think, stepping back, what has happened to Mo’Nique over the last, how many ever, years is and a really important case study around what happens to–and we all know that older, older actresses, older artists don’t generally get the same play as younger artists, and that’s doubly triply quadruply true for women of color. And so what what has happened to her career at the hands of lots of different people for lots of different reasons, I think is a cautionary tale for anybody, in comedy, in any celebrity circles. And I think we, just going back to accountability, right, like we as a community have to be accountable to Mo’Nique. We can’t laugh when she’s making us laugh and not be there for her when, you know, she’s being aggrieved. And I think just, whose side are you on, in all of these conversations is has been interesting. I mean, the Mo’Nique stuff over the last couple of years has been really interesting conversation for a lot of people in terms of what happens to older fat Black women–me included–professionally, and how people think it’s okay to treat you. And I think she is redefining how she is being treated, who she is, and I stand up for it, and I’m with it.
Myles Johnson: See? See you got–welcome to where the rent is low!
Kaya Henderson: I’m there. I just don’t like this little thing thang. I wouldn’t even waste my time on DL Hughly. Sorry, y’all.
Myles Johnson: It was good, it was good conversation on Memorial Day over barbecue. I was like, Oh, we got something to talk about.
DeRay Mckesson: I was calling Myles with all updates. “Myles, did you see this, id you see, this post?’
Myles Johnson: DeRay was totally oblivious that it happened. Then I had to like intellectually seduce him. I was like, This is why it matters, da, da, da. And then I’m over here getting Shade Room links, and I’m like, DeRay!
DeRay Mckesson: Because at first I was like, This don’t matter. I’m like, Okay, I’ve got other things to do, the world is burning. People are dying, people are dying! I’m Courtney, yelling in the camp, People are dying! My news is, you know, the system continues to shock me every day, and I’m like, Whew, I am, it’s hard to be shocked in a moment like this. But in Michigan, the prisons are banning Spanish and Swahili dictionaries to prevent inmates from, incarcerated people from organizing. So over the last year, the Michigan Department of Corrections, they’ve been banning dictionaries in foreign languages, mostly Spanish and Swahili, with the idea, and this is a quote, let me read the quote from the spokesperson from the Michigan Department of Corrections: “If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting staff or assaulting another prisoner.” Mind you, the quote “very obscure language” that they are referencing is Spanish, which is the second most spoken language in America. I don’t know where they got Swahili from up here and this idea that people are using the dictionary to learn Swahili, to organize against–
Kaya Henderson: Overthrow the prison industrial complex.
DeRay Mckesson: And then he goes on to say, because the quote is good enough itself, “when it’s in a language that we don’t have the ability to read ourselves and understand exactly what it is they’re looking for, we’re not able to allow it in.” I mean, if this is not fascism, the advanced course, this is not 101, this is the advanced course. It’s so wild. And the article actually goes through talking about a guy, Mr. Rodriguez, who’s been trying to get books in his native Spanish language, and he has been struggling to do that because he doesn’t speak and write well in English. And it’s one of those things where if they can’t find an English counterpart, they are actually just banning the book. So so far, seven books in both Spanish and Swahili have been banned from the state’s prisons. And I just had to bring it because I was floored that in 2022 this was the thing. I also didn’t know that in 1989, the Supreme Court allowed prisons to ban any book as long as they claim that it is in the interest of safety.
Myles Johnson: I just continuously have that image of somebody looking around the prison and being like, We have Blacks and we have browns, Spanish and Swahili, like ban it. Like is just so ignorant and goofy. Don’t have too much to add to this but that you know, a not too simple but powerful idea, that if we didn’t have, if prisons didn’t exist in the way that they do now, and we really thought about how we deal with justice in this country. We just wouldn’t have to think about such a–this is low rant. We would have to think about such a low-rent things in be so insulting. We can still have people grow their intelligence and like, and read and be able to talk to their families without, and keep their dignity intact while they’re serving their time. And I think that the all these little low-rent moments are just just giving, taking me back to one answer, where it’s like, y’all need to gut this ,and quickly.
Kaya Henderson: So this was so interesting to me because I mean, one, for all the reasons that you brought it to the pod, but also because we’re talking about the same thing in schools right now, right? Which books are acceptable for kids to read? Who gets to decide? And so I started digging a little bit to figure out, okay, what books do people ban besides just language books? I learned that like the prison sort of book censorship stuff is the largest book ban policy in the United States. And each state gets to decide what it what it’s banning. So, for example, in Kansas, lots of times like, so you expect them to ban things like books on how to make explosives, right, or books that showed a prison, you know, layout or the surrounding area write, books that might aid in an escape or something. But a lot of the books that are banned are are Black history books, race books, books that are actually quite empowering to incarcerated people around history and identity, and, you know, that’s really critical to the work that I do. I feel like if you don’t understand who you are, you can’t be great. And so there are, you know, places like Kansas that have banned books like The Hate U Give and The Bluest Eye, but they allow Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s book. What’s up with that y’all? What’s up with that? It’s ridiculous. They banned books like The Color Purple. They banned all of these books that are really important cultural books for folks. And there is a website called Books to Prisoners dot net, where you can look by state on which books are banned in each place, and you can order books on Amazon to send to prisoners if that is your ministry. You can donate books to prisoners and help them get access to some of the reading materials that are available. So, you know, education is the first thing that they take away from you when they don’t want you to be free. And we’ve seen that over and over and over again, and this is just further evidence of it. And I think, you know, it’s now what we’re seeing happening in schools. So this is worrisome.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week, we welcome the author, Deepa Purushothaman, to chat about her book, “The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.” Deepa interviewed over 100 women of color in the workplace across sectors in different parts of the country, and found a few trends that rang true for the majority. We talk about capitalism, delusions for women of color in the workplace, the health constraints that can come with involvement in the corporate sphere, and so much more. Deepa was able to put language to many things that people have experienced, and things that I heard about, but I learned about them differently in our conversation. You want too. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Deepa, it is so good to have you on the podcast today.
Deepa Purushothaman: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: Now I read your book, and one of the things about the book that is so powerful to me is that you do such a good job of giving people the language. It’s like, you like, the delusions, you like, it’s like a road map in some ways to at least give a language to people’s experiences. And then at the end, you talk about what we can do. But before we get to the book, can you talk about, like, how you even got to write, like, why a book? Like, what were you, what has your journey to the book been to even do the interviews with hundreds of women? Like how does this, how did you get here?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, absolutely. So I, I want to first start with I interviewed over 500 women of color to write the book. And so how I got there is really an interesting story. So I spent two decades in corporate America. I was a senior partner at Deloitte. I was our first Indian female partner and they partner really young, and those things are only important in that, right, I was the first. I had to kind of navigate spaces on my own and figure out things for myself because I didn’t always see role models that look like me. So that was always, I think, part of my story just growing up in the United States, being Indian American. There was just always confusion. After spending almost two decades in the same company in this corporate space, I had an amazing rise, I really did interesting work. I think the last few elections started to make me ask questions about what my purpose was. My background had been politics, it actually wasn’t business. And that combined with I started getting really sick, to be honest with you. And it really made me question if I could keep being on the road as much as I was. I had a really intense job. And so in an attempt to figure out what I wanted to do next, I started meeting with women of color. It originally started as one-on-one, you know, dinners, and it turned into about a dozen dinners across the country where I met over 300 or 400 women of color. And we began in these rooms for 1 or 2 hours, I thought I was just networking, like, where does one go at a senior level when they’re kind of done with their career and don’t know what else to do? And instead, we would have these six, seven, eight-hour long conversations because these women were senior in their companies, in their industries, but they were alone. A lot of them were experiencing similar experiences, but had never talked about it. And so it was almost magical. Those dinners turned into really the underpinnings for the book, and also the company that I launched that focused on women of color too.
DeRay Mckesson: Let’s start with the format of the book, because this is one of those books where the format is like really, like, it’s how I think about the lessons I learned. I’m like, Oh, why did you choose, why did Deepa choose to organize the book this way? Can, you start us there.
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I really wanted to start with, because I think so often people of color and women of color are told they need to do more, right? It’s about them. And so if they just work harder, if they just changed this, if they just lean in, right, things will get better. And part of my message was, Yes, there are things we can do and things we need to ask ourselves, like the narratives we believe for ourselves, which is really the first section of the book. It’s really about the power of me, and asking yourself like, what is it that you believe for yourself that no longer serve you? But the other parts of the book are really asking yourself like, how do you actually make change? You can’t make it by yourself. You need the power of we. So you need the power of me and the power of we. And also really talking about the systemic things that are happening around us, that just working harder or doing more isn’t going to solve things. I really wanted to unpack, you know, I call it like the water that we’re swimming in, like there is a lot happening around us that we need to understand as well. And so the book is really organized in this idea of there’s things you need to ask yourself, like the delusions and the things you’ve been taught by your parents and by society, but then you need to understand what is it doing to you? Like, what’s the system doing to you? And then how do we work together to change it? So that’s really why it’s organizes in that way.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Let’s talk about the delusions, because this is the part that I was like, You know what? I’ve experienced that before, but I didn’t have the language and I was like, delusions, I got it! Delusion. We won’t talk about them all because people need to read the book to get all the messages, but the delusion, “just wait”–can you go through that one. That was one where I was like, you know what? This language is actually really powerful.
Deepa Purushothaman: So, yes, first the first chapter is all about delusions. And what I was trying to do was to really make us understand and to make us have language for this idea that there are things that we’re taught, there’s things that we’re taught about how the system works, how corporate America works, how capitalism works, that, you know, maybe we don’t have to accept anymore. And that’s why I call them delusions. There are things we’re told, that are described as given, but part of what I’m asking us is, especially in this moment, after the last few years, are these things we still want to take is given. Like, why can’t we question them? And so they’re simple things like this idea that “we can’t find you” is the first one I talk about, right? So that a lot of executives will tell me, we can’t find people of color, we can’t, you know, find women of color. And that’s a delusion because we exist, you know? We’re qualified. It’s just that we tend to favor people who look like us, so our networks are like that. You know, another one is “just wait.” A lot of the women that I spoke with, especially the less-tenured women, were told things like they just have to wait their turn. You know, and this delusion that we have to wait our turn or that we have to wait for the opportunity or that we need to be patient, I think, especially for women of color doesn’t always serve us because there is a sense that we have to wait for, you know, the next person or the seat to open up. And I want us to feel comfortable if we’re ready and if, you know, we have the right ideas that we’re allowed to ask for what we want, we can be ambitious, we can push. And so that’s really another example of a delusion. And I lay out ten of them in the first part of the book. And they’re really in some ways, I think, a critique of corporate America, but also a critique of capitalism.
DeRay Mckesson: I love the delusions. I was like, we need to make delusional posters, we need to, delusions need to be a part of H.R. training, because you don’t even realize how insidious it is, like you giving it language was actually really powerful too. Be like, Oh, I can name this. People did tell me like, like you’re, you know, just even though you have the skills, like just wait. And I know the book is about women in the workplace, women of color in the workplace, but I think that for a lot of people, the delusions ring true across identity in a way that was really powerful to me.
Deepa Purushothaman: Absolutely. You know, what’s been really interesting DeRay, is that I wrote that book for women of color and I think naively thought that’s who would pick it up. And it’s actually been a lot of white leaders that have picked up the book and really wanting to understand what’s different, have the language, and have reached out to me afterwards saying, you know, a lot of white women, in particular, feel like a lot of it affects them as wel–in different ways–but that a lot of the delusions are not things they ever question. You know, one of the ones that I find is really easy for people to understand is this delusion that there’s one seat at the table. So many women that I interviewed had been told, like, there’s one seat at the table, so as a result, I think a lot of women, whether it’s women of color or, you know, women of color and white women, we end up in competition with each other because we’ve been taught, wrongly, like a delusion that there’s one seat for us, so only one of us is going to make it. But who told us that there’s only one seat for a woman or a woman of color? Why do we believe that for ourselves? And so I think that’s a great, it’s one that people really understand and get their their head wrapped around and it’s, yeah, like who taught us that? Why is that accepted? Like, why is that a delusion that we are okay with?
DeRay Mckesson: There’s a, there’s a smaller section that was like tucked in in the beginning of the book that I was like, you know, I want to talk to her about this. It’s titled–wait, let me get my book–it’s on page 33 and then it’s titled Our Families Teach US How to Work. What did you mean by that? I mean, I’ve read it, but but like why was this important to tease out in the book?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I think, that again, we had this idea that all workers show up, right, to the workplace, and yes, maybe we have different family experiences, maybe we’re the first in our families to go to college or work outside of the home, but I don’t think everyone truly appreciate tha. The ways in which we work, like our work ethic in some ways, like how we work, like what we believe in about work does come from our parents and our family. And I think this is so important for women of color in particular, because the message I heard over and over again, and I heard it mostly, the most acutely with Black women, but I heard it everywhere, was this idea that so many of the women I interviewed had been taught they had to work harder, sometimes two or four times as hard just to get to the table. And so so many of the women I met were exhausted, overworked, burnt out, traumatized. And so this idea that, you know, we have to really question how we work and how we define success and how we show up. And so much of that is taught to us by our parents and their experiences and how, you know, why they came to this country, and how they came to this country, and what they believe about work. And so I think that’s part of like, one of the first things we need to understand, that we all come with different ideas, even though I think corporate America wants us to believe, and a lot of employers want us to believe, we’re all kind of showing up or we’re going to gain skills. But we haven’t really unpacked some of the beliefs and the philosophies and the things that are really entrenched in how we work and where that comes from.
DeRay Mckesson: And the flip side of that is that, you know, you talk about what it means to sort of shed the delusions, to name them, to see them, and then you talk about the wisdom. So, you know, it feels like in the same way that you help us understand that, like we come to the workplace with all these things that we might need to unlearn or think through, we also come with, like, cultural wisdom that sometimes we downplay. Can you talk about why you thought that whole chapter was important to include in the book?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. Because so many of the women that I interviewed felt like they were erasing parts of themselves. They felt like they had given up parts of themselves. And to me, one of the most like stunning, you know, statements I heard over and over again, and I interviewed a lot of senior women so, you know, senior director and above, VP and above ,these women would be sitting in power seats, even C-level women, and they would say to me, you know, they would look at me and they would say, Deepa, I’m sitting in a really powerful seat at this really big company and yet I don’t always feel powerful. In fact, I feel like I have less power in a senior seat than I did coming up. And part of it has to do with the fact that I edited myself, that I gave up part of myself to get to the seat, thinking naively once I had the power seat, I could do it my way and there’s less ability to do that. And so what I’m really trying to raise is that there, again, a delusion is that we try to, we tend to favor one kind of worker. Our model of success in the workplace is really modeled after a white male executive that tends to, you know, historically have had a stay-at-home wife and that model is broken. That’s what we found in the last few years. And that model also makes a lot of women of color give up parts of themselves, right, and not talk about their culture or their languages or the foods they eat at home. And so much of our wisdom and so much of who we are and our rooting comes from our history, and we need to be able to find ways to bring that to work. And those qualities and those characteristics aren’t always valued at work, especially in corporate settings. So what I’m really trying to raise for a lot of people who’ve been taught to assimilate, you know, taught to go along, to get along is you’re giving up power when you do that, so really figure out where you find your power as an individual. You know, I’m not asking all women of color to show up as their authentic selves in all spaces. I think that feedback is really flawed because it’s hard to do that. But most of the women that I work with have, you know, a half a dozen or maybe a dozen things that are truly important to them. I make them write them out, I make them think about it. And I say, don’t compromise on those things in the workplace, because if you do, you will lose power and eventually question if it was all worth it. And so that’s really what this is about, it’s really figuring out what makes you feel powerful. And there is cultural wisdom that we’ve been taught to put aside, and how do we bring that back to the workplace? Because that’s where I think women of color can really lead differently and can really thrive and help set direction for what comes next.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, this is not only an unpacking, like, you know, the workplace is screwed book, it’s like here’s what we can do, and I think that is a beautiful part of it. One of the things in the sort of last third of the book, one of the things you say is kill the queen bee. What do you mean by kill the queen bee?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. So there’s a lot of academic research that suggests women don’t help women. And so this idea that there is when, you know, when you’re at the table, there’s one queen bee or one person in charge, and there is a lot of academic research that suggests women will sometimes even sabotage other women, sometimes unconsciously, because of that queen bee status, there can only be one of us. And this was so important to bring out and talk about, because when I interviewed the women, you know, the last you know, I spent an hour, sometimes two hours with these women, and I’d say in the last few minutes, Is there anything else you want to tell me, anything else I haven’t shared? And they would drop their voices, you know, if we were in person, they would start to look at their shoes or their feet, and you could tell there was pain and shame in what they were about to say. And they would say to me, Can you talk about how as women we don’t help each other, that white women have been really difficult for women of color, sometimes obstacles and blockers of us, but even as women of color, we don’t often help each other, whether that’s Indian women to Black women or Indian women, you know, helping Indian women. And so that’s really what I was trying to get at, is that that’s also something we’ve been taught. Again, back to that delusion of there’s one seat at the table which causes that queen bee mentality, or this idea that there can only be one powerful one woman, I want us to get rid of that. Because we can’t change structures if we don’t change how we work together, if we don’t change how we see each other as women, and if we don’t see each other as, you know, coconspirators or builders together. Like, we can’t see each other as competition because the system is already stacked against us. We need to work together to change it.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. What surprised you when you were putting the book together? You obviously went in with like, here’s what I think I’m going to hear. And then, you know, you didn’t do ten interviews, you didn’t do 20, you did over 100. Was there like, was there like something you were like, Wow, this might be sort of small, but this is surprising, or this is actually like big and I didn’t realize it? Like outside of what you’ve already talked about.
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I think the two, you know, the three things were the idea that so many women of color I met were not feeling powerful. I think that the idea that women really weren’t helping each other. And then single-handedly, or the single most important or shocking thing to me was how many women of color were ill or sick. And that was two out of three women I interviewed had what I would call a mysterious illness. So not like a clear cancer diagnosis, but symptoms like skin rashes, headaches, you know, adrenal fatigue–there’s about a dozen symptoms–heart palpitations, that kept coming up over and over again. And most of these women were told by their doctors that this is just what happens with aging or we can’t do anything about it. But these were persistent symptoms. And for me, as someone who was really struggling with my own health issues towards the latter part of my corporate career, it really spoke to me. So I spend a lot of time there unpacking that. And what I think, and I talked to psychologists and doctors, and what I found is I think when you do mute parts of yourself, when you do conform, when you do give up, in some ways, who you are to rise. I think what happens is your body speaks to you. And so that that was probably the most surprising thing is the consistency with which some of the challenges but also the physical manifestation showed up for the women was just shocking and surprising.
DeRay Mckesson: Now we want people to buy the book. How do you, do you have hope that we can change the workplace? Or like what gives you hope? Or like do you, are you like, you know, if we don’t do this one thing, we’ll never get it it through. Can we fix it?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah. No, I, I love that question because yes, the book has a lot of heavy information, a lot of data and a lot of stories. When people pick it up, you know, their feedback to me is, you know, I used to think this only happened in small pockets, and the fact that I have 500 women’s stories shows this across industries, it’s across sectors and across parts of the country, so I think that, you know, the data can’t be denied. But, yes, I’m optimistic because I met such amazing women who, in the face of obstacles, still figured out how to find their power and to find their voice. They did the work to get rid of the delusions and to get rid of these ideas that success came in one form, and they really figured out who they were. And they’re changing the world. I also feel really optimistic is as the book has come out, so many companies have reached out and asked me to come speak, and not speak in a sanitized sort of version of the truth. Like, I’m telling my truth in a way that I wasn’t sure what happened when I, you know, when the book came out. And so I do feel optimistic. I also think I’m lucky that the book came out in this moment, you know, emerging from COVID, I think there are new questions about how people want to work and where they work and why they work. And also just more space for conversations we’ve never had before. You know, what I’m trying to really highlight is the fact that corporate America is not a meritocracy, but we can’t make it better for everybody if we don’t talk about it. And I believe we can. And I feel like if there was ever a time you were going to change it, it’s now. So I’m actually energized and optimistic and feel like there’s a renewed openness to this conversation that I’ve never seen before.
DeRay Mckesson: There are two questions we ask everybody. The first question is, what’s the piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yes, it’s from one of my sponsors. He was a senior partner when I was a new partner. And he said to me, Never need a client more than you want a client. And I took that and applied that to all parts of my life, including men when I was single, right, this idea that never want anything more than you, never need anything more than you want something, right? To really be choice-ful and not to find yourself in situations where maybe you take a client or you compromise on something that really isn’t good for you. And so that advice will always stick with me, and is something that I carry with me always.
DeRay Mckesson: I love that. And the second thing is sort of akin to the question I asked you about the book, but, you know, we’re in a moment where people feel like they voted, they email, they called, they testified–like they did everything they were supposed to do, and the world hasn’t changed the way they want it to. What do you say to those people?
Deepa Purushothaman: Yeah, I would say that my own story, I think, is a testament to the fact that, you know, yes, I had a very successful career, but it wasn’t the life that I planned. I thought I would, you know, my background was politics and so I found myself 20 years in a corporate world, and then, you know, the politics I believed in weren’t exactly how the world was playing out. And I found myself really disillusioned, like questioning had I picked the wrong path, had I made the wrong choice, had I sold out to be honest with you. That was a lot of what was going through my head, you know, for the last decade. And part of why I wanted to step out of corporate America and write the book and start the company that I started was to really make change, was to help other people. So I think what I say to say to people is sometimes it can feel like you’re stuck. Sometimes it can feel like even when you’re successful, you’re not really contributing. And that’s the time to ask yourself, like, what is your work in the world? What is your place in the world? And how do you want to have impact? And that all of us can. And maybe it’s not running for office or maybe it’s not, you know, working a campaign like I thought it was. And I think this is my contribution and it’s just as helpful. So maybe that’s my advice is that, you know, I think a lot of us feel stuck. I think a lot of us question things, even if you don’t see that from the outside, and that we’re in a moment where we can all make changes, make change in whatever ways you can. Lean on your experiences to make change. We need to make change in all sectors and all areas, so that’s what I would say. So do what you can where you are with the skills and the experiences that you have.
DeRay Mckesson: There we go. Well, we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
Deepa Purushothaman: Thank you. I appreciate it.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else, and we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Johnson.