Around this time last year, I was sitting in a WEEN strategy meeting alongside some of the best and brightest Black and female minds in the entertainment biz. We were discussing the possible syllabus of a summer bootcamp of sorts for college-aged women who were interested in following in our footsteps. What do they need to know most?
I, of course, started talking about self-worth, dating, and healthy relationships, the cornerstone of what I do. Other women threw out varying tips gleaned from their own professional realms. It was what a cable media personality said that stayed with me. She spoke of the “Just One” concept that pervades Black women’s professional lives and pits us against one another. The idea is there’s just room for one, and every Black woman in your field is your competitor for that sole spot at the top. You may have to battle it out with everyone else, but that other Black girl, she’s the realest threat to your success.
Perhaps it’s an idea that’s placed on us from the corporations that write checks and add a Black girl to their line-ups for diversity. Perhaps it’s one built from insecurity. But it exists, and whether self-generated or not, it holds us back. “We should teach them to build together,” the media personality said (or something like it). “You can go fast alone, you can get further together.”
As I nodded my head, and jotted down a quick summary of her words, a reminder to blog about the topic (which I never did), I thought about a then-recent episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she confronted Whoopi Goldberg about the bad blood between them that had existed since The Color Purple in 1985. As newcomers to the world of film, they were both nominated for an Academy Award. It was a “given” that they wouldn’t both win, so the questions hanging over their head were would it be Whoopi or Oprah. It created a false rivalry.
Their exchange on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011 was something akin to what would take place over a junior high cafeteria table.
Oprah: “Why are you mad at me?”
Whoopi (who despite being the one of the only Black women to have an Oscar— she won Best Supporting Actress for Ghost— a Grammy, a Tony, and an Emmy had never appeared on Oprah’s show previously): “I’m not mad at you. I thought you were mad at me.”
They had bought into the Just One hype, the same as Naomi and Tyra, who infamously had a face-off on The Tyra Banks Show and discovered a decade and a half late that there was no real beef. It played out about the same with Alicia and India.Aire when they debuted albums in 2001 and it’s still playing out with Nicki and Kim, once Nik’s obvious icon, who she now refers to in song as a “stupid hoe.”
I’ve watched the “Just One” phenomenon play out in my own life, too. When Helena Andrews’s Bitch is the New Black, a memoir of living while young, gifted, and Black hit shelves a year before my book of a similar nature was released, I was bombarded with queries on my blog (which I erased) or on Formspring or Twitter (which I deleted or ignored) that played into the Just One hype. “Do you think she’s a better writer than you?” “Do you think your book will still be successful now?” “Are you jealous that she beat you to the punch?” Admittedly, it f—ked with my ego, tapping into that stinging pride that Marsellous Wallace described so accurately in Pulp Fiction.
When Helena and I finally arranged to meet up at a sexy DC restaurant, I arrived with my bestie in tow and a bit of trepidation, wondering erroneously what I was walking into. (Upon arrival, I discovered she had her bestie there as well. I wondered if she had the same reservations about me.)
Helena was as pleasant as the first 70-degree day after a long Westeros winter, and gracious with her experiences and advice for what I would be facing on my own debut author journey. I literally exhaled when she started talking, revealing that she was cool and the perceived division between us, existed in other people’s heads, not our own.
A couple weeks ago, I finally met with the other woman I’ve felt pitted against, Tionna Smalls, author and relationship advisor from VH1’s What Chilli Wants. Tionna, who never, ever holds her tongue, brought up the Just One subject. She relayed stories of how readers have come to her, more or less saying they’re Team Tionna or Team Demetria. I’d heard about the same, but from previous experience with Helena, knew to brush it off as what “they” say and not let it impact how I move.
Aware of how this game is played, we laughed about it, had a woman-to-woman talk about our mutual respect for our respective lanes, and the behind-the-scenes hustle that you have to experience to understand. I soaked up her knowledge of dealing with producers, handling her business, and getting money to make more money. We took a picture for Twitter to prove a point.
The next day, bright and early, an anonymous Twitter follower hit me on Formspring to ask why I would be meeting with her. I rolled my eyes. Not this again. My response: “Um… why wouldn’t I?”
It must have landed in Tionna’s Google Alerts because she responded on Twitter minutes later (something like): “What is wrong with people?!”
They might buy into the Just One hype, but we won’t.