• August 1, 2014

Q&A: Endia Beal’s “9 to 5”

Becky Harlan

We want to be our authentic selves wherever we go, right? But most of us have probably struggled with how to do that and function in the workplace. At the office, where everyone is working in the same space, towards some of the same goals, it can be easy to forget that the individual people who make up a larger organization are not one-size-fits-all. And the truth is that the assumed mold usually defaults to the largest demographic, so imagine (or if this has happened to you, remember) what it feels like to be the only person in the office from a specific demographic, be it gender, race, religion, age, or sexual orientation, and then think about how that might increase feelings of misunderstanding or isolation in the already difficult to navigate workplace.

Artist Endia Beal uses photography and video to bring the conversation about workplace diversity into the mainstream. After completing a project where she created corporate-style portraits of white women wearing black hairstyles, Beal received such a strong response that she knew she needed to find a way to use the stories people had begun sharing with her. I asked Beal a few questions about the resulting project, the video “9 to 5.”

BECKY HARLAN: Tell me a little bit about “9 to 5.” How did it begin? Who are the women in the video?

ENDIA BEAL: My mother used to tell me stories about her job all the time. Back then I thought, “Oh my generation is different. It’s crazy that this is happening to you, but that wouldn’t happen to me in the corporate space.” Then I started working in corporate, and now those same things are happening to me. So after showing my project “Can I Touch It?” women from all over were sending me their testimonies about feeling like they had to perform in corporate America. I thought about the experiences my mother (the first woman featured in “9 to 5”), my cousins, and my family members had shared with me—stories that were so dynamic but so hidden. I decided to have family and other women in the community tell me the stories they had told me before but this time on camera. I asked each woman to tell me a five-minute story about when they had experienced prejudice in the workplace because they were a woman or a minority.

BECKY: What was it like to hear all of those stories?

ENDIA: When I interviewed some of the women they were like, “Man I’ve been waiting to have someone to talk to about this.” Some of the women who were referred to me, when they finished telling me their story we hugged, and it was like we connected in some way. These were intimate stories about times when they felt vulnerable. It was great.

BECKY: How did you decide on the narrative?

ENDIA: It happened pretty organically. Every woman worked in different fields—banking, nursing, business. I interviewed about 20 women overall, and I listened to each woman’s story over and over. There were such similarities in the way that they spoke about things that it felt like the women were literally finishing each other’s sentences. So I thought, “I want to create a narrative based on all these women’s stories so it can become a communal experience. So that as these women are finishing each others sentences, they are literally becoming one voice.”

I started working on the video during my residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Being at Woodstock gave me the time to process my angle and what I wanted to say through the video before having to actually cut the women’s stories to create that narrative,

BECKY: One of the women in the video talks about how she has to keep herself from getting upset. Can you explain why she might feel this way?

ENDIA: As a minority woman you’re conscious of the fact that you can fall into stereotypes. It’s heightened when you’re in a professional work environment because you’re the only one, and as you advance in your career, the number of minority people in those positions declines, so then you feel like the representative. If you’re in a meeting and someone says something about women or minorities, you don’t want to react and become that “angry black woman.” You have to think “How can I address this without falling into the stereotype?”

BECKY: In the video, your mother talks about how she was dressed. Why does she bring that up?

ENDIA: I would say, and I can only speak to my own experiences and how I was raised, the idea of presentation was really important. How you look determines how you are going to be treated. My mother talks about how she looks in the video because she wants you to know that she looked professional, she dressed the part, but that didn’t matter. You can do all you can to fit the mold, but at the end of the day her voice still wasn’t heard.

BECKY: What reactions have you gotten from this project?

ENDIA: It premiered at Look Between this past June. A lot of women and men came up to me afterwards. This one woman said, “I’m white, but I relate to this 100 percent.” Even men came up to me and said “I’ve been in meetings and I’ve been afraid to say something or was ignored.” People have all had that experience of being in a situation where you feel like your voice isn’t heard.

BECKY: Who inspires you?

ENDIA: Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Deborah Willis. The history of minority women within photography is still being written. And the contemporary stories of minority women are still being formed. Deborah Willis is one of the authors of minority photographers. She’s literally laying the foundation for minority photographers to have a discussion about the work that’s being made and to get those stories told. If I can just add a few stories or put a few pictures in that gallery, then I feel like I achieved something.

See more of Endia Beal’s work on her website and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

    August 21, 2014

    For those who say that they believe that there are really no prejudices based upon age, gender, race, colour or nationality, I must say that I don’t agree with them. There are prejudices and they shall persist, what can be done is to grow more positive and overlook how others try to undermine you. In spite of this, it is difficult for some people to earn respect, acknowledgement and love from others, just because they are different from the majority. This is fact!

    The law holds true even for international immigration also! People hailing from some select nations have to undergo less rigors, whereas others have to bear with a long string of extremely difficult procedures. This is not because a certain nation consists only of thugs or ill-intentioned people! It is just because these people share a common nationality. That’s it!

    Coming back to the topic, the article, the video et al were superb. The question is not only being black among whites. In India, its a question of being a female amid the male dominated industry. I do however feel that even I myself have carved a niche for myself in the male dominated industry, and have overcome the general bias of being a woman among men, albeit with a lot more hard work than many men.

  2. Elizabeth
    August 9, 2014

    I love it!! I relate on some levels just being a women in business and wishing I could just be judged on my performance and not on my looks. And I hear and see people who are not black putting down black people every day. Black men are referred to as lazy or thug like and the women are just as mentioned, referred to as “angry black women”. This is not some make believe syndrome black women feel, it’s a very real human tragedy and I hope videos like this can help shed some light on the subject but I’m afraid unless conservative right wing talking heads decide it’s important to change this that it will be a while longer for significant change to come… but change is going to come! I will always have hope for that!

  3. Holly
    August 9, 2014

    Why does everything have to become political? I want my art to be an escape. A sanctuary from the angry, unfair hostility that surrounds us all…

  4. Jeannette Sanchez
    August 5, 2014

    ” do unto others as you would have done to you”. Treat people how you want to be treated. My favorite saying is , “what other people think about me is none of my business!” God bless those people who dont know what they do.

  5. Linda Poole
    August 3, 2014

    This is an extremely complex issue. A few years back, I was in a situation on my job where I was not one of the “popular kids.” It was almost like the movie, Mean Girls. I am a senior white woman.

    I have worked with black women who were bright, friendly, hard workers. I have also worked with black women who, as mentioned in the video were angry and blaming their lack of success on the fact they were black, when from my perception it was more about playing the black card instead of possibly looking at some character defect that might be holding them back.

    My point is that every situation should be judged by its own merits. All old white women, all black women, all fat men and women, all smokers, etc.

    That being said, I feel extremely bad for anyone no matter their race, sex, size, nationality that is held back from their goals because of prejudice.

  6. Tiffanie Nickleberry
    August 2, 2014

    Tremendous work. There are so many shared experiences that are not addressed because of perceived differences….when in actuality, the commonality is great. It’s amazing how you blended the voices. After watching the video several times, one can pull the different stories; however, the emotion makes them one. We all have conformed to social norms as to what is appropriate in order to receive approval by our peers. It will not be until more minorities (be it age, class, race, gender) begin to own our income versus renting it as a traditional employees where we can then set the standard and dictate our own terms.

  7. erbPIX™
    August 1, 2014

    We are tribes. Tribes self-identify by conformity within narrow limits. Nonconformists distinguish themselves by creating a different standard, which they too then conform to within narrow limits. The underlying need for conformity is anxiety, intimidated by different, fearful of change. The corporate world is simply a reflection of this age-old human condition that has pervaded societies since they existed.

    Most people don’t have enough self-confidence (not really widely encouraged) to decide for themselves, so they mimic someone who they think does, and act out their insecurities in disturbing ways. Antagonists have only as much power as they are given. Dignity will ultimately gain more alliance. Fear only God.

    That is exactly how my lovely wife, a black woman, faced down every challenge she faced in the corporate world and achieved everything she set out to do.

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