When The Wing launched in 2016, it felt like a freshman dorm in September—broad with possibility and earnest bonhomie. I remember clicking around on their website and seeing a photograph of a young Black woman with voluminous hair tied up in a scarf. If they could envision someone like me in their community, maybe I could do the same. I decided to apply for membership.
I was a member for two years before getting hired as a copywriter at their New York City headquarters in 2018. When I asked a fellow Black member-turned-employee about my new boss, also a Black woman, she breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh you’ll love working with her,” she told me. I didn’t think to ask about whom I might not love working with.
My job was to oversee member communications and shape the brand’s voice. One of my pet projects was to diversify the names on The Wing’s phone booths with beloved fictional characters of color, like Khadijah James, Mindy Lahiri, and Moesha. The executive feedback from a founder was that my suggestions were “too obscure.” Too obscure for whom, exactly? Reluctant to let her cultural blind spots guide our messaging, I bargained with them: Margot Tenenbaum if we keep Nola Darling; Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos if Joan Clayton stayed.
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The kinds of falsehoods that allowed The Wing to flourish weren’t easily fact-checked. They were small lies that, in a certain light, had the glimmer of truth. One of the brand’s mottos was, “Magic happens when women gather together.” It could and often did, but ignorance and racism were just as likely to occur under the same circumstances. For a company whose mission was allegedly driven by the results of the 2016 presidential election—where white women largely revealed their allegiance to race over gender—The Wing remained curiously committed to the idea that simply bringing women together was in and of itself the rising tide that would lift all boats.
Six months into my job at The Wing, a white colleague asked me to spearhead the Black employee resource group as a personal favor to her. Meant to provide an outlet for us to connect, unwind, and identify issues we wanted to call the company’s attention to, our first meeting spilled well over its one-hour time slot as we swapped story after story about our experiences, both in the office and in the co-working spaces. Among my own stories was the time a coworker suggested my white husband and I have a child right away, because “halfies” were “God’s way of promoting world peace.”
Those who worked in clubhouses across the country were forced to contend with mistreatment from fellow employees, as well as from Wing members. Emboldened by the company’s reluctance to enforce any rules of conduct, a number of paying customers made a habit of belittling and harassing the very people working to create a welcoming environment for them.
The more the Black resource group shared, the more intractable the problem seemed to be. The Wing prioritized form over function, fully buying into their own hype at the expense of employees. While some of the company’s leadership happily relied on convenient untruths to promote itself, many of my coworkers and I fought relentlessly—and, ultimately, fruitlessly—to make these fictions factual.
Last September, we were called into a last-minute meeting. Leadership acknowledged the ongoing issues regarding race and inclusion, and said they knew employees and members of color had borne the brunt of fixing the issue for them for too long. We were told that correcting these issues was now a top priority. When one of my colleagues asked what work would be put on hold in order to focus on it, we were told that we didn’t need to de-prioritize any work streams.
Corporate communications drafted a letter to members outlining The Wing’s renewed commitment to inclusion after a “racial incident” involving a Black member who was verbally harassed by a white member. I pointed out the vagueness of the phrase. It should say “racist” not “racial,” I explained to an executive.
There were no witnesses to the incident, she replied, which made it difficult to say if it really was racist. One colleague read the dictionary.com definition of “racist” out loud to me. Another chimed in on Slack asking whether an incident could even be racist.
My colleagues and I went to bat with leadership, flagging instances of discrimination in the workplace to higher-ups and filing formal complaints against team members. We wanted change quickly and effectively. We called for commitments to incorporate accessibility into future real estate decisions; agitated for more gender-inclusive language, branding, and outreach; and questioned the ethics of partnering with certain brands. There were nods and apologies and commitments to do more. Corrective efforts were launched, but never quite completed.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, hundreds of employees were laid off. I was spared, and those of us left were told to be excited about what we could all accomplish at The Wing, a place where we could make real change.
Two months later, when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, a groundswell of support began to coalesce around the very causes my Black colleagues and I had been championing at The Wing all along: pay equity, diversity distributed equally from entry-level to C-suite, and showing up for the Black women in our community beyond superficial statements. But when a Black coworker suggested a Black Lives Matter support circle for members seeking comfort through community, a white woman at the company said it would be hard to fit in because there was already a yoga class on the calendar.
Between the pandemic and the increasingly toxic environment, I lost the ability to hold my tongue. During a team Zoom meeting, I called out the hypocrisy. How could we change the world, I asked, when we hadn’t even managed to change our company culture? Afterward, I got a call from an executive checking in on me. She told me she knew why I had said what I said, but didn’t I realize how it looked?
I left The Wing a few weeks later. Before I did, my remaining coworkers and I linked arms one last time and collectively staged a digital walkout, asking yet again for the company to live up to the standards it had already told the world it lived by. The response was at once affirmative and lackluster, as though our leadership couldn’t be bothered to convincingly feign any more enthusiasm for accountability. Instead of getting a seat at the table, I’d received a cheap seat to an allegedly feminist farce.
For the people at the top of the organization, the tall tales they told about The Wing were a means to an end in the form of money in the bank. For so many of us tasked with bringing these fabrications to life, we found it was a job that didn’t pay us nearly enough for the steady devaluation of our integrity. I’ve learned it’s much easier to ground myself in my own truth than it is to operate on the shaky foundations of someone else’s fiction.
Editor’s note: The Wing did not return ELLE.com’s request for comment.
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