Scene: Everyday Corporate America (technically Canada in this instance, but same culture)
I land in Toronto with my associate, Ron. Ron is a mid-50s, white guy, gray and balding, glasses, very typical look of a corporate finance guy. We are there to evaluate two consultants, one of which will get a contract worth some $50 million dollars for his or her firm. While the decision on who to award the contract is not solely mine, it rests largely on my recommendation.
Me, I’m an early-30s, somewhat baby-faced Black man, no gray, full beard, nice suit, diamond earrings in both ears, and a swagger more set for the studio than the boardroom, yet here we are — Ron and I, an odd-couple if you will, charged with awarding the contract.
So we arrive at consultant contestant #1 and perform the exchange of handshakes and business cards that is customary at such an engagement. After the formalities they launch into their pitch on why they deserve to be awarded the business. As they present, it is clear they are directing more of the conversation toward Ron. They make comments about me “rolling up the data” and giving it to Ron and how it would be easier with their help. It is clear they have made an assumption that Ron is the senior associate in the room, and I am the junior associate. They are wrong. Ron works for me. They may have figured that out had they looked at the titles on the business card (Director vs Manager), but they felt comfortable making an assumption based on stereotypes. And you know what they say happens when you assume: you make an ass out of you and lose $50 million of business. Needless to say I did not recommend them for the contract, nor did they get it.
Microagressions…some smart academic has termed events like this as such. A seemingly harmless mistake based on often unconscious biases that rub people like me (generally minorities) the wrong way, often completely unbeknownst to the offender. As a young, Black corporate executive at a Fortune 500 company, my work experience is riddled with these “microaggressions.” They often make me want to reach across the table and demand that the offender “put some respeck on my name”. Within the walls of my current company, which one might consider relatively “woke” if a corporation can be such a thing, I deal with these issues somewhat less than I may if I worked somewhere else; but when I step out into the community, or have to interact with other organizations, it becomes clear that the problem still persists. I also recognize that, even within my “woke” company, the problem persists more for others than for me. I have been fortunate to have the right light from the right people (leaders) shined on me at the right time, so that my excellent work could be seen and recognized. So now, for the most part, when I come into an internal meeting, people already know what it is…I gets my respeck☺. For many Black folks, that opportunity to shine and be seen hasn’t come yet.
I believe for us as a people, being successful isn’t enough; we want validation and recognition of our success. Not necessarily to be boastful or braggadocios, but just to get that, “I see you,” an acknowledgement that someone sees your hard work and respects the station you have attained. If this were the rap game, I would just get a big ass rose gold chain with my title and quarter-million dollar income on the medallion, but this is not a place of OUR culture; this is a place of THEIR culture, and in order to arrive at the station I have arrived at, some degree of assimilation is required.
So I manage, balancing my unapologetic blackness with modest assimilation to the culture created and owned by European men, talk their talk, and play (and win) their game, ALWAYS looking to lift the next Black man or woman as I climb, and always conscious of the example I bear for other young Black talent in my organization and outside. I try to help nudge that spotlight in their direction, and try to coach them up such that when they get the light, it highlights success and not failure. With us (Black folks) in Corporate America, it is not enough to be excellent. Many of my peers sit in a corner being excellent and never get recognized. And sometimes a person who is almost always excellent has that one bad week at the very wrong time (when the spotlight is on) and they never, ever get another chance (at least not within that company). You have to always be on, always be ready for the big opportunity, and even then, you need a little help from the top.
So what’s the moral of the story here? Being a Black executive, though financially rewarding can be a lonely existence. I sit around a number of tables where I am the only person who looks like me. My day is taxing and riddled with code-switching (code-switching; verb - speaking, thinking or acting in a way one would with people of his or her own culture, then switching or translating those thoughts to something the majority culture deems acceptable, and back again). But I must persist. I must for the Black analyst that we hire out of college that wonders if she, too, can make it to the executive ranks, and for the Black, mid-level manager that works his ass off every day and just hasn’t been seen yet but is probably more ready for the next job up than his current boss is. So I will persist. I will tell the story. I will share the struggle. I will shine the light, and I will lead courageously, alone or not, as the young Black corporate O.G.
(to be continued….)