Inequality, racial bias, and an endless onslaught of microaggressions would ruin the career and mental health of any person. Black men, however, have had to endure a society and business landscape that systematically views them with deep suspicion and distrust simply because of the color of their skin. We’ve often heard that black men must work twice as hard to achieve the same success as their non-black counterparts. And, from my experience, this is true.
Black men – regardless of their past business successes or the diplomas hanging on their walls or their impeccable professional attire and demeanor – are constantly scrutinized by a culture of whiteness in America that has undermined their potential for centuries. I know this is true because I and many other black men I know have personally lived – and survived – this truth throughout our careers. Thankfully, I feel I have learned some important and valuable lessons along the way.
Progress and the Reality of Racism
In our highly politicized times, meaningful conversations about racism can quickly devolve into arguments that polarize people and undermine sincere efforts to make progress on ending racism. I have witnessed logical debates about race be conflated into emotional diatribes and bogus straw man arguments about discrimination that only result in frustration, bitterness and further division. For professional black men like me, every conversation about racism must begin with the baseline acknowledgment that racism is real and it is an existential threat to our nation. That conversation, however, can feel uncomfortable or even dangerous to many business leaders, but that isn’t an excuse not to have it.
Education can serve as a bridge to creating a consensus on our nation’s understanding of racism. So we need to be honest about our truth and the impact of racism on black people in America. According to Time.com, “Researchers have long documented that black people have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, asthma, and obesity, among other illnesses.” The article continues to explain there is nothing – of course – innate to the DNA of black people or any aspect of being black that should cause us to suffer and die so much earlier than our fellow non-black Americans. The reason many black men die early, are often incarcerated, and fail to reach their personal and professional potential is largely attributed to systemic racism. While this may come as a surprise or even be unbelievable to some, racism is real, pervasive, and devastating.
Advocate for Yourself and Others
Black men like me could use more advocates in the workplace. I’ve been very fortunate to now have a few highly respected advocates and mentors, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, but that certainly wasn’t the case when I began my career. Earlier in my career, there were a select few people whom I could turn to as advocates for strategic business advice and insights on long-term professional development – especially regarding how to navigate systemic racism and incessant microaggressions at work. How, for example, should a young black man react when being overlooked by colleagues at the conference table, or even worse when they imply that your presence – and all of your achievements in life – were somehow the result of affirmative action policies and not your talents and skills and years of hard work? How should I not let routine and institutionalized racism undermine my positive attitude, my self-confidence… and even my sanity?
First, do not let others control your thoughts and feelings about yourself. This can be incredibly difficult, but it is key we all find ways to deal with the indescribable stress of systemic injustice and inequality in healthy ways. Second, take care of your health. Exercise. Meditate. Eat well. Third, don’t isolate. Join groups of fellow black men at work and outside of work who share similar experiences and can provide the emotional and mental support this fight requires. Proactively seek, organize and participate in groups within the black community that connect the success of established black professionals with the potential of younger professionals just beginning their journeys. Be a mentor. Always advocate for yourself and others.
Set Boundaries for You and Your Colleagues
For too long the inner lives of black men have been ignored. From overt acts of oppression to endless subtle microaggressions, we’re only just starting to understand the damage that systemic racism has on the psychology of a black man throughout his lifetime. While we watch our non-black colleagues confidently banter during meetings, we, in contrast, often quietly question our abilities and even our right to be in the room. This needs to stop. And it needs to stop now. Yes, much progress has been made, but there is still so much more to do. Do not let the negativity of injustice breed more negativity in your thoughts and mind. Set mental boundaries that keep you grounded to the truth of your situation. You belong.
We are not spokespeople for the Black experience in America. As black employees and professionals, it is not our responsibility to educate everyone else in the workplace about black history, white privilege, and the blunt impact and insidious nuances of racism and cultural bias. However, we can and should encourage and participate in company-wide events that provide us and others a platform through which to better understand each other and address the many workplace incarnations of ignorance, intolerance, and injustice. As black men, we are individuals who happen to be a certain color. And, as individuals at work, we should be seen as unique souls with unique talents, perspectives, and skillsets that when recognized, nurtured, and implemented, can add tremendous value, just like everyone else – our equals – in America.