Striving While Black – Navigating the Corporate World as a Gentleman of Color


I’ve been in this game for years, corporate life is an animal, it’s rules to the game, so I wrote me a manual. It’s a step by step e-booklet for you to get your job on track – not your career pushed back. Yes, the corporate world can present quite the challenge for anyone, but for the gentleman of color, this world can be an entirely different animal. And for the uninitiated, the wrong moves can render a career stuck in neutral, or worst yet, gifted a box of your belongings and shown the exit.

Trust, there will be landmines that must be expertly navigated if career success is the objective. Your patience and resolve will be tested. There are so many times you can be confused with the other black guy in the office before it starts to wear on your nerves. You can only hear black slang from 1985 resurrected in 2018 as if it is brand new so many times before you want to scream. You can only hear the expressed fear from your non-melaninated colleagues about venturing into an urban area (which they never visit anyway) before your eyes roll out of the sockets. Never mind that you go to work everyday where a mass shooting could pop off at any moment by a disgruntled, middle-aged white male. Oh yes, I’ve had active shooter training, and law enforcement confirmed the standard profile of said gunman. You bite your tongue. You grind your teeth. But I digress, to survive the corporate office, you have to learn how the game is played. And then you must play it effectively.

I’ve checked in with some of my black brethren in the corporate hemisphere and solicited some opinions and guidance. Far too often, we sit in isolation and suffer in silence with no outlet. There is a generation of men of color entering the workforce for the first time with absolutely no idea what to expect or how to conduct themselves. This list is far from exhaustive, but there are some good directives that could prove to be helpful to someone. I have 20+ years in the workplace, and I have learned through trial and error. So, let’s get to it. So, first off…

  • Allow me to point out the obvious, as you are reading through this post, you may think these points are applicable to any ethnicity. And that is possibly true. However, in some circumstances, there is a racial double standard pervading the corporate world. You will not be afforded the benefit of any doubt my friend. The hypocrisy is thick. Most folk just don’t want to acknowledge it. How do I know? Look at it on a grand scale. Politics aside, the current president carries himself in a, well, ungentlemanly manner. His supporters largely ignore his flaws in decorum and etiquette. However, President Obama caught hell for wearing a tan suit and kicking his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office. Yes, the outrage was pretty damn ridiculous. So, there is a mighty good chance you are going to run into those same people in the office. Be cognizant of that fact.
  • Don’t be astonished when your colleagues are astonished. I was assigned a task by a doctor. He was so surprised by the quick turnaround time, he literally looked at me and stated he didn’t expect such efficiency. I once got a promotion and a fellow colleague expressed his surprise that someone else didn’t get the position I got – then he congratulated me. Well, thanks.
  • Hey, superman lover – yes, I’m talking to you. Stop being a player around the office. You are asking for trouble. Best case scenario: You get shut down, your feelings get hurt, and your image is branded as a hound dog or dirty old man. Worst case scenario: You get fired and find yourself a part of a hash tag movement.
  • To be sure, there are varying social and professional constructs that a gentleman must properly evaluate and then conduct himself accordingly. Your behavior outside of the corporate environment may not have a smooth transition to your office or cubicle. For example, I hold an affinity for classic hip-hop, and I can even recite the lyrics for Ice Cube’s Gangsta, Gangsta seamlessly. However, common sense dictates I would not recite said gangsta lyrics in front of my young children. Your place of employment is no different. There is a time and place for everything; business is business and the streets are the streets. A misguided attempt to “keep it real” in corporate America can go woefully awry – you’ve seen the Dave Chappelle skits.
  • However, a gentleman of color must remain “real” to his identity. Now, this statement may appear as a direct contradiction to the statement above, so allow me to explain. While it is paramount for a gentleman to embrace and understand the culture of his company – and every company has a particular culture – a gentleman should not adopt an unnatural façade that compromises his integrity and comfort level. There is an episode from HBO’s television series Insecure where a character, Molly Carter, tries to join the “boy’s club” at her firm in an attempt to blend in. The results are unfavorable, as she is still socially excluded from the unofficial club. I don’t pretend at work. I don’t pretend to like or dislike things just to fit in. A gentleman should not go along just to get along.
  • If you begin a statement with – I cannot because I am black – you’ve already defeated yourself all by yourself. Don’t be a cynic. Sure, the road may be paved with setback and disappointment, but you have to believe in the possibility of success with hard work and discipline.
  • Contrary to some prevailing assumptions, everything is not a conspiracy against the black race. Does racism and prejudice exist in the workplace – of course, absolutely. However, every single uncomfortable circumstance or general unfavorable topic does not have to fall back on racial inequality. Seriously, it really does not. Under-representation of minorities in the workplace could be a result of the dearth of qualified applicants. Perhaps a certain promotion was not attained due to a better candidate also applied. A gentleman cannot fight every battle. Trying to achieve success in your field is exhausting by itself; a gentleman will burn himself out mentally & physically by taking on additional battles. Sometimes you have to take a moment to educate and other times you have to walk away.
  • However, sometimes circumstances does fall back on racial inequality in the workplace. In those circumstances, the best course of action is to contact human resources or the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Best practice: document, document, document any events that pertain to the matter at hand. Given the grave nature of this circumstance, this is not a matter one should address alone. Present your issues and concerns to the appropriate personnel. If you are a witness to racial injustice in the office, your voice must be a tool of measured reason and truth. And don’t engage in office banter regarding the matter; not everyone needs to be privy to your business.
  • And speaking of office banter – please keep it clean and professional. It is important your conversations are based on merit and facts. Gossip and conjecture has no place in the office, but sure enough, every office has some form of gossip. It’s best you avoid it altogether and get to the matter at hand – work. Because, when it is all said and done, you will be thrown under the bus.
  • Because, as much as many individuals will deny it, prejudice and racism is as American as apple pie. It is tightly woven into the fabric of this nation, and some people will demonstrate their actions consciously or subconsciously. So, entering the workplace, a gentleman of color will probably have to work twice as hard as his Caucasian counterpart. Why? Stereotypes. Stereotypes that middle America is continuously exposed to via news and entertainment, and has been since the inception of this country. So, as a black man enters into the corporate world, you bear the weight of every historical, black caricature steeped in America’s racist past – primarily: the brute (angry, dangerous), the coon (lazy, buffoonish), or the Tom (docile, submissive). Sure, we can complain about the system, but these are the cards that have been dealt, so the game has to be played deftly and intelligently. We have to dispel every myth and stereotype just to prove we are on the same level. And even then, you will accused of preferential treatment because you’ve been deemed as “safe” by white management. Haters will hate, but you have to be your own champion and tout your accomplishments and work ethic – haters be damned.
  • Therefore, don’t be surprised by some backlash from other people of color in the office. You’ve worked hard to attain your achievements. You are recognized by white peers and upper management. Congratulations – you can officially be perceived as an Uncle Tom or sell-out. If you dress with elegance, articulate oneself in a professional manner, and exude a measured demeanor; you can possibly be categorized as a “safe” choice that has been elevated as a token. This assumption confuses me, as some of our greatest civil rights leaders possessed the aforementioned characteristics, yet no one would dare label Malcolm X as a Tom. People will formulate opinions about you, but they will never understand how hard you’ve worked to attain your status. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel inferior. And never feel ashamed of your position within the company.
  • And when you attain that status, it is incumbent upon you to give back to minorities entering the workplace behind you. To walk into an office and see no one that resembles you can be intimidating and quite sobering. People are tribal by nature. People will gravitate to those people that they share similar interests and culture. Don’t act brand new. Don’t throw anyone under the bus. Reach out and help someone.
  • However, don’t be surprised if your welcome is rebuffed. I’ve tried to make eye contact and execute the “bro nod”, only to be straight up passed by in the hallway, as if I was as inconsequential as paint on the wall. Lesson: Not every black male will feel the need to join your “tribe”. As much as you want to greet that man with some “Wakanada Forever” dap, he may not reciprocate the same love. Everyone has their own origin story, so don’t take it personal.
  • Loyalty is valued within the black community. However, don’t be afraid to place distance between yourself and someone who has established a reputation as a malcontent. Establish a network of like-minded individuals that are the best in their field so you can learn and grow.
  • If you deem that your current professional environment is not conducive to your growth & development, it may be time to execute an executive decision and move on to another position or company, or maybe even venture out into the world of entrepreneurship. Severing ties with a company where career advancement is not a plausible possibility or the atmosphere is racially insensitive could be beneficial for you mentally and physically.

Do you have a story or tip to share? Please share in the comment section.

3 responses

  1. Fine insights on Corporate America that easily apply to many different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

    Sometimes I feel as if there are predetermined, invisible structures built into the minds of decision makers and if you don’t fit in you won’t be able to move forward, no matter your skills or education.

    I struggle with that executive decision though…very fine line that could affect many lives were you to walk on the wrong side of it!

    • Very true. If you encounter an authority figure that has a predetermined idea of what they believe your skills are and in worst case scenarios – don’t care what your skills are; it can be very problematic. In those cases, it may be time to change your environment if possible, but that can be difficult as well. In this day and age, entrepreneurship or generating other streams of revenue is becoming almost a necessity to attain some form of fulfillment in the work arena.

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