Working with Black Men in Corporations – by Terry Howard

I often get requests to address particular topics in columns and workshops, some clearly diversity-related, others not. Here are examples: “What’s it like being black in corporate America?” “Why women don’t brag – and why they should,” “Dreadlocks, long braids, weaves and wigs in corporate America,” “How to talk to a transgender person,” “How to recover from rejection at work,” and “Strategies for promoting your professional brand.” And there are others.

So let’s begin with the first one, what it’s like being black in corporate America. If not actually verbalized, my hunch is that the question may exist but remains unasked because of the oftentimes rocky history of race, particularly in a black-white context, in the U.S. Often race is the “Bermuda Triangle” of the diversity dialogue; it has a tendency to disappear beneath the surface in other “safe” conversations.

Although the “what is it like” question without context presumes, innocently, a commonality of experiences, it is nevertheless worthy of an answer, but with a caveat: if one wants to know how black folks – or any other group (women, Asians, Latinos, etc.) for that matter – experience the workplace, one must ask them individually because black folks are not monolithic nor do we all have the same experiences. Now that’s an awful lot of asking, huh?

Which takes us to an excerpt from an article Afraid of the Dark – Working with Black Men in Corporate America, by Gian Fiero, educator and speaker. As you read it, chances are your responses will be all over the map; from “I don’t agree,” “that’s not been my experience,” to “I can definitely relate to that,” Plus, it will probably raise issues not considered. Let’s get started:

“I’ve worked in corporate America for years and had the dubious distinction of being the only black there. The thing about being the only black person is that it comes with responsibility. Not job responsibility, but psychosocial responsibility. Many times, I and other black men in similar situations represented the lone contact that our white colleagues will have with other black people, black men in particular. The extent of these interactions are largely determined by their comfort level and acceptance. While many find it shocking that a black man can still be the sole representative of the black race in any workplace, others know the phenomenon of the “token” black is still alive and well – especially in geographical regions where there is not a high preponderance, or deep pool, of blacks who work in executive or corporate positions.

Corporate environments are not for everyone; this seems to hold especially true for black men. Because of the obvious absence of black men in corporate America, one can draw the assumption that black men don’t have a predilection for corporate jobs. That’s not true. Entry into the corporate environment for black men is especially rigorous. Qualifications and racism aside, there are high barriers to entry which many of us simply are not aware of. These barriers, which also serve as filters, predicated on the fears of those who create them. On an executive level, hiring managers base their decisions around answers which revolve around questions such as: Can I see him bringing strong leadership? Will others follow him? How will his subordinates respond to him? Will they respect him? Will they like him? Can we trust him? Can he take direction well? Will he be a reliable? Is he going to make trouble for me?

From what I’ve seen, the real question is this: Does he fit in? Every company has its culture. Fitting in – or the perceived ability to fit in – is a major consideration in hiring decisions. Sometimes black men are hired because they make a positive statement about a company’s “commitment” to a diverse workforce. Whatever the case, the office dynamics between black men and their co-workers are truly something to behold. It’s common knowledge among black men who work in corporate America that people get PR points for being politically correct; therefore it behooves them to act as if they don’t notice color. But they do.

You can see it in their eyes when black men show up for interviews (especially when they don’t have a “black” sounding name). Once hired, we have to quickly put people at ease by making co-workers feel comfortable, or by proving that we are qualified for the job. This is why so many black men who work in corporate America fit a particular profile: educated, articulate, cultured and non-threatening. When these characteristics are on full display, they contribute to the comfort level of whites. Once some level of comfort is achieved, it can only be reinforced with positive interactions over a period of time. Each interaction with our co-workers will either confirm, or dispel pre-conceived notions that they have about us. We are in a position of burden. We may be comfortable within ourselves to function happily in our situations, but we are never happy with our isolated situations. Furthermore, there’s always the presence of a palpable racial dynamic, in spite of our efforts to ignore it. We can sense it just in the way we are greeted (or not greeted), the content of the conversations we have with others, body language, etc.

All of these actions or inactions leave us feeling like outsiders. Sometimes our outsider status can work for us; making us more approachable by members of groups that we are not a part of. Other times, it’s a liability when it comes to positioning and promoting ourselves because the key individuals that we need to win over have forged alliances with others. If you are not a black person reading this, just know that the token black guy in your office is well aware of it. He is also aware of the fact that you are aware of this too.

Above all, remember this: A black man, no matter how educated, cultured, or refined, thinks differently because his experiences are usually quite different than that of his peers. We also have to work two to three times as hard to achieve the same successes. We may be in the same river with our counterparts, but we are not in the same boat.

Even with a black president.

Questions for a personal analysis:

To those readers who are not Black:

• What questions or issues did the Fiero article raise for you?

• What do you suppose the he means by “superficial nature” of the corporation?

• To what possible extent could a black person experience the workplace – or perceives to experience the workplace – on the basis of her/his geographical background (north, south, east, west, Africa, etc)?

To those readers who are Black;

• How do the issues the author point out either square with or depart from your experiences?

• Are the experiences of Black men and women different or are they about the same from your observations?

To all readers:

• What insights did you gain from reading the article?

• What, if anything, are you more likely than not do different after reading this?

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