I was grabbing lunch with an acquaintance of mine that also happens to be a Black male HR professional. He’s the HR expert assigned to my organization by his massive and well-known company. Despite our frequent email exchanges, occasional meetings, and catch up calls, we’d never really gotten to know each other outside of business. Our lunch turned out to be the most productive conversation we’ve ever had.
The conversation started with jokes about the shortage of Black men in the HR profession. I asked him if he knew any others in the field, and the only person he could think of was me. This turned into a conversation about each of our career progressions and some of the challenges we faced along the way and to this day. Then somehow we got on the subject of our experiences in networking and interacting with like-minded brothers, which then turned into a bigger conversation about how our achievements have made it harder to identify with many of the men that look like us, but chose to take their lives in a different direction. I don’t mean they became lawyers and engineers and we became HR people. I mean they never left the hood and chose to take a road too commonly and unfortunately traveled.
Chris and I had a lot more in common that either of us could’ve expected. We exchanged stories about what it means to be a Black HR professional in America, but more importantly what it means to be a “successful” urban male professional when interacting with people who…well, haven’t been so successful. Chris told me one story in particular that had me thinking up until the time I wrote this article. He also raised some questions that I’ve asked myself time and time again.
A couple years ago, Chris went home to visit his family in the Bronx. He ran into a guy (We’ll call him Donte) he went to high school with, who was accompanied by a kid no more than ten years old. After a brief cordial exchange, Donte asked him if he heard about Mark, a person they both knew from around the way. Chris said no and the guy informed him that Mark had been shot and killed over some hood beef. While that was shocking in and of itself, it’s what happened next that sticks with Chris to this day.
With the younger kid standing nearby and watching these two talk, Donte lifted up his shirt to show Chris the gun that he had tucked at his waist. “They may have gotten Mark, but they’ll never catch me slipping,” he said. And to the kid standing there, this was okay. It became clear to Chris that the youngin’ looked up to Donte. And unless there’s some serious intervention over the next few years, this kid will most likely grow up to be just like Donte or end up just like Mark.
As much as Chris wanted to say something, he didn’t know where to go with the conversation. He just realized how little he and Donte had in common after all these years. And not knowing the kid that was with him, there really wasn’t anything Chris could do but tell them to both be safe, say peace, then go on about his day. But when he walked away, he found himself asking questions: “What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say? How am I supposed to identify with that lifestyle?” Chris went on to tell me about other people that he grew up with, saw out and about, but avoided because he didn’t want to go through the conversation about where he’s at in his life today. If you’ve been in those conversations with someone that “hasn’t made it,” you know how awkward they can be.
I’ve found myself in similar situations when I’ve headed to upstate New York to visit my family. I still remember pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-through window and seeing Lamont from the old hood reach out to collect my cash before recollecting our times on the corner. He was excited to see me, but as our (very) brief conversation went on, his eyes dulled as his enthusiasm waned. The jokes he made years ago about me talkin’ white weren’t so funny anymore. “Baggin’ b*tches” was a language I could no longer understand. Thank God for the car behind me that beeped and broke the growing awkwardness of our conversation. I pulled away and thought to myself then, “What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say? I really wasn’t trying to brag. I just told him about my life.”
I remember running into friends from middle school a couple years ago at a local mall. I remember how difficult it was to understand what they had chose to do with their lives, and how reluctant I was to share what I’d done with mine. From previous experience, I knew how it’d be perceived. I wanted to say something helpful to them. Something encouraging. But after not seeing them for years and them appearing content, it just didn’t seem like my place. We were no longer friends. And quite honestly, there was nothing I could do for them. But again, I found myself walking away asking “What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say?” And for these reasons, the only people I look forward to seeing when I go home are members of my family. Whether or not they’ve made career decisions similar to my own, we have blood in common. And with that, there’s always room for conversation.
But from time to time upstate and in NYC, I still find myself asking…
“What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say? What is my obligation?”
SBM Nation, have you had a similar experience? How do you handle conversations with people that have chose to walk a path with no commonalities to your own? Do you find that as you progress through life, it’s harder to identify with people from back in the day? What exactly are we supposed to do? What exactly are we supposed to say? All other thoughts are welcome.
Looking for the right words even when I’m not writing,