**Last week, I kicked off the Urban Male Chronicles, a series of posts looking into life as a black male professional. I introduced yall to Chris, one of the few brothers I know that’s also in HR. In the process of talking to him, I realized he had a lot to say that many of us could relate to. So I asked him to pen a post (or 2) for SBM. Enjoy the perspective and share your thoughts in the comments. -Slim**
“Being black in Corporate America has its challenges.”
I heard this from a lot of people when I was making my journey through college. Therefore, I tried my best to prepare myself for the challenges that awaited me, but never could have imagined the pressure and loneliness that would come with it.
Within the first couple of weeks of employment after graduation, I was slapped by this reality when I looked around the organization and noticed that no one looked like me. Sure. There were older black women sprinkled here and there, but they were counting down to the day they retired and totally consumed with beginning their post-work lives. I wondered why there were so few people like me, but I just sucked it up and put it out of my mind. That worked for a while until the day I participated in a conversation that would change my view on things forever.
See, I am an HR Business Professional and I was asked to conduct an assessment on why so many people between one and five years of service were leaving the organization, and to present my findings to the senior leadership team. So, the day arrived and I presented to the CEO and his direct reports. Although I was confident in my work, I remember being so nervous for the first couple of minutes but I got through it and finally it was over. I assumed I did well based on all the nodding heads that appeared to understand and agree with my fact findings and recommendations until “it” happened.
The CEO, whom I’d never met prior to this and who I’d only heard people talk of as though he was God, walked over to me and asked if he could have a moment of my time. He told me that he loved my presentation and looked forward to implementing some of my recommendations. However, he had something to tell me and hoped I wouldn’t take offense to it. Now I don’t know about you, but when someone includes “no offense” before telling me something, I instantly get defensive. Nonetheless, I was ready for some constructive criticism, but what I was not ready for was what came out of his mouth next:
“I never heard a black person articulate the way you just did.”
He must have seen the expression on my face change, because he immediately tried to explain that he lived far east on Long Island and that his only real knowledge of black people was what he saw on TV and read in books. I have to be honest when I say I don’t remember the next two minutes after that because I zoned out. I just could not believe that came out of “our leader’s” mouth. How was that possible? I was sure a person in his position would have had to interact with many intelligent and articulate people of all races. Maybe I was naive, but I just didn’t think people thought that way — especially those who were in such high positions and had the ability to influence so many people.
I remember walking out of the conference room asking myself, “Did he really just say that? Am I overreacting and being too sensitive?” The only thing I knew for sure was I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about this experience because literally no one else in the organization could’ve understood what I just went through.
From that point on, I felt I was representing my race. Everything I did, said or proposed after that comment was on behalf of all black people. Talk about pressure! A couple of days passed and I decided to ask one of the recruiters I became friendly with why there was such a disparity in minority representation in the company. Her reply was simply the following:
“There aren’t enough minorities in the schools we recruit from.”
So my response was, “Why not just recruit from other schools then?” She politely dismissed my inquiry and said there was a tradition and relationship between the schools “we” recruit from. Although I felt that was a weak answer, (regretfully) I decided not to challenge it. Again, was I being overly sensitive and was this truly all a bizarre coincidence?
Whether it was or it wasn’t, I have taken from those interactions the pressure and responsibility of representing my race to those who may not have had much interaction with black people. I have applied this way of thinking to every presentation, project and interaction. Everything I do I must be the best because of the fear of letting my people down. Some may say “this guy is too much,” but this is my reality. I don’t want to leave you with the thought that all my experiences were bad or this is my perception of everyone that doesn’t look like me because that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, I am confident my current team and boss do not share the same thoughts as my former CEO, but to say those two instances were not prominent in shaping my life and playing a part in the professional man I’ve become would be a blatant lie. My only question now is, do people of other races feel that same pressure and do they burden the same responsibilities when interacting with others? Is this something primarily limited to us? Let me know what you think.