Black, Successful & Silenced

You are Black.  You are successful.  And you are silenced professionally.

One of the quietly kept secrets in Corporate America (and I am keenly aware of the irony of that statement) is that to be Black and successful you must almost always be quiet.  Quiet on issues of inequity.  Quiet on issues of race.  And certainly quiet on issues of racism.  You must mute yourself in order to climb the corporate ladder.

Now, to be clear, I am not addressing those who have crested the mountain.  The Robert Smith’s, the Kenneth Chenault’s, the Melody Hobson’s and the Kenneth Frazier’s are exempt.  Once you have reached the very top 1%, of the 1%, of the 1% — you can be somewhat liberated.  Robert Smith’s estimated net worth is Five Billion dollars.  That’s “Billion” with a capital “B.”  With those kind of numbers, or that kind of status, liberation follows.  Rather, I am speaking about the executives working in job titles that are one, two or three tiers below them. I have travelled the country and met with countless senior managers, senior vice presidents and executive vice presidents – and cannot think of a single one who has been outspoken about issues of race.

It’s not surprising.  Indeed, in many respects it can be anticipated.  There are currently four Black CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, so in almost every instance the success of a Black executive remains dependent on the perspective and favor of a white superior.  The corporate ladder is a long and arduous climb.  The rungs on that latter are comprised of smarts, education, talent, experience, good fortune and favor.  Irrespective of race I cannot think of a single person who has been successful without the sponsorship of a more senior person in the corporate hierarchy.  Accordingly, currying that favor is central to continued success.  And part of currying favor is pleasing that senior person, making him or her happy, and making him or her comfortable.  It’s why people have conversations about sports they may not want to have, attend dinners they may not want to attend, play golf they may not want to play, and laugh at jokes that are not funny.

But candid and honest conversation about race is the opposite of “comfortable.”  Those conversations are hard.  Criticism of a supervisor or of a company about racial issues is hard.  And the road to success is paved with two distinct paths.  The path of those who have been critical and have been derailed along the way.  And the path of those who have towed the company line and continued to advance.  Those two paths do not converge, so the choice for each person is clear.  Be silenced and maximize your opportunity to continue to progress.  Or be vocal and begin to plan to “pursue your next opportunity.”

This desire for “comfort,” is the same driving force that pushes people to be the “acceptable Black.”  Not too distant.  Not too foreign.  And not uncomfortable.  This manifests in the way we choose to style our hair, our fashion choices, and our chosen topics of discussion.  You may question these premises, but ask yourself how many senior leaders you have seen with twists, dreads or locs?  I already know the answer.  Now further ask yourself, did that happen by accident?  I know the answer to that as well.  We compromise ourselves, including our hairstyles, in order to make White leaders more comfortable.  It’s a central part of the game we all play.  You may wish that it would be different, but it isn’t.

So we have a LOT of work to do.  Until we can be comfortable being ourselves – fully and totally – we will be forced to continue to compromise.  And corporate America has a LOT of work to do. Until companies create environments that not only allow for that racial authenticity — but support and embrace it — we will remain mired in the status quo. I don’t know when we will get there, or how long it will take.  But until we do – the silence will continue.

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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