As a Togolese-French citizen who did not move to the U.S. until the late ’90s, Black History Month was quite literally a foreign concept to me. I have since come to embrace how this celebration reflects so many varied and historical accomplishments of innovators in every field of American life – from social justice and political reform, to the sciences and Corporate America, to the arts and sports.
But more importantly, Black History Month has illuminated for me an American experience that is fundamentally shaped by an unresolved legacy of slavery and systemic discrimination. I understand that where and how I stand in my community and industry is the direct result of the struggle of millions of unsung heroes before me.
Growing up in Togo, my conception of being Black in America was shaped primarily by exported popular culture. My siblings, my friends and I were obsessed with the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and of course Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album. Whereas poverty was the prevailing stereotype of being African, we assumed that to be African American was to be rich and famous!
This sounds naive (and indeed it was!), but when I took my first job in the U.S. at the age of 25, I didn’t expect, assume or see bias. When I did, I simply believed the bias was a reaction to my “foreignness”, not that I was Black.
But over time, there have been moments of truth that punctured my naivete about what it means to be Black – not just foreign – in America.
Only a month after I moved to a new city in the U.S., I was pulled over in the middle of the day for speeding. Without a second thought, I got out of the car to speak to the highway patrolman – this was not an issue in France, where I learned to drive. Immediately, a gun was pointed at me, and soon after, I was kneeling on the side of the highway, surrounded by three police cars, while my car was being searched for drugs.
I was absolutely stunned at the time, but I must be honest, I did not truly grasp the gravity of the situation on the side of that highway until much, much later. For so many Black men and women, like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, this could have ended everything for me. And it has fundamentally shaped the way I parent too – raising children here in America, I have radically different conversations with my teenage son and two daughters than my parents had with me in Togo.
However, my identity has also been mistaken on a much less dangerous, but more frequent basis ever since.
At offices where I have worked, I have had to re-present my ID to prove I was not “following” an employee or trespassing.
When waiting for colleagues outside a hotel, I have been handed car keys. I presume the guest thought I was the valet.
Before being introduced as a presenter at an internal business review offsite, an executive assumed I was a hotel clerk, and asked me to get a coffee service started for the group.
Having started my working life in the U.S. as a busboy, I can attest to the respect every line of work deserves, but over the years, it became more apparent to me how often I was assumed not to be included in the ranks of Black professionals. And even as I made my way up the corporate ladder, I have been on the receiving end of comments that I would be hired for a job or had secured a promotion just because I was a “diversity play.”
In meetings where I am the senior-most person in the room (yes, even as a CEO), I have been ignored outright and comments are directed first to my colleagues who are White.
These microaggressions are just that: micro. I don’t consider them the definition of my macro-experience in America.
But they do add up.
These everyday slights and ambiguous snubs have a profound impact on the entire working life of a Black professional, and yet they are often invisible to their other colleagues. Many are unaware of the biased treatment Black employees experience or ignorant of the harm they cause. And when these microaggressions, microinvalidations or microinsults do come up, I can attest to the fact that many are dismissed – it’s “too uncomfortable” for managers or colleagues to discuss racism or victims of bias are deemed overly sensitive.
The fact is, according to the 2019 study “Being Black in Corporate America,” 58% of Black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work – more than any other group. From the same study, they found that only 30% of Black professionals have access to senior leaders at work; and in part, as a result, one in three Black professionals intend to leave their current company. By any other measure, this is a devastating commentary on the current state of inclusion in Corporate America.
However, I share my own perspective here for understanding, not as an indictment. I know the company I lead, F5, has a long way to go too. But I have long believed, and experienced, that when bias is confronted with dialogue, it just can’t survive. That’s why I’d ask you to do something for your teammates I wish more of my colleagues over the years had done for me: ask what their experience has been like as a Black professional in your organization. Not to force them to act as the spokesperson for the experience of all Black professionals, but rather as your valued colleague, with their own unique experience and perspective. This is a conversation that needs an open heart just as much as an open mind.
In return, I’d like to share in two more posts this month about steps I think companies can take to address and reverse the trends outlined in the “Being Black in Corporate America” report, as well as my own advice from one Black professional to another.
My hope is that we can uncover some new truths about our collective experience, together.