Picture this: Summer 2013. Barack Obama is still POTUS and I just graduated from Howard University (don’t let the media coverage distract you, we still poppin’ over here, bruh). It’s the first day of my first, full-time job. I walk into the office, settle into my cubicle, pause and take a minute to let the moment sink in. I stand behind my desk and a quick scan of the floor hits me with a startling truth: I am the only Black man—no the only person of color—here.
How is that possible?
My shell shock wasn’t connected to coming from an HBCU. It was about the climate. Wasn’t diversity the new cool? It’s the topic of like every third TED Talk. How could I be the only one in an office of dozens of people? And this company, my company, interviewed countless people at my school and presumably others. How could I be the only one? I didn’t know what to say, or who to say it to, so I did what I was paid to do: my job.
It was all good until the beginning of my second week when a manager-in-training (he obviously needed more training) casually told me why they came to my HBCU to recruit new hires. “Yeah, man, the regional vice president was giving us heat for having an office filled with white people,” he said. I thought to myself, Sh*t, I’m a token?! Apparently, one very well qualified Black man was enough to fill the quota. Isn’t that the problem with “diversity efforts” anyway? There’s no real investment in parity, only the need to fill a minimum quantity and satisfy a mandate. One.
Being the only can make you hypervigilant about not falling into a negative stereotype. When a white guy walks in and plugs his aux cord into the office sound system, then looks only at me and says, “Whatchu know about this, man?” Do I give him the nod and start reciting the words to “Versace” by Migos? I know them by heart, but is this how I want to be labeled? I knew that doing that would relegate me to being that one thing in their eyes, and I wasn’t having it.
As a diversity hire, that middle space between respect and rebellion can really tip when people start building alliances and establishing informal hierarchies. I was expected to keep producing numbers, but keep my mouth shut at the same time, which was draining.
I decided to speak another language I knew he’d be fluent in: a*shole. I called on my inner jerk and looked at him with a blank stare and kept doing my work. It was tough balancing my authentic self with my professional side as a Black man. I felt like an outcast constantly. I’d come in most Mondays to the common question, “How was your weekend?” I couldn’t tell Roger and Mike that my weekend consisted of Henny, trees, and twerks at a sweaty house party—even though I knew they bar hopped until they were sh*t-faced, dabbled in drugs (they call it “partying”), and did all kinds of reckless crap I’d be arrested for. I’d leave it at a simple, “It was fine.” That worked, for a while. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to work, doing your job, and going home. However, working 12-hour days in an environment where you feel isolated can take its toll on you. That was the first time that I remember feeling alone.
Commonalities are one thing, but performance and overall respect is another story. As a diversity hire, that middle space between respect and rebellion can really tip when people start building alliances and establishing informal hierarchies. I was expected to keep producing numbers, but keep my mouth shut at the same time, which was draining. On Sundays, my boys and I would get together, sip a little, and talk about all the things taking a toll on us. When it got to the topic of work, it appeared we were all having similar issues, regardless of the industry we worked in. One of the best, and worst, things you could do is put five Black men in a room to vent about work the day before we had to return. There is a sense of unity due to our collective experience, but also a greater understanding of how bleak things really are, which made Mondays suck. I wasn’t just sad, I was upset.
As time passed, I began to demand my voice be heard, reacting to the strain my fellow brothers were enduring. By month six, I caught myself having outbursts. I challenged my boss every chance I got. “Why is my passion considered anger? Because I’m Black?!” She would typically respond by saying I was overreacting. I could have very well been overreacting, but in a space where you are made to feel uncomfortable, it’s easy to become defensive. This is where inclusion taps in. Diversity gets us in the door, but inclusion keeps us at the door and away from the table. Amid the frustration, my director (and yes, he was a white male) began to take notice of my performance and became a mentor, advocating for me. He started to acknowledge the struggles I was having and became one of my strongest allies, guiding me through challenging conversations and using his privilege to change the office culture. “I want you to be yourself here,” he said.
It was a game changer for me. Having the support of a person higher up helped me find my voice. I developed a confidence that brought respect. Fast forward a year, and our office is one of the most diverse in the entire company. How? I pushed for more. I knew I wasn’t the only Black person qualified to be there and my decision to advocate for others, and help create accountability, made it harder to turn a blind eye to the current, lily white culture. With the diversity of people came diversity in thoughts and ideas, which shook up the old boys’ club. This also allowed me an opportunity to help those who came after me to find their voices, when most are pushing for their silence.
I won’t minimize the importance of having an employee resource group with true diversity advocates. Without one, it’s impossible to thrive or keep your sanity, in a corporate culture that was designed to promote exclusion and minimize the power of everyone who isn’t a white man.
My first five years in corporate America have further highlighted the need for others to join the fight for change. Being good at your job and happy you got a chance isn’t enough. The isolation and minimizing can kill your soul, your ambition, and your sense of self-worth. Black parents often tell their kids, “You have to work twice as hard.” It can be true. But I think we should change that to, “You need to strategize twice as hard.” Exclusion has created a culture that’s not about working hard, but about accessing power. Should you be dope at your job? Definitely. But hard work alone won’t get you noticed or promoted, or create an environment where you’re not an only. Networking will.
Find your allies. Find your voice. Find your power.
Brandon Samuel is a freelancer for CASSIUS.