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Early on in my corporate career, I took a business trip to San Diego, CA. I was excited to go because at the time, I didn’t travel very often for work and had only been to California once as a boy. This was an opportunity to see one of the country’s most beautiful cities and meet coworkers I’d only ever exchanged emails with.
The purpose of the meeting was to bring together all of the field based teams around North America with their corresponding support functions based out of Atlanta. It was a chance for us to get to know each other, learn and set the tone for the coming year— a new vision for our department. I don’t remember exactly, but there were at least 200 people in attendance and the agenda was packed from the morning main sessions, to afternoon break out sessions and evening activities.
Altogether, it was a great time except for one sour moment that left an impression on me. In the hospitality industry, there is a custom that made me cringe every time I was a part of it. It goes like this…
A group of hospitality leaders plan a big meeting that is located at one of their locations (restaurant, hotel, country club etc). Towards the end, there is always a moment, where the [client] host of the meeting expresses gratitude to the hotel leadership team and staff that served them. It’s done in a roundup fashion, where the General Manager of the location asks his/her staff and front-line employees to stop what they’re doing and stand in front of this group of people to be applauded.
There’s usually an awkward pile up on stage and for a brief moment, the staff receives a roaring round of applause for their service and for embodying some abstract idea that makes the company great. The idea being…”if we can consistently do what you all did for us, to all of our customers consistently, we’ll crush the competition and achieve our lofty ambitions”.
This meeting in San Diego was no different. It was the last day, and right on queue, the host of the meeting prompted us to begin showering the hotel staff with our grandiose display of appreciation. I watched as the hotel’s leadership ushered their team to the stage and filled every possible inch of space to accommodate the bodies that worked so hard to make that meeting go off without a hitch. But instead of pride, I was filled with anger and deep frustration.
As I looked around that room of corporate specialists, managers, directors, VPs and SVPs I could count on both hands the number of black and brown faces in the room. Including me, there was no more than 10 of us out of 200 corporate employees. Of the ten, 5 were specialists (including me) who were all on the lower end of the salary scale, 3 were mid-level managers [one level above], 1 was a Director and 1 was a VP— a gentleman of Latin descent based out of the Mexico City office.
After a few days of being in San Diego, one of the country’s wealthiest and relatively diverse cities, I wondered to myself, where were all the black and brown people? And then I found us.As the hotel staff marched in, the room got browner with each passing second. I felt transported in time— as if we were wealthy aristocrats celebrating our nobility by showering our servants with compliments. Click To Tweet
We were there, but we were the invisible— the cooks, front desk agents, housekeepers and janitors. We were the line level employees, the low wage, blue collar workers who do the real work, while us, corporate, buttoned-up suit-and-tie types, take all the credit from our comfortable ivory tower cubicles.
I used to be them. Having cooked and served professionally in world class hotels and restaurants, I’d been paraded in front of a sea of white faces and thanked for my hard work while trying to conceal the stains on my uniform. I’d wondered to myself on many nights what I would do, who I would be, if I made as much money as those people make. And now, I was that dude. Corporate.
It felt surreal.
For me, that moment was a reminder of just how far minority communities have to go and how imbalanced the industry and systems that supported us were. If we are to believe these environments are fair, that hard work is rewarded and that there are direct paths upwards for anyone willing to climb them, then there is no question I should’ve seen more people-of-color clapping their hands instead of receiving applause that day.
What made matters worse is that the company regularly touted themselves as one of the most diverse in their industry, despite it not being reflected on every level in the corporate workforce and having a headquarters in Atlanta aka Wakanda. To add insult to injury, the company’s direct competitors have actually won awards for their Diversity efforts, while this company…nada.
I tucked my frustration deep down that evening and decided to use it as motivation, to be the difference I wanted to see. But in doing so, my demeanor changed and my [then] white female Manager kept asking me if something was wrong.
Is something wrong? Are you sure? Are you ok? You seem off?
I brushed it off a few times but she kept probing until finally I told her how I felt about the experience. I don’t know exactly what I said, but I recall lamenting about “systemic racism” and “pathways to leadership” for people on the lower levels. Whatever it was, it was enough to trigger her to tell the Director of our team about our conversation, which prompted a series of events I’ll never forget.
At the time, I was in the process of interviewing for a promotion— one I was a shoe-in for and had been working to earn for months. I’d been there for a few years and it was generally understood that I was the ideal candidate to assume the opening on the team. The role reported under the same Director I currently worked for except now, there seemed to be some concerns from my manager, my Director and VP about me.
Is he a racist? Do we really know him? Can we trust that he’s not harboring some deep feelings that could cause problems in the future? I’ve never seen this side of him before.
Somehow, one simple moment of expressing concern about the apparent lack of diversity was putting my upward mobility at risk. A sudden expression of honesty to a manager who probed for details about my feelings was now seen as a reason to halt my growth.
I thought about that moment the entire weekend after that conference and over the weekend decided to speak with a mentor who advised me to draft a personal memo and send it to the leadership team. I wanted them to know that I was apologetic for expressing myself the way I did and that there was no reason for them to question my emotional stability. I was still the over-qualified, hard-working guy that showed up early, stayed late, went the extra mile and was very much interested in growing with the team.
In the end, after some tense conversations, it all worked out and I got the promotion with a raise—though far below what I expected. But the emotional cost of that experience weighed on me.I paid a tax that day for speaking my truth. My honesty would require me to part with some of the social capital I'd worked hard to earn. Click To Tweet
It was the first time of many situations where I would witness an act of unfairness or injustice and do nothing. It was a lesson in power dynamics where I would learn just how much we have to give of ourselves to be granted an opportunity, even if you earned it. It was a reminder that I needed to wear a mask to work If I wanted to get ahead.By my own admission, I tucked in my tail and sold my integrity for $7,130 more than I was making at the time. Click To Tweet
I felt bullied for observing an imbalance and speaking respectfully about it to a manager who probed for my thoughts. I felt suckered for believing I was allowed honest moments at work and like a sell-out for choosing to apologize to ensure I got the promotion. It festered inside of me for months afterwards and was one of the reasons I chose to leave that team after 11 months to move into an even bigger role that came with more money and it’s own unique set of stories.
But that’s another chapter.
The algorithm God’s did a wonderful thing the other day by pointing me to a series of articles by the Harvard Business Review on Advancing Black Leaders. It’s a collection of 5 essays that shed light into the experience of Black people in the workplace and the sweeping failure of Diversity and Inclusion efforts across the country. It confirmed my suspicions and gave me some data points to round-out what I already believed to be true.
According to the research, only 8% of managers and 3.8% of CEOs are Black. Considering traditional 9-5 jobs are the primary source of income for so many of us, if we are unable to secure roles in management positions then we will be limited to lower paying jobs. And if diversity programs continue to flounder then we have even less of a chance to break through glass doors and ceilings.
But let’s dig deeper. If our community’s income remains low, then we have less of a chance to payoff debt, increase savings, invest at higher rates or assume risk to fund businesses. And ultimately, if we can’t create capital and put it to good use, then the racial wealth gap in our country will continue to grow. It’s a vicious cycle that requires comprehensive change to fix it.
Why does this matter?
Well, for us (r&R), we can’t have honest conversations about financial independence without talking about income and the process of earning it. And we can’t talk about the process of earning it, without talking about the deeper, psychological costs jobs have on our lives in and outside of work. We’re not here to bash jobs but we do want more people to put jobs in their rightful place— a means to an end, instead of a pillar of your identity.
In the movie, the Great Debaters, Denzel Washington’s character famously states that “sometimes you have to do what you have to do, before you can do what you want to do“. Those words rang true when I was in San Diego and even today, they’ve helped me to power through many painful moments.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen endless online debates about Stephen A Smith and Jay-Z after the infamous Colin Kaepernick, NFL workout scandal. Not too long before that, the Black female judge in the Botham Jean trial and TV personality Steve Harvey [after his interview with the comedian Monique] were also in the hot seat. All of these cases have a thread of commonality and shine light into that murky grey space somewhere between personal truth and progress.
We’re not here to choose sides but to say, we’ve been there in our own little way. We’ve had to make some awful tradeoffs to get to where we are including sacrificing our physical health, safety and even our moral code. What we’ve learned is that friction is a necessary cost of progress. It’s naive to assume that one can climb a ladder or break through a glass ceiling without catching a few scars along the way and sometimes the worst scars are internal. The only real question that only you as an individual can answer is…”was it worth it”?
Have you had similar experiences in calling out the lack of Diversity at your job? Drop a comment below.