Archive for October, 2011

How I Learned to Be Black (Part II)

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

(This is the second of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)
Lesson Two: On not being black

One day, in a land far, far away, I realized that I was not black.

The pivotal experience for me was a trip I took to Shanghai several years ago. I led an MBA class abroad and that was the occasion of my very first trip to Asia. On my first day there, I was walking down a busy street and seeing the many Chinese people of all walks of life along the way. Some were curious to see me, others polite, but most were indifferent. As I walked, I noticed myself becoming mildly uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I just felt uneasy and the feeling intensified with every step. At one point, I came to a crosswalk and on the other side of the street I saw a tall white man standing there. He looked to be about 35 years old, around 6 feet tall with straight brown hair and pale chalky complexion. As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, “Look, someone just like me!”

In that moment I laughed in delight. At no other time in my life had I instinctively identified with a white man like that. Just like me? That experience shifted the way I thought about myself as a black person. So strong and unyielding was my sense of myself as black that I could not have conceived of viewing myself like a white person. Don’t get me wrong. I can understand intellectually the commonality I have with white people. Truth be told, some of my best friends really are white and I love them deeply and profoundly. And in my younger days, I may have tried to fit into white environments by acting like a white person. But I have never been under the illusion that I was ever one of them. In China, though, I experienced this instant of being the same as that white stranger and it captivated me. It spurred me to ask the question of what if my existential certainty that I was black was not as steadfast as I had thought. Hell, I was in China for one day and I thought and felt (if only for an instant) like a white guy. And by the way, I have no idea if that guy was an American. He was just a Caucasian from somewhere. Who knows, maybe I was identifying with a German white guy.

Prior to this trip, I had lived a life in blackness. Like being a fish in water, it never occurred to me that there was life outside of my color. Intellectually, I guess I could imagine it, but why bother, when it ain’t ever gonna happen. I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and to different parts of the Americas and everywhere I was in the middle of a race/color story of some kind. As the backdrop, all of those places had black slavery in their cultural stories. In addition, my experience in each region had a color-coded flavor. In Europe, I was the exotic black American, beloved for my creativity and my insights on oppression. In Africa, I was cautiously engaged by black Africans. They saw me as similar in skin tone and in experience related to it, but very different by virtue of my national origin (which was usually far more problematic for most of those I talked with).

In the South America, remnants of color bias were apparent, too.
But in China, I felt racially irrelevant. I was unable to tell if anyone cared that I was black and they really didn’t seem to. And in that moment when I lost my mind on the street corner when I was so very surprised I had to laugh? That was true liberation.

How I Learned To Be Black (Part I)

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

(This is the first of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)

Lesson One: How I Discovered I am More than Just Black

I gave an informal talk last month to a group of leaders on what I have learned about myself and my leadership over the past seven years. I reflected on how I have used the tools and techniques I learned from attending leadership seminars facilitated by Learning as Leadership (LaL), a San Rafael, California-based leadership development organization. There, I participated with managers and executives from all over the world to learn how to grapple with my unproductive habits and behaviors and how to institute new ones.

On this day, I was inspired to talk about being black. I was one of only a handful of black people in this largely white gathering, but this was important, I thought. I had always taken comfort in the fact that I’m a black man. Even though being black in the U.S. is challenging, seeing myself that way has provided a source of clarity. When I needed that boost of self-confidence, I could remind myself that I was an intelligent and strong black person. When I needed social support, I knew I could rely on other black folks—even those I didn’t know—to offer it. When unjust events happened to me, I could explain them as a consequence of the intentional and unintentional racial bias that permeates this country.

But the comfort of my blackness has also held me back. When I undertook this leadership training, I entered with the goal of deepening my understanding of myself and of diversity. I expected the exercises and reflections to help me with this. To my surprise, though, over the course of the 12 months in which I participated, race came up infrequently. I found myself much more preoccupied with new concepts like “desired image” which captures behaviors I’ve taken up—both consciously and unconsciously—to try to get others to see me in a particular light. Or the “driving idea” or prevailing anxiety I hold that deep down, I’m really a fraud and not as capable or competent as I think, and worried that others will figure it out and I will be exposed. This was very weird stuff that may have been affecting me in my work and my relationships. With these kinds of things on the table, race fell into the background for me, important, but not central. Had being focused on myself racially kept me from attending to these other really important issues?

The real “aha” emerged when I learned about my “mattress.” That is the term for the psychological habit of preparing ourselves for failure in the activities we undertake. In short, we all have ways of thinking that protect us from the painful thoughts and feelings that emerge when we fail at something we really want to succeed at. A mattress, like a soft landing surface, does just that. One of my stronger mattresses is that that the odds were so stacked against me because of my race that I just couldn’t succeed this time. In fact sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. At times, I am the victim of systemic biases that favor others and disadvantage me. And sometimes I just didn’t prepare well enough. And sometimes (heaven forbid) I’m just not good enough. The beauty of the mattress is that these more ego-based, painful options disappear in the outrage of the blanket assertion that I could have been successful if factors outside my control weren’t conspiring against me. In other words, “it’s not me, it’s you. Or him. Or them. Or the system.

My insight that I have these habits does not negate the fact that real discrimination happens and that I and other black people suffer when it does. For me, that is a fact of life and if you don’t believe it, I have a long list of resources to help you with that one. What I realized was that I was not always skilled at knowing when the real discrimination was happening (and needs to be fought) and when I was protecting myself from feeling pain that had little, if anything, to do with my race. This was not about “playing race cards” or any other such nonsense. It was about learning to be skillful in separating my authentic but incorrect belief that I was suffering because of discrimination from really suffering from discrimination.

I felt like I was beginning to have an experience of myself as larger that only being a member of my racial group. I realized that with expanding and deeper understand of history and culture, my blackness was becoming a huge and nourishing vessel in which to live. And as I said, it helped me in many ways. What I was beginning to explore was that there may have been an even larger, more nourishing vessel in which I was embedded. I was beginning to understand in a much more profound way that I was more than my race. That was lesson one in learning to be black.