Posts Tagged ‘african american’

10 NOV 2017: African American Teaching Fellows John E. Baker Legacy Dinner Keynote Address

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Martin’s talk is entitled The Whole Human Being: Teaching Black Students to Thrive

The African American Teaching Fellows is a non-profit organization that recruits and trains African-American students to become teachers in Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools. Each year, its John E. Baker Legacy Dinner features a keynote address on a pressing issue facing the community and celebrates local citizens who emulate the legacy of John E. Baker. In the first three years of the event, AATF has given awards to individuals who have dedicated their lives to the service of others and to the support of education and we have recognized young professionals who have shown the potential to become leaders in the community.

Why Black Professionals Need to Learn to Drive a Stick Shift

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Maybe it’s because I’m sitting in my local auto repair/dealer lobby waiting for my oil change. I woke up this morning with a metaphor when I reflected on the advancement of black professionals in corporations. The more I read and learn about stereotype threat, the more I liken it to sitting in a running car, your feet poised to make that sucker go.

To understand the analogy, you need to know that there are two kinds of transmissions that make cars go—automatic and manual. The more familiar of the two these days is the automatic transmission where you move the drive stick from Park (P) to Drive (D). Then you place your right foot on the accelerator and off you go. In addition to (D), automatic transmissions have two or three lower gears that are used when you want to slow the car. If you try to drive at high speeds in a lower gear, you use up lots of gas and potentially wear down your engine. Simple enough.

Progressing through a corporate career is like driving the car. Putting the stick in the right gear is akin to developing oneself and building one’s skill set. Pressing the accelerator is effectively performing. If you perform, your car(eer) moves forward (corny, I know, but you get the point). However, a significant body of research tells us that the process of career advancement is more nuanced for black professionals. A variety of barriers—discriminatory practices, racism, internalized dysfunctional behaviors—interrupt the natural progression for otherwise highly talented black professionals. One such barrier, stereotype threat, is the psychological experience that materializes when negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group. When stereotype threat kicks in, a member of that group is likely to become anxious about her or his performance, which in turn, may hinder optimal performance on a task. This probably occurs because working memory is compromised so the individual just can’t process thoughts as efficiently. Interestingly, the individual need not subscribe to the particular negative stereotype to be vulnerable to stereotype threat. So for example, if a pervasive stereotype about blacks is that they are less intelligent, tasks that highlight the importance of intelligence are likely to trigger the stereotype and hinder a black person from performing well on the task.

What does this mean for how black professionals move through their careers? Imagine that normal career progression is driving an automatic transmission car in (D) and zipping along. Stereotype threat abruptly downshifts the car to first or second gear. If I want to combat stereotype threat and maintain my speed, I have to use a lot more fuel, and incur much more wear and tear on my engine over time. The life of so many black professionals in corporations is precisely this. They constantly exert greater effort than white counterparts do because they have to manage stereotype threat while also preforming the work at hand. They experience physical and emotional stress and when all is said and done, they typically cannot progress to the levels commensurate with their talent. They depart their careers feelings of resentful and carrying a sense of diminished self-esteem that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If this analogy holds, though, how do we understand the many black professionals who are wildly successful in spite of the stereotype threat they face?

They learn drive a stick shift.

Although most cars today are automatic transmission cars, there was a time when manual transmission or “stick shifts” dominated the highways. With these cars, the driver manipulates the drive stick. However, in order to make the car move forward the driver has to manage two pedals—an accelerator and a clutch. The right foot occupies the accelerator, but the left foot must deftly press and release the clutch, pressing it all the way down when the car is at a stop and slowly releasing it while the right presses the accelerator simultaneously. As the speed of the car increases, the driver manually shifts the stick to higher gears. When the coordination between clutch movement, accelerator pedal movement and stick shifting is off the car usually stalls, and goes nowhere. When the synchronization is right, the car zips along.

Successful black professionals manage their careers like mindful and skillful drivers handling a stick shift. They learn to use the clutch to release the pressure of stereotype threat, simultaneously pressing the accelerator to move their career forward. Absent the distraction of stereotype threat, they are able to make career decisions (like choosing or refusing stretch assignments) strategically. Put another way, they shift gears at the right time to make sure the car doesn’t stall.

Careers develop in an organizational landscape. Successful professionals possess talent—that is a given. But successful careers are crafted and navigated through, with attention paid to developing strategically important relationships, managing politics, and learning continuously. It is incredibly difficult to attend to these career demands while also worrying about the ways in which stereotypes attributed to you by virtue of group membership might be shackling you. Successful black professionals learn to free themselves of these shackles by utilizing a different kind of transmission, one that makes visible the tools needed to overcome limiting ways of operating. Automatic transmissions are convenient and elegant, but their automaticity makes it difficult to alter dysfunction: it costs an awful lot to fix an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions, on the other hand, reveal more clearly the inner workings of driving.  It’s easier to feel the car, to know when it’s running smoothly or when the engine is stressed. And it is easier to adjust when dysfunction emerges. Successful black professionals thrive because they are masterful drivers who choose the right kind of transmission.

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.

Why Everyone Needs to be a Token

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

I feel sorry for anyone who has never been (or will never be) a token.

I was reminded of the value of tokenism in an unusual way last week.  I attended the National Communication Association 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco and I went to a very thought –provoking session on “Solitude and Distraction” by Dr. Mara Adelman from the Seattle University’s Department of Communication.  The part of the workshop that captivated me was the segment on solitude and the power and importance of being alone.  It made me remember my days as the only black faculty member, first at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and then at Darden.

There are lots of downsides to being a token and a good deal of research over the past 30 plus years (starting with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic book, Men and Women of the Corporation) has described them:  receiving heightened attention that creates extra pressure to perform;  being excluded from important social and professional networks;  being prevented from moving into non-stereotypical jobs (e.g., women were more likely to be stuck in HR or staff jobs that were seen more as “women’s work”).  Not only that, but the presence of visible tokens lulls others who share that token’s identity to believe that they, too, can make it, even though the reality is that very few people like them will, in fact, make it.
Given all this, it’s no wonder that most see tokenism as a bad thing.

But what occurred to me at the session I attended was that there is also a value to experiencing yourself as alone.  Too often, we covet the presence of like others because it counters all the bad stuff I just described AND it leverages the age-old adage that there is strength in numbers.

But these benefits shield the cost of numbers.

When I was a token in my early career, I often felt isolated and kept to myself.  As a result, I learned some powerful lessons, many of which I recalled in the workshop:

  • Heightened attention provided opportunities to shine. When I first learned about tokenism and critical mass, I learned that some tokens have amazingly positive experiences in their organizations.  They are successful in their work and are often well-liked.  Now there are some interestingly dysfunctional reasons for this phenomenon like: the majority highlights a token member as way to help the majority feel good about itself as it uplifts the poor token; or the reason the token is so good is because the average tokens never get to be a part of the organization.  Only tokens who are extremely capable ever gain entrance, so of course they are successful.  They are, as the saying goes “better than the best.”  But in this kind of situation, the token can garner resources and social capital that allow her or him to flourish.
  • I was able to draw on my creativity in unexpected ways. They say that when you are in a trying situation—one in which you have the capacity to overcome it, but not easily—you are able to actually able to learn and perform more effectively.  I became more innovative out of necessity.  My research became sharper and more interesting, in part, because I sat alone so long thinking about it.  My teaching improved as I became more comfortable being myself in class (see the next bullet) which was, for me, an innovative approach to being in the classroom.  If I was going to be successful in my endeavors, I realized that I could not easily rely on that which was external to me; I had to fend for myself.  Necessity was indeed the mother of invention.
  • I was more reflective in understanding my identity as a black person because that identity was so salient. Being the lone black person in these organizations meant that my race was always in the foreground for me.  Lots of social psychological research reminds us that it is difficult to forget the factors that make you unique when you are placed in a context in which you differ dramatically from those around you.  In an interesting way, I became more attuned and aware of what it was like to be black.  I read more and reflected more as I sought to make sense of my experience.  This deeper self-knowledge is one of the benefits of solitude.

The caveat I will add to all of this is that strictly speaking, I was not operating in solitude.  I was a member of an organization and that meant there were people all around me.  Indeed, it was that social milieu that helped define my experience.   Other people were the referents I used to experience myself as different.  But what I found illuminating as I reflected on the workshop was that one can be profoundly alone even among lots of people.  That is often the life of the token.  But that life need not be one of anguish and desperation (at least not solely).  It can also be a life of energy, renewal, and strength.  It can really be quite nice to be unique.