Working on hard mode: Being black in corporate America

"I'm climbing up a corporate ladder that was designed by people who dehumanized and antagonized people with my skin color."

One of the best representations of race I’ve seen in media was in South Park: Fractured But Whole. In it, the way to increase the difficulty was by making your character’s skin darker. As we end another week of protests in response to police brutality, more people than ever are being exposed to a reality we’ve known our entire lives.

As a black man with aspirations to be a leader in two overwhelmingly white industries, advertising and gaming, it can be disheartening. I’m climbing up a corporate ladder that was designed by people who dehumanized and antagonized people with my skin color.

I’ve smiled and bit my tongue through a boss at a previous employer telling me that a white coworker threatening "to f*** me up" in front of other staff members wasn’t grounds for termination, countless dog whistles like "wow you’re so articulate," and listening to my nonblack coworkers say that black culture wasn’t an important thing to message towards.

We walk on eggshells because there are Amy Coopers at every level of corporate America - they’ll be your ally until they're the one being called out. The scary thing for a junior employee is we don’t know who those people are, so we have to whitewash ourselves for everyone. 

The hope is that one day we’ll be in a position of power so that won’t be the case. Yet every round of layoffs, C-Suite announcement, and industry event reminds us how much of a pipedream that is.

The majority of leaders in almost any industry are white. Moreso, a significant amount of them are insidiously moderate about diversity—they’ll recruit some new black talent every couple of years, maybe get a chief diversity officer, but they have no intention to change how the company runs. They just want to do the bare minimum to get some PR.

The one good thing about working from home is that Zoom rooms and Slack channels are much safer spaces than a conference room. I have been able to process a lot of what’s going on with the coworkers that I know I can trust. There are no Amys lurking around, and no people trying to be a part of conversations that aren’t for them.

I do believe that the majority of my nonblack coworkers are coming from a good place, but much like America’s police force, there are some bad apples that have corrupted the whole bunch. If you’re white and afraid to call out one of your coworkers for being racist, imagine how hard it is for your black coworker to do so.

What I hope nonblack people take away from all of this: Before you write that LinkedIn post about how proud you are to offer to take your black coworkers shift, take the time to listen and understand the realities they face. After you listen, realize that they are probably watering their experience down for you. After that, delete the draft of that performative post, and find real ways to elevate and empower black voices within your industry.

I need to do more. You need to more. Everyone around us needs to do more.

*This is just MY experience and perspective. Please don’t let this be the only black voice you listen to.*

Zach Stubblefield is currently in his third rotation of Ogilvy’s Associate Program. He runs a newsletter about gaming and advertising that you can check out here. 

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