In the preface of my second book: From the Water’s Edge – Volume II, I wrote about the pandemic and being: “forced with billions of other souls on this planet to retreat within“… it was in the process of quarantining ourselves that we came front and center with some uncomfortable truths which caused many of us to reexamine our values and notions of purpose.
As the supply chain stalled and we hoarded, consumers took note of their buying power, using it to influence their communities and the world that we share with the goal of leaving it in a better place than we found it in. In 2022 we now have hyper-informed consumers who will abandon brands that don’t support their new values while paying more for those brands that do.
There is no shortage of leaders giving full throated endorsements to the causes of groups that have been historically marginalized – making it difficult to discern if these acts come from a place of sincerity or if it is just an act of self preservation – one of the ways that this is done is via performative allyship. This is an action taken by organizations where solidarity is given to a cause without the prerequisite actions needed to support diversity, equity and inclusion.
This assumed solidarity is weaved into the value statements of the organization and given voice to in the public sphere and internally, but it is essentially lip service which ends up being harmful to historically marginalized groups, in short, it is tantamount to a bark without the threat of a bite. The “ally” claims alignment with the cause to isolate themselves from potential scrutiny – this partnership is usually one sided, a tool to burnish their brand image, not a call to empower the marginalized.
It is an unspoken burden that people of color are forced to contend with… now in my capacity as a Black man who has worn many hats in corporate spaces, I’ve been told to get over it so many ways… that when I hear a new iteration, it makes me laugh (you’ve got to).
Any concerns are discounted as coming from a lack of appreciation which is usually interpreted to mean:
“Shut your pie hole... You should be glad to be here!”
This perpetual feeling of unwelcomeness exists despite there being “diversity” in theory – a few disparate faces in “leadership” roles who check the boxes, but the rank and file typically doesn’t always reflect the reality of the world that is shared.
This has echoes of a corporate stop that I had at a Fortune 100 company once – my experiences at this venue stand out as one of the most racist and toxic environments that I have EVER been a part of… it gave me pause about the fickleness of humanity and how fragile our sense of self can be in these environments if we aren’t careful.
During my time there I recall a myriad of instances where the dueling microaggressions and passive aggressive personalities became too difficult to ignore. There were several events which stood out, one them included this exchange, as I waited for a guest speaker on the TEAMS call to be introduced and there was a lot of cross chatter:
Talk of golf games, their latest wins, how many vacations they were taking, how their implied greatness… contributed to their success as a person… and why everyone needed to emulate them. It was in these settings where they would subtly begin a campaign to root out those who would prove unwilling to sacrifice their humanity and personhood to be in this pantheon of the esteemed… by becoming their willing avatars/clones. In retrospect this sycophantic environment was a contributing factor to an attrition rate in the excess of 40%… there was always a revolving door of people as they constantly searched for ideal candidates who would fawn and extend deference to them which made me think of some of the most notorious cults of personality.
And so it began… keeping in mind that the set purpose of this call was to be motivational and inspiring… the guest speaker was showered with accolades and the introduction floored me:
“This guy here, he is amazing… He is the next Donald Trump here folks!”
Upon hearing this I immediately felt triggered and unwelcome, I made reference to this to the HR department on the following day…. and they brokered a call with a Director who subsequently dismissed my concerns with:
“Oh, it was just a joke.”
She pivoted to towards the time honored retort that I alluded to earlier… her response served as a testament to the dearth of inclusion in the workplace.
I was told to… get over it.
Gaslighting at its best… it was implied that I needed to keep my head down… and get over it, because it was all in my mind.
All of the rumblings, consternation, warnings and dismay that I was given about this organization by others when I came onboard seemed to come full circle.
One of the saddest and most revealing moments came later…
I remember sitting down with a manager for lunch where I mentioned my desire to move into a communications role after doing the prerequisite 12 months in the role and he met my proclamation with derision… “So, you don’t want to make six figures?” he asked incredulously as food fell from his mouth:
“Oh you want to be a little writer?” and he smirked when he said it.
When he eventually discovered that I was an author with a lengthy portfolio to my credit, it seemed to surprise him and anger him at the same time. As it became apparent to him that I could not be brainwashed into this mindset of pledging undying fealty to the organization in exchange for a “six figure” benchmark as a stamp of my worth.
The environment got progressively worse after the result of an anonymous employee survey, where collective dismay was expressed throughout the organization, but instead of taking the data from the employees and implementing changes… they attempted to weed out who the malcontents were. It was sobering to see “leadership” lash out and branding whoever dared to express their experiences as unsuccessful, including one point during a TEAMS conference where the assembled were told “if you don’t like it… then leave!” (several people did resign soon afterwards).
Then… came this ham-handed attempt at inspiration, featuring a story about a Navy Seal and perseverance.
This was an particularly uncomfortable exchange as the speaker, one of the leaders, who referred to the subject in the video, not by his name but as: “An African”… this guy he was a prince… an African…” while shaking his head as if his triumph was unbelievable, all while ignoring the fact that there are over 50 countries comprising the continent of Africa… what country was he from I wondered? Sadly, what seemed to be implied was that it was not important.
It felt as if a message was being sent and I felt uncomfortable again.
It served to be an omen of sorts.
And it came during the confines of a team building call which followed immediately after… this exchange came by way of a person I’ll call “Paulie”, who was one of the few Black people in leadership and he was held in high regard who declared forcefully as I listened stoically:
“Alright… I’m gonna talk about Black people… and I can say it because I’m Black… and if you don’t like it, I don’t care! That don’t got nothing to do with me… and if you ain’t Black, amen!”
And… he goes into a tome about how he was the first in his family to make six figures, somehow inferring that Black people are predisposed to struggle and prone to coming from nothing… but now he was redeemed and that if you didn’t follow his lead to make six figures then you were a failure. This was said in front of a team of 11 people, several of them, including myself were African-American… I took note as some of my colleagues shook their heads in agreement… this served as the final straw for me and I found the door for a hasty escape with my values and sanity intact.
In these corporate settings – organizations do themselves a disservice by poisoning the minds of their workforce to see others who look like them as a threat to their position within the organization and they attack, unaware that they are cannibalizing themselves, in the cruelest act of self hate.
Which begs the question… what kind of leadership is this and what do these values say about who and what we serve?
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