The way it is: Black professionals share their experiences, and their ideas for career success
By David Hugh Smith
PART TWO OF A SERIES
The following article is based entirely on interviews with Black professionals. These professionals share experiences they’ve had in the workforce and ideas about how to not be stymied by prejudice or outright discrimination. It is not intended to address issues such as systematized racism.
Okey is a doctor at a hospital in Worcester – an MD devoted to using his knowledge and expertise to help heal his patients. But a few years ago, interviewing for a job, and dressed to fit the profile of a must-hire, two white police officers profiled him far differently.
While walking back to his car, the police officers accosted him, asking questions. Like demanding where he was coming from. And where he was going.
“I was very upset.” Okey frankly said to them: “I don’t understand why you are treating me like this.”
The police officers walked him to his car where his mom was waiting, at which point they “eased off a bit.” He comments: “My white friends have never experienced that.”
Okechukwu Anochie’s parents are Nigerian. But he was born in the US. Like many 1st-generation Nigerian immigrant children he says he was expected to get straight A’s in school and aspire to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. And to go to an Ivy League school. “Don’t tell your parents you want to be a professional athlete or an entertainer!”
That said, times were lean at home. Early on his dad left to return to Nigeria. While multi-cultural Maryland, where he grew up, had a strong Nigerian community, he’s experienced “micro-aggressions, little put-downs.” At Rutgers Medical School there were perhaps three Black males (but more Black women) out of a total of 120.
For his success, “I give God all the credit. Things were not easy. I prayed all the time.”
That said, Okey also has needed to work very hard. Even before graduating from medical school he had an impressive resume, but not a life that had included much partying.
What could have helped him was more mentoring. He did have a couple professors who he said were particularly encouraging. But he believes he didn’t have the advantage of a network of connections such as some white medical students did.
“We need to interact more with each other,” Okey says. “We’re all the same people. We’re all trying to make it in life.” Apropos whites, he suggest they “Try to engage with a Black person. Go to the gym with them, form friendships.”
“To get what you want you have to make it happen. You have to take control.” And that’s what Stephanie Davis has done. As with Okey, Stephanie has worked hard and wisely to experience success.
Stephanie is a data governance strategist for a large company in Boston. It’s a position requiring technical expertise, obviously. And her experience working other similarly high-tech jobs also helps.
“I like the technology . . . . I manage processes and outcomes and coach people.”
Has she had obstacles thrown in front of her as the result of being a Black woman? “Discrimination has been around since the beginning of time,” Stephanie says. But “[y]ou have to be determined. You cannot assume that just because you are not getting what you want it’s because of your skin color or your gender. Don’t assume, don’t personalize, don’t react, don’t judge.”
She adds: “There is a certain grit (required to succeed). You get a little angry (and say to yourself) I will not not be defeated. . . .You (also) have to be really good at what you do.”
Another strategy: “You can start your own job. This world is crying – there are so many things that need to be done, so many problems to be solved. Carpe diem.”
Stephanie was born in the Bronx and grew up mostly in Boston. And she worked her way through school. Throughout college she took time to earn money in order not to go into debt. It took her a long time to graduate – she attended Northeastern – to get the tool set she’s needed. But she doesn’t complain.
One strategy for her success, along, of course, with being very good at what she does, is building relationships. “Life is built on relationships. Careers are built on relationships. Your networking antennae should always be up.”
She recommends professionals “Learn how to read people. Pay attention to titles, collect business cards. Read the news. Just skimming the internet (is helpful. It’s) chock full of names and titles.
“I believe in the power of personal networking and relationships. Most respectable job and career coaches tell you you’re wasting your time throwing your resume into a blind application pool. Today with the way these applications are screened, it’s even more so.”
Stephanie asserts that “There have been too many people who have persevered and succeeded in the face of challenging circumstances and adversity (to believe it’s not possible for each of us also to do this).” She sites polar explorer Sir Earnest Shacklton, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She also mentions Mary Jane McLeod Bethume, who was the daughter of slaves. Among her many accomplishments – too many to list – she founded a college, served at high levels in the federal government, and worked earnestly for racial and gender equality.
Harold Sealls is a broadcasting guy. For decades, after starting in radio, he worked in TV – particularly WBZ-TV, Boston. Much of the time he’s been the behind-the-scenes person operating the cameraman or serving as master control operator. One of the key people enabling the news to be broadcast. However, after feeling overworked, he left, and is pursuing his interest of being an athletic trainer. But he still does voiceovers.
Harold is concerned about today’s working world. “What has happened to us as Blacks is happening now as well to whites” because of automation and corporate mergers. “You’ve got to bust your rear end (just to live a normal middle-class life).
“When there were enough resources to go around – everyone could make it, (although) Blacks were on the bottom. But during the 21st century there have not been enough resources to go around. (There is) a scarcity of opportunity. The majority in the middle are getting creamed.”
In his own industry, he sites important changes. Beginning about 15 years ago, he says, large companies started to buy up stations. Since then, content has been homogenized.
“The (people) who can’t adequately provide (for their families) feel ashamed. It’s such a survival environment. It’s gotten worse for everybody.”
Looking back over the years he has no doubt racism made his professional and personal life more difficult. “Non-whites are defined differently,” Harold says, and not in a way that is helpful.
“You are in a position where you are scrutinized more. And if you blow an opportunity (you might not get another one).”
Harold gives an example: At one station where he worked he would, on occasion, arrive five minutes late. This being Boston, where traffic can provide total uncertainty in terms of arrival times, lateness can happen. But he soon noticed his white colleagues were treated with more dignity and understanding than he was when they had hit a snag getting to work.
“Most white people are not bigoted,” Harold says. And younger whites are even less likely to be racist. Nonetheless, being white, is still an advantage. Including in terms of income – in general people of color earn less than whites. “You’re always seen by your color.”
Harold recommends Blacks work to gain stature in what they do in order to use this stature to defend their status. They have something a company wants so this can be used as leverage.
Another recommendation: “Every workplace has a different culture. You have to find a place where you fit. A culture where you survive.” Unfortunately, in the new corporate environment, conformity is very important.
In terms of finding others who might support your success: “You attract the people who are finding the best in you. Those who are progressive.
“Find someone who is in the business. It can be challenging but doable. Find out about them. Can they guide you?”
Harold says he had “a wonderful upbringing. I was given all the tools necessary to navigate society, to make it anywhere I went to the best of my capability.
“My dad was my idol. A role model, (exemplary in terms of) principle, integrity. All of the intrinsic values. How do you treat people. You treat everyone well. Basic old-fashioned values. Growing up we knew white people. That gave me the ability to (know how to interact with) white people.”
He also says “It’s important to not let society define you. I define who I am.”