Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes. —James Baldwin
You have to know with absolute confidence that there are whitefolks who would fight and die for you, more than anybody you ever met in your life. You just haven’t met them yet. If you believe otherwise, then you will fall victim to the one thing that kills all success, which is fear. If there is some part of you that honestly feels that all, most, or plenty of whitefolks are just smiling faces with ulterior plans to betray you, then looking over your shoulder will deter you from any goal. Bury that fear, and prove it every day.
So there’s a bit of paranoia in the following: “Anyone who doesn’t care if you fail is, by definition, an enemy.” This is a general rule in corporations and business. Everything is not dog eat dog, but trust in business is hard won and super valuable. You must have people who trust you, and whom you trust, with your career. It may not happen for 10 years. Work on that too. This is a two way street. You need to show people that you are invested in their success, and people need to show you that they are invested in your success.
Here’s my primary advice:
1. Don’t make work the focal point of your experiments in social relations. That’s too risky; it puts all your eggs in one basket. Make work the focal point of being excellent. Period. You can be as cold-blooded as you like at work. It’s not a good strategy but there is nothing wrong with being “all business”. In fact, if somebody tells you that, take it as both a compliment, and as an invitation to be friendly. But the point here is to learn, share, and all that offline. Then bring that game to work, when and if you are comfortable. Just because you lose your job doesn’t mean whitefolks hate you. Just because you have a white girlfriend doesn’t mean you get promoted on the job. Two different monkeys, two different circuses. But it’s more important that *in your life* you have real friends and associates of all stripes.
2. The world is never going to fully understand your black world. That includes me. The most comfortable way to communicate a particular or potential conflict of values is to phrase things like this. “Where I come from, respect was very important. So I hope you don’t mind if I hesitate to call you Bob, Mr. Fisher.” Sure, call him Bob, or Bob Fisher if you must. But don’t make it a sticking point.
But as a corollary, Americans will understand black culture, because it’s American culture. I can tell you that in 1992, if you said “What’s up with that?” in any business conversation, you might as well have had a bone in your nose. Today, pierced noses are no big deal. Well, they are with my customers, but I deal with finance and aerospace. Which leads to:
3. Every business culture is different. The only way you get to know American business, really, is to be in a consulting company. So say what you want about ‘white’, what works in New Hampshire does not work in Colorado does not work in Florida, and Texas and California have three different worlds each. Oil Services is not Health Care is not Finance is not Online Advertising. The only thing that works across the boards at all of those companies in the ‘consulting standard’, which is the nephew of the WASP standard. You know how that works, it’s just another mask.
4. Be prepared to deal with the end of your blackness. As long as you have a dog in the fight of ‘race relations’, then you have to feed that dog. You may feel you have to be a role model. You may feel you have to take a stand ‘in solidarity’ with some political or social stand that is race related. But guess what, ‘blackness’ is not in your control. All you can control is the amount of emotional investment you put into showing and proving. How much you pick up that burden is entirely on you. The bottom line is that if you are being *yourself* somebody ‘white’ is going to tell you “You don’t seem black.” And somebody ‘black’ is going to tell you “You don’t seem black.” If you make that your problem, well then it is your problem. It sure the hell ain’t mine, because my name isn’t ‘Black Mike Bowen’. So I don’t have to answer to that name. Unless I want to, until I don’t want to any more, unless I do again.
The longer answer is here in my essay called My Black Life Doesn’t Matter . I am in a very very comfortable place. You’ll get here. I’ll pour you a bourbon.