I grew up a black kid in white classrooms in Silver Spring, Maryland. I tested well and was considered “gifted and talented”. It meant my classes had cutting edge technology, teachers with fancy diplomas, and books without holes because my classmates’ parents were white. They influenced the county to make sure our classes had great resources. As one of the few black kids in these classes, it gave me benefits at a painful cost.
My teachers were white, my classmates were white, I was black.
I boiled, alone, when my history teacher showed pictures of hungry black bodies, piled up like sardines, in wooden boats during the middle passage. I burned, alone and embarrassed, as overzealous classmates explored the word ‘nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn Read loudly. I
stormed out of the classroom, alone and insulted, when a humanities teacher called slavery a “historical inconvenience.”
But racial isolation can be the cost of accessing black children in our schools. It could have broken me, if not for the dinner table. This is where my parents consolidated my emotional holes from school with cultural foundations.
But that’s also where they taught me the business. They spoke to me and my sister like adult professionals as our pre-teen feet dangled from legs too short to reach the ground. As a result, I entered the insensitive world of capitalism and industry with an intimate understanding of its searing coldness. But at this table, I also learned that the business was ripe for gamification. The
the business game has become a passion for me; a passion that feeds me.
Below is an excerpt from my new book, Black magic: what black leaders learned from trauma and triumph, available February 2.
While my dad seemed to focus on the rules that kept my family physically safe, my mom pushed my sister and I to strategize and be successful. It was his way of providing us with financial security. She taught us the importance of education, business advancement and income as a means for us blacks to ultimately protect ourselves from misinformation, financial predators, and unexpected disasters. The four of us – mom, dad, sister, brother – we sat down to dinner with the family almost every weekday evening in this three story house on the dead end. My parents took turns cooking while my sister and I set the table and listened to Stevie Wonder play in the background. The paintings of my late maternal grandfather adorned the yellow walls of the kitchen. He was a lieutenant colonel in the army and a Vietnam veteran. His paintings depicted people alone with nature. A bullfighter waiting for a charging bull. A camper alone next to a bonfire at night in the woods.
The television was still off. My Xbox was unplugged overnight, so I wouldn’t try to rush over a meal to get back to it. A ringing house phone went unanswered. The door-to-door salespeople stopped coming at dinner time because my dad chased them away. Before a Jehovah’s Witness or unsuspecting Cutco knife salesman could even open his mouth, my father was wasting it.
“We don’t want it and if you keep coming back here it’s going to be a problem,” he said before the guy gave his speech.
My parents protected dinner time because it was their chance to listen to us and teach us who we were and where we came from, before the outside world could impose its Eurocentric perspective on our developing minds. And that kind of enrichment required a high level of isolation and focus on the four of us. No distractions.
My mom was an executive at Verizon for most of my childhood, and she ran our kitchen as her boardroom. Dinner time was regulated. Every time we sat down at our rectangular wooden table, we first said thanks together. We took turns speaking to God on behalf of the family at each session. Then my mom would tell about the day’s activities at home Fortune 500 employer. At twelve, I was familiar with rebranding, layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, stock options, office politics, and the unstated rules of corporate culture. My mother engaged us in these conversations not as children, but as reflection partners. We were engaged spectators as she worked her way up the ranks from entry-level MBA to Senior Director during my childhood. Race was a big factor in every discussion.
She was asking what my sister and I thought she should tell her white boss about her white subordinate who had been undermining her for weeks. She carefully considered our thoughts and comments. I was eleven, my sister fourteen.
We would brainstorm with my dad until we found a solution we could all live with. We were a mini war room. My mom has often reminded us that business is a game, with additional rules, nuances, and risks for black people. But like any game, it could be solved and won. I discovered over time that living as a black person is a game in its own right, with the highest stakes and a similar set of rules.
In high school, I started jotting down the business rules I had learned at our conference table. I have paraphrased some of them here:
- Money controls all important decisions. The closer you get to money, the more valuable and secure you will be as an employee.
- Someone, somewhere, represents you as a human being with a dollar amount attached to your name. This is your capitalist value. Your leverage (or lack of it) can be reduced to this dollar amount. Be aware of this.
- In difficult times, the corporate culture crater. The leverage created by the money you make from the business and the strength of your relationships is your safety net.
- In good times for a business, opportunities for promotions and growth emerge, and the money you earn for the business and the strength of your relationships are your lever to access them.
- Always make your boss look good to their boss, and make sure your boss knows you’ve done it.
- Value is measured by results, not by process. No points awarded for trying hard. No bonus for sending the most emails.
- Do your job before helping others do theirs. You will never be rewarded in a way that you feel is adequate to help other people do their jobs, especially if that help comes at the expense of your job. Do your work.
- If you report an issue with a colleague to Human Resources, be aware that two people will subsequently be closely scrutinized and viewed as potential threats to the business: the person you reported and you.
- Don’t cry at work. Do not do that.
Extract Black magic: what black leaders learned from trauma and triumph by Chad Sanders. Copyright © 2021 by Chad Sanders. Reproduced with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY
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