“You speak and write so well,” an elderly white man told me after reading a press release I had written as a 20-year-old PR coordinator who worked for Ellen Tracy in New York. I remember thinking she meant it as a compliment. I knew this was a sign that she probably had never been around skilled, polished black men – a cultural shortage if you like.
I have learned to accept racism as a way of life and to avoid conflict. My family often met my expectations and ambitions as a black man. The older white woman was a friend in the office and someone I admired. I just said thank you knowing her intentions were good. These kinds of experiences were common during my career as a PR manager.
Growing up in a suburb of Virginia, I understood from a young age what being black meant. When I was five years old, I remember going into the couch with my grandmother and noticed that she spoke with a special, more elegant accent when she addressed the white counter and did business. I would later learn that this was a deliberate attempt to be accepted and respected as a black woman who had lived in the South at a time when Jim Crow’s laws were enforcing racial segregation, which had long-lasting implications for the minds of black Americans.
My parents went to some of the first segregated high schools in Virginia and often referred as adults to the injustice they experienced in the workplace: being overlooked for promotions, being denied wage increases, or disrespect by their white colleagues. Just happy to have a job and do better than previous generations of our family, my parents, aunts and uncles accepted the opportunities that were gratefully offered to them, even though racism was inextricably linked to their career paths.
I have learned to accept racism as a way of life and to avoid conflict.
Early on in my life I decided that I would not pursue my ambitions. Growing up in the middle class certainly helped. So was my experience at Howard University, which celebrated black culture through an academic lens and amplified the positive images and rarely showed communities I grew up with that I knew were the norm: the Debutante Balls, the Jack and Jill’s summer programs, the upper-middle-class black families we knew existed, all made me feel proud and restrained.
And yet I ran into a lot of racism. The thing about racism is that it sometimes manifests itself in subtle ways. And as an optimist, I learned to ignore these racial micro-aggressions and split my feelings about race relationships in an effort to continue my career.
After college, I moved to New York, started working in fashion, and faced subtle racism for the first time. It was humiliating to catch a taxi as drivers shamefully avoided me from picking me up and instead crossed three lanes to pick up white passengers. I soon realized that if I wanted to meet on time, I had to order a car service.
In 2006 I moved to London to work for Miss Sixty and later for Asos. During a social outing with a friend, I said I thought a retailer was racist. Back then, I lived in Marble Arch, walking distance from Selfridges, and often visited the shop dressed in free time. After an evening of exercise, I stopped by to browse and was followed by a multi-storey guard, which made me very uncomfortable. My British friend said, “Race is an American issue. We have lessons here. “I still wonder what’s worse.
In 2008 I moved back to New York to work at Condé Nast as a merchandising editor at Details magazine. At the time, I was the only black person on the entire floor in editing or advertising. The only other black people were the mailroom staff. One of my colleagues asked me, “Why are the boys in the mailroom always talking to you?” I couldn’t explain that my presence was a positive award and that when black people see each other well, it is a victory for the whole community. I was proud to be there and welcomed the irrelevant water cooler.
“You write and speak incredibly well.”
“I didn’t think you were black with your name and voice.”
“You don’t really read black.”
These are just a few of the statements my white colleagues and industry acquaintances have made to me over the years. Despite being meant as compliments, they are racist statements.
I now live in Los Angeles. One evening, I was at a famous LA restaurant called Craigs, known for its famous clientele. The owner of the company I worked for took his executives out for dinner every week and it was a privilege to be invited. During our dinner, where I was the only person of color, a regular customer of the restaurant who was also black walked past the table and said loudly, “I finally see you integrated.” My colleagues all laughed and the director, who had noticed my displeasure, smiled quickly and asked if I knew the gentlemen. Of course I know every black person in LA, I thought funny. His attempt to avert my obvious emotional distress by asking if I knew the man was making matters worse.
I never said anything. But these are just a few examples of the subtly racist moments I’ve had to experience – and ignore – throughout my career to get a seat at the table.
Kevin Fegans is the founder of The Communications Bureau, a global communications, marketing and brand strategy agency based in Los Angeles.
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