Living the Dream – Why Must “Skin Deep” Make Such a Difference

I was getting dropped off by a college friend after attending the funeral of a close college friend’s mother when we got to talking about our sons, hers some years older than mine. My son was in middle school. Unsolicited, she said to me, “that’s when I had to make sure my son was careful.” Not sure what she meant, I inquired further. She said, “Judy, my son no longer looks like a boy, he looks like a black man. I’ve already had “The Talk” with him. She said it to me, as if I would know. I had a sense, but I asked her what she meant. She talked about “The Talk” with a sense of logic akin to the fact that the sun rises from the east and sets in the west.

My friend explained to me about “The Talk.” This “Talk” spoke of a danger on the streets, not about ordinary folks, but about police officers. Young black men were educated by their parents about how to behave “when” they got stopped, to not talk back (even if they were wronged) and to always keep their hands visible to the police. Acquiesce… Submit…Clearly, I looked aghast. She said to me, “Judy, my job is to keep my son alive. He can get to the police station and then we can deal with what really happened. I just want to make sure he stays alive.” I left that car ride, shaken and transformed. I thought I was so “woke” but I realized that I lived in a completely different reality.

Bothered by this, I asked one of my closest friends about this and she not only confirmed about “The Talk” but told me that throughout her life in the US, she was followed by store clerks when she shopped. Naively, I asked why. She said to me, “Judy, I’m a black woman. They think I’m going to steal something. I’ve taught my kids to always keep their hands outside of their pockets.”

Hearing their stories have transformed me. For the first part of our friendship, our lives seemed similar — Harvard College, Harvard Business School for me and Yale Graduate School of Design for her, and then our careers. Then we both had girls the same year, and then our boys a year apart. We talked about the joys and travails of motherhood. Our journey seemed so similar. She chose to live in an area where there would be more African-Americans so her children would feel a greater sense of belonging and acceptance. I could relate. I was in a mixed race marriage and my husband and I made sure to live in a town where we knew our kids would not be seen as odd or be ostracized. Before we had kids, well-meaning colleagues suggested we consider beautifully manicured neighborhoods 45 minutes outside of Boston. We would tour those neighborhoods and as beautiful as they were, my husband and I knew that our kids would feel isolated in their multi-racial identity and thus we decided to live close to the city.

Yet with regard to our sons, our roads divided in a way I never anticipated. The thought of protecting my son against police officers never ever crossed my mind. That was never a reality for me, but for my black friends, it was an imperative, a certain education of a responsible mother to her son. This realization has changed the way I look at life forever.

I felt as if I’d been living in LaLa Land when I learned about this reality from my friends. Yes, I am a person of color. Yes I am a woman. Yes I am an immigrant. Yes I’ve been denied housing because of the way I look. Yes, I’ve had racist epithets shouted at me. But never in my life did I have to worry about my family’s safety because of our skin color. Skin color?

Because my husband is half black and my son is a quarter black, it was possible that my son could have looked darker and more black than he does. After this awakening, I would look at my son and just study him. It tore me up to think that if he happened to look more like his paternal grandmother, his everyday life would be so different. His sense of safety in the world, my worry for him of just being a young man would be so demonstrably different, because of his skin color, and nothing more. Not his character, not his actual personhood. Just the color of his skin.

But more than that, I thought, could such a reality alter the dream of his life, his ability to actualize it? Would my dream for him be transformed as well?

Could it be that what he could be, what he could achieve, what he could aspire to, be so discernibly different because of his skin color?

The answer, of course, is that it would be different. How could it not?

My friends’ parental imperatives, based on lived experience, was a wisdom I had to digest. It gave me a new lens through which I looked at my identity, my work, my life.

I began to look at career opportunities, advancement opportunities, pay gaps in a completely different way. I’d already known about research data that proves one’s skin color does affect career trajectory and pay equity. My work has been focused on galvanizing credibility and visibility for Professionals of Color, a.k.a. Historical Power Culture Outsiders. Yet there was an unsettledness I’d not felt before. 

At the core of my being, even from the time I was a kid, when I would fight bullies, I believe in self-sovereignty.  I am strongly rooted in the knowing that each of has has the sovereign right to live out our lives, expressing our gifts with zest and joy. I’ve believed in the promise of the United States and the American Dream; and, I’m one of the recipients who benefited from a mix of hard work and good luck. But this life experience shouldn’t be random chance or a privilege of the few who happen to be born to the “right” family and look the “right” way. 

What I know for sure is that the Dream for Oneself resides within each of us. I yearn for the day when each of us can have equitable opportunity to experience our life gifts.

I also know that allowing the dream to find its way into the expressed world is dependent not only on the dream-maker’s ability to dream but how he thinks about himself, what he spends his time thinking about and importantly, how well all who surround him helps him nurture his dreams into reality. I fear however, that if, at a young age, what becomes most important to a young black man’s daily well-being is self-protection, then dream-making must take a back seat, especially when compared to his white and Asian counterparts who have the opportunity, space and emotional luxury to spend more time in any given day to dream and create because they know they are fundamentally safe, and never have to give a thought to it. Safety, after all, is a fundamental foundation upon which creativity grows.

As I’ve deepened my work in advancement equity and as I review research data that continues to show the lack of brown and black people in leadership positions, I understand that this rite-of-passage warning that that my college girlfriends spoke about illustrates a pervasive societal mindset that occlude The Dream for many brown and black men and women.

It seems to me that the irrefutable evidence of over-indexed incarceration of our brown and black men, which reflects an American mindset about black men (and by extension black people) in our society, must permeate into everyday life. Related to my work of Best Self and Career Advancement, how does this spillover affect the Workplace? How does this affect managers, who are largely white men and women, relate with and assess black men (and women)? How does this societal mindset affect interviews, job selection, project opportunities and promotions? Indeed research shows that black interviewees are consistently rejected more than white interviewees, even when they have the same qualifications. As an executive coach, I know that a key criterion for rising to senior positions is the team’s “comfort” with a potential executive. What constitutes comfort?

As I sit here, thinking of my friends’ sons and the many men who look like them, what I care most deeply about is their opportunity to believe in, nurture and get fairly rewarded for their expression of The Dream.

For any and all of us who can affect the outcome of such persons, it’s imperative for each of us to soberly consider how we are additive or subtractive to the life of each human being. Each of us has this one precious life to live. How deeply tragic that one’s ability to live out The Dream is affected by a matter that is merely skin deep. Surely, we can do better than this as a human collective.