I grew up as a black kid in white classrooms in Silver Spring, Maryland. I tested well and was rated “gifted and talented”. That meant my classes had cutting-edge technology, teachers with fancy degrees, and books with no 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 children in these classes, that gave me benefits that came at a painful cost.
My teachers were white, my classmates were white, I was black.
I was cooking alone when my history teacher showed pictures of starving black bodies crammed together like sardines during the middle passage in wooden ships. I burned alone and embarrassed when overzealous classmates plowed through the word “nigger” Huckleberry Finn Read out. I
stormed out of class alone and insulted when a social science teacher described slavery as a “historical inconvenience.”
But racial isolation can be the cost of black children’s access to our schools. It might have broken me if it hadn’t been for the dining table. Here my parents supported my emotional gaps in school with a cultural foundation.
But that’s where they taught me business too. They talked to me and my sister like adult professionals while our teenage feet dangled from legs that were too short to reach the floor. As a result, I entered the callous world of capitalism and industry with an intimate understanding of its blistering coldness. But at this dining table I also learned that the business is ripe for gamification. The
Business play became a passion for me; a passion that nourishes me.
Below is an excerpt from my new book Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph, available February 2nd.
While my father seemed to focus on rules that would keep my family physically safe, my mother urged my sister and me to strategize and achieve. This was their way of giving us financial security. She taught us the importance of education, business sponsorship, and merit to us as blacks in order to protect ourselves from misinformation, financial predators, and unexpected disasters down the line. The four of us – mom, dad, sister, brother – sat down as a family for dinner almost every week in this three-story house on the cul-de-sac. My parents took turns cooking while my sister and I set the table and heard Stevie Wonder play in the background. The pictures of my maternal grandfather adorned the yellow walls of the kitchen. He was a lieutenant colonel in the army and a Vietnam veteran. His pictures showed people alone with nature. A bullfighter waits for a charging bull. A camper alone by the campfire at night in the woods.
The television was always off. My Xbox was unplugged for the night so I wouldn’t try rushing through a meal to come back to it. A ringing house phone went unanswered. Door-to-door salespeople stopped coming for dinner because my father turned them away. Before an unsuspecting Jehovah’s Witness or a Cutco knife seller could even open his mouth, my father would waste it.
“We don’t want any and if you keep coming back it will be a problem,” he said before the guy got a word on his game.
My parents protected mealtime 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 force their Eurocentric perspective into our developing minds. And this kind of enrichment required a high degree of isolation and concentration from all of us. No distractions.
My mother was a Verizon executive for most of my childhood, running our kitchen like her boardroom. The meal time was regulated. Every time we sat down at our rectangular wooden table, we would first say grace together. We took turns speaking to God on behalf of the family at each meeting. Then my mother told her about the day’s activities capital 500 employers. By the age of twelve, I was familiar with rebrands, layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, stock options, office politics, and the unspoken rules of corporate culture. My mother involved us in these conversations not as children but as partners in thought. We were spectators when she rose from MBA entry to Senior Director during my childhood. Racing was an important factor in any discussion.
She would ask what my sister and I thought she should tell her white male boss about her white female subordinate she’s been undermining for weeks. She thought carefully about our thoughts and feedback. I was eleven, my sister fourteen.
We brainstormed with my dad until we came up with a solution we can all live with. We were a mini war room. My mother often reminded us that business was a game of rules and added nuances and risks for blacks. But like any game, it could be solved and won. I found out over time that life as a black is a game in itself, with the highest stakes and a similar set of rules.
In high school, I began to write down the business rules I learned at the dinner table in our boardroom. I have circumscribed some of them here:
- Money controls all important decisions. The closer you are to money, the more valuable and secure you become as an employee.
- Someone, somewhere, declares you a person with a dollar amount tied to your name. That is your capitalist worth. Your leverage (or lack thereof) can be reduced to this dollar amount. Be aware of that.
- In difficult times corporate culture craters. The leverage created by the money you make at the company and the strength of your relationships is your safety net.
- When times are good for a company, opportunities for promotion and growth arise and the money you make for the company and the strength of your relationships are your leverage to access them.
- Always make your boss look good for her boss and make sure your boss knows you did this.
- The value is measured by the results, not the process. No points awarded for hard efforts. No bonuses for sending most emails.
- Do your work first before helping others do theirs. You will never be rewarded in a way that feels appropriate to help other people with their work, especially when that help comes at the expense of your work. Do your job.
- When you report a problem with a colleague to HR, you know that two people will be investigated carefully and identified as potential threats to the company: the person you reported and you.
- Don’t cry at work. Do not do it.
excerpt from Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph by Chad Sanders. Copyright © 2021 by Chad Sanders. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.
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