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Controversy: Black, Brown, White, and Blue

Okay, you may ask why did I pick a photo of Prince for this article? The answers are many:

1) He has always been one of my favorite songwriter, performer, musicians;

2) The caption "IT'S ALL ABOUT BEING THERE!" (lyric from his song "Uptown" on his third album Dirty Mind released in 1980) is essential to the message. Apparently, I cannot be a change agent in the current cycle of racial inequality and justice because of the color of my skin. I am okay with that BUT I want and need to be an ally. Contrary to popular belief an ally cannot just be silent, invisible, or color blind (i.e. "I don't see color") it IS all about being there. To be an effective ally you have to show up.

3) He is a good icon for the subject matter as although he was black (both parents and all four grandparents were black) many people thought he was mixed race, gender queer, and bisexual. As with all things Prince who knew and as far as his fans go, we don't care. We see him as one of the most talented performer and musicians of the last century. Don't like his music, okay, go watch him play the last solo on the Rock And Roll Music Hall of Fame tribute performance to George Harrison of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" ( ). If that doesn't move you you may be dead inside.

Why am I, a person who checks white for race, no disability, not a veteran, not hispanic/latino, and gender male on all of my applications writing an article on race? Great question. I believe that we all need to get over ourselves, start working together, honoring our differences, recognizing the color of a person's skin, and acknowledging that we ALL have had and continue to have different experiences of life. AND this does have to do with business, economy, jobs, and all of the things we claim to want to learn about and do on LinkedIn. We need to stand up for equality, let those at the forefront of the issue lead, and be strong allies.

I got more out of reading D.L. Hughley's "Surrender White People (Our Unconditional Terms for Peace!) and Richard Wright's "Native Son" than I did from either Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" or Shelly Tolchuk's "Living in the Tension (The Quest for Spiritualized Racial Justice)". No offense ladies and no disrespect to Mr. Wright but D.L. Hughley's work got to me most as I enjoy good satire and humor; it hits me at my core (his introduction alone about his experience as an American Airline's Concierge status customer demonstrates things some of us take for granted). I also learn more from my Black and Latino friends than my White ones about race. I am not White Anglo Saxon, both sides of my family came to the U.S. to avoid being killed in Russian, Poland, and German cities (I think you can figure it out). But THAT does not matter; that is not what is important right now. Just as the U.S. Congress should reach across the aisle and start working together and listening to each other we as a people have to do so across racial lines. Being "color blind" is not a solution and in fact it contributes to the issue. Just as I don't want to be viewed as WASP (because I am not) most, if not all, of my Black and Latino friends do NOT want to be viewed as people of color but as Black (some want to be called African American but none of my Black friends do) and as Latino (some want to be called Hispanic but none of my Latino friends do). We don't need to be color blind... We need to be color respectful.

We have to get to know each other on an every day every way basis. Some learning may be humorous like when I learned Black people can get sunburn when at 19 I dated a Black woman and we spent all day at the beach. When I went to put my arm around her and she pulled away. At first, I thought she was angry with me for some reason but then she told me that she was sunburn. After a brief and awkward conversation starting my incredulous and ignorant query: "Black people can get sunburn?" We became closer because another element of my ignorance came crashing down and I saw/knew her more clearly. Or, at the end of that same relationship, I learned she was forbidden by her parents to continue to date me because I was white AND Jewish. That hurt me to my core! It was not the first time I experienced hurt because of who I was but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Could I learn any of these things from my white friends? Not really, but just remember stuff like that happens to your Black friends EVERYday because of the color of their skin so shed no tears for me.

From our businesses we have to reach out and make an effort to hire people that are different than us (whether it is race, nationality, sexual preference, gender orientation, religion, mental ability, economic status, physical ability, etc.). Too many of my business associates complain about not being able to find qualified candidates. When you look at their job descriptions and see their recruiting efforts you see they are alienating massive portions of the population (can you say institutionalized racism can lead to lack of opportunity? AND lack of opportunity can lead to being locked into your current economic status?). I am not saying that there are certain things only minorities can do BUT I am also NOT saying there are certain things only White people can do. Get it?

Some of my mentors told me not to write this article because it might alienate some people in my network. That is ironic because I would hope this would bring everyone together. We need to start having the uncomfortable conversations, taking novel actions, and reaching out. I am not saying we need roll around on the floor in our white fragility and do nothing (or even worse wallow in self pity) that is really boring and boorish.

I am not sure how this affects companies and culture outside of the U.S. but I have always believed that the mixed salad is much tastier than the melting pot. Both of the cultural models have ruled some peoples' school of thought and action for a long time. Frankly I vote for the mixed salad. I want people across the spectrum to find commonality (the mixed salad) while maintaining their unique flavor (NOT the melting pot). In so doing our nation will grow stronger, our economy will grow, and our solutions (i.e. products/services) will have more impact and appeal to a wider audience (can you say "increased market share"?). Maybe it is gauche or crude to talk about improved race relations, support, and equality in terms of economic outcome but LinkedIn is a professional website and professions are made of people. And people make up markets. And so on.

I am not a Kumbaya, let's hold hands, think nice thoughts, and we'll all get along kind of person. But I am an everyone has a story and the more we know, the more interesting life gets. One of my hobbies is writing. I enjoy non-fiction but my love is fiction. I once had the privilege of attending a reading by Dennis LeHane (one of my favorite authors). He gave a brief "how to write" seminar afterwords. I learned many things about writing that day but one thing I relearned (as I had heard it probably one hundred times before) is in order to write interesting stories you have to live an interesting life. I cannot think of a more interesting life than getting to know as many people from as many different races, nations, religions, genders, sexual orientations, ages, veteran status, physical abilities, mental abilities, economic statuses, and so on. Not just superficial "hi, how are you?" Not tell me why Black people feel that way (by the way, do not do that to the Black, Latino, Jewish, and other minority (or different than you) friends you have... just because we share that attribute or characteristic does not mean we represent everyone who has that attribute or characteristic). Acknowledge that others may have had a different experience than you.

I have a Black friend in Seattle that I nicknamed Poindexter because he is Harvard educated, speaks with a eloquent Ivy League accent, wears suits almost everywhere, is in great shape, and groomed to the nines at ALL times. Most of my other friends (Black, White, and Latino) are more urban; if he were British he could easily be on the cast of Downtown Abbey. I love him but he ticks me off on a regular basis (as I do him). I was appalled one day when we were at Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, Washington where he was going to return an item of clothing he had received as a gift. He had no gift receipt but the person who gave him the gift told him it came from this store. He was not sure if he wanted the money, store credit, or an exchange. Regardless we went to the person behind the counter and explained the situation. She was less than helpful. After several attempts she started raising her voice to us. Having never experienced this kind of treatment from this store before I began to wonder if it had something to do with P's skin color. When it became obvious he was getting nowhere (or even moving backwards) my friend took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said something to the effect of "I apologize Mark but things may get ugly now." I had no idea what he meant. But he turned to the worker and he started talking like my more urban friends do (if you don't know what that means just think swearing, loud, leaning in, pointing, exaggerated mannerisms). And then he dropped the bomb "Are you acting this way because I am Black?" My whole body got warm, my heart started racing, and my breathing started getting shallow. I didn't know what was going on. The last time I had experienced anything like this was when my best friend of ten years and I were fighting and he ended it with calling me a Kike and a Jesus killer. I was like a deer in the headlights. I was no longer a person, this boy's best friend, I was a Kike and Jesus killer. Regardless that is sort of the feeling I had when P asked that question (in reverse but the same). And then I saw one of the weirdest things I had ever observed up to that point in my life. The cashier turned pale, stopped shouting, sort of bent her head down a little and started apologizing to my friend, and meeting his every demand. When the entire transaction was complete P turned to me and asked "Did that upset you?" I told him I was not sure what just happened and I didn't know if I was mad at him for doing what he did or simply upset that it worked so quickly and so well. I had never seen White guilt played out or played like that before. I did not know what to think. Here was my friend who I loved and respected (Harvard educated, great shape, well groomed, well spoken, you know all of things I was not, I was more like an untrained golden retriever puppy at that time in my life) who, by my judgment, lowered himself to manipulate a minimum wage cashier at a department store. And the effectiveness of the manipulation was appalling as well. The transaction went from what should have been a simple interaction between a customer trying to return an item and a shop clerk who could handle/manage that process. For me, it devolved into a demonstration of the racial tension, prejudice, and inequality that lies beneath the surface most of the time (and at present erupts because of the tension created by this everyday subtlety or ignorance).

What is the point of this story? I think the point is that we need to get to know each other better, have the difficult conversations so we can all be REAL and EQUAL with each other. We need to see each other, respect each other, and move forward together in understanding and support. This does not happen when we lie to ourselves and say color doesn't matter, everyone is the same, and blah blah blah. I think then and only then can we break down institutionalized racism and other inequities. Whatever I observed at the department store that day was the first time I viscerally understood that you cannot ignore who a person is (be it race, nationality, economic status, physical ability, intelligence, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, etc.) and be able to create economic equality (at least in opportunity) and everywhere else in our society. From that day forward P and I became better friends because I no longer ignored that he was Black (which I didn't think I was doing but that day I changed my mind). It's slightly different than the Native American proverb: "Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasin's" (or the many other versions of that expression). I believe that day in the department store with P I walked maybe 10 feet in his shoes and in the decade or so since I think I am still a few hundred feet short of a mile but I'm getting there.

A catchphrase I often use slightly modified may be a good way to end all of this diatribe (hopefully meaningful and perhaps slightly impactful but diatribe nonetheless): we all need to get to know each other to support everyone leading a better life so that we may all enjoy a better world!

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