When I was in grade school, I always looked forward to Black History Month. I was one of a handful of Black students at most of the schools I attended until college, so February was the one month of the school year when my teachers and classmates—who often clung to clichés like “I don’t see color”—had to see me for who I was. These teachers and classmates might have meant well, but their decision to actively ignore my racial identity was upsetting.
My parents were baby boomers who integrated grade schools in small, southern cities in the 60’s. Their grade school experience was materially different from mine, and that was a topic of conversation and reflection often in my house. We also frequently discussed how my grandparents’ experiences during the height of the Jim Crow-era were even more traumatic than what my parents dealt with. The message was clear: My existence was the result of people who came before me being resolute and overcoming odds. I was raised to be proud of this fact, not ignore it. By failing to recognize my racial identity and saying, “we don’t see color,” people were choosing to overlook not just who I was, but the people I came from who had endured so much.
Years later when I started my legal career as a prosecutor in New York, there were so many times when it seemed that color was all that mattered: Mostly white judges, lawyers and juries were deciding the fates of defendants who were overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic. During my three-year stint working in criminal justice, my role as a prosecutor was complicated. Was I a lawyer who was Black, or a Black man who was a lawyer? I identified more with the latter, and due in part to that internal conflict, I eventually left criminal law practice.
When I moved into executive search, I told myself that green was the only color that mattered now. Alas, that line of thinking was not just naïve, but it was a fallacy.
While it’s true that my career advancement in the search industry is largely based on objective criteria like my billings, that is not the case for most of the Black attorneys I interact with. While today’s racial bias is rarely as explicit as what my parents’ or grandparents’ generations dealt with, the microaggressions that many of my Black law firm and corporate candidates and clients have experienced in their professional lives can be just as harmful. What’s even more troubling is that microaggressions in the workplace can be a symptom of bigger cultural problems within a law firm or company that ultimately create boundaries for the advancement of Black talent. Moreover, when my candidates or clients raise objections to these microaggressions, they are often met with skepticism or worse, gaslighting.
As a recruiter, I wouldn’t be effective at my job—or true to my values—if I did not validate the experience of the Black professionals who confide in me about their experiences. I am a Black man who is a recruiter, and my skin color doesn’t change regardless of how much revenue I generate. My candidates and clients know and appreciate this. That is why they feel comfortable speaking so candidly about their experiences with me as they weigh their next career move, and the trust they share with me is an honor. It’s part of what makes my job so motivating.
Unlike the teachers of my childhood who acknowledged Black history only in the month of February, I can’t leave my racial identity at the door, and neither can so many other Black professionals. This dynamic became acutely apparent in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s murder. Suddenly Black professionals had to carry the weight of being the go-to person at their organizations for issues related to diversity and racial justice because so many of their white colleagues were just becoming aware of issues that had been discussed in the Black community for years.
The racial reckoning this country experienced became another thing that I brought with me to the office. That Monday in May, I had to go to work, but I wasn’t ready to shift into “work mode.” What happened to George Floyd was personal, not because I knew George Floyd, but because we have had a shared experience as Black men in America.
Somewhere along the way—between my experiences in grade school to now—the expression “I don’t see color” became not only tone-deaf but deeply problematic for me. If you’re authentic about respecting my racial identity, you’re more credible to me. If you don’t see what makes someone different, that is a problem. Being Black is something I’m proud of. I take it into everything I do. I don’t forget it. I don’t let my kids forget it.
And in many ways, the affirmation of identity and shared experience is what has always made Black History Month special to me. I am occupying space in the world, in the workforce as a fulfillment of my ancestors’ dreams. I’ve described some painful things in this blog, but Black History Month isn’t a painful time. It’s a celebration of beautiful things. A celebration of grace, tenacity, resilience, resoluteness. And my identity is tied up in all of that history.
As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I hope we’ll all reflect on how we’re all working to make space for the rich dimensions of the identities of those around us. I hope we move beyond celebrating those dimensions because of what month it is and commit to embracing our differences all year instead of pretending that they don’t exist.