Michael A. Tennant unapologetically shares hard truths about white supremacy in the US. He generously shares his personal experiences as a “striving and high-achieving” Black professional and the shared experiences among people of color more broadly. He holds nothing back as he counts down 10 common phrases that reinforce inequities, microaggressions, and racism.
My life has been a transient one, but in a way that is not uncommon to a cohort of striving and high-achieving Black people and people of color more broadly. One where academic or athletic achievement thrusts us into a world very much unlike the one we once called home, one more akin to the dominant world order. A world that perpetuates white supremacy. The worlds of academia and corporate America.
I grew up in Black and Hispanic Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City — a proud, bustling, albeit under-resourced, ghetto — in the 1980s and 1990s. It was, to me, a wabi-sabi-like1 bundle of joy born from white flight in the aftermath of the 1968 race riots, like those sparked by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most famous example of national outcry against public attack on Black bodies in the US. The violence that arises out of a broken social contract; the opposition to a system that encourages and protects breaking the law and committing violent acts that aim to protect white supremacy.
These public violent attacks grab headlines. However, there exist even more pervasive private attacks, attacks on our collective psychology that have a disproportionately negative effect on Black communities — sometimes subtle and other times very overt racial propaganda. I’m talking about the stereotypes and microaggressions that serve to subjugate Black people. Thoughts, that in the right conditions, like the cases of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, escalate into murder.
I first learned about these racist whispers when I left my home in Brooklyn to attend an elite private boarding school. The behavior I experienced wasn’t a surprise. My teachers and mentors, who had identified and groomed me for this opportunity, also took great care to warn and prepare my family and me. And boy, did these future white leaders of America not fail to disappoint.
I could build a list of overt transgressions, often described as “boys being boys.” But instead, I want to bring attention to the constant reminders of my race and socioeconomic status, as a means of undermining my merit. It’s that part that stuck.
In this microcosm, I learned to exist in this sort of empathetic dissonance. A world where white is right and Black is wrong, no matter what. Racial animus is invisible, yet audible like a dog whistle for those attuned to hearing it.
Well, this list is meant to tune your ears with 10 subtle, or not so subtle, phrases and microaggressions that protect the white male supremacy status quo in the US.
#10: “There Are Two Different Kinds of Black People. Black People and N*****s.”
We lead off with a gut punch.
Most people who read this will feel their chest clench up and their body temperature rise. I know, because that’s what I felt when I wrote it, or the hundreds of times I’ve heard it. This phrase, popularized by comedian Chris Rock in his mid-1990s comedy tour “Bring the Pain,”2 is just one of many stereotypes to have graduated from the depths of private conversation and Black subculture into popular culture, which somehow gave white people permission to think, repeat, and believe such phrases.
We must ask ourselves, have I heard this before? Are such labels or dichotomies racist? What am I doing by repeating them? And how would I feel to hear it tomorrow?
Make no mistake, this “joke,” like the remaining nine points on this list, is 100%, unequivocally, universally, and objectively racist! Now let’s move on.
#9: “I Can’t Say/Pronounce That, Do You Have a Nickname?”
Perhaps no other microaggression reinforces normalization of the white Anglo-Saxon ideal more than the common conscious disregard of people’s names.
One’s name can say a lot about a person’s history, which oftentimes has negative implications if you aren’t part of the dominant group. Historically, family names served to place people in their class. For example, my last name, “Tennant,” referred to a farmer who held his land from an overlord by obligations of rent or service. Many of our Jewish, Italian, and Asian brothers and sisters have, in their history, instances of family members altering their names to fit in.
Choosing to use a name that is uncommon here in the US, but significant to one’s national or cultural identity, is a choice to be proud of one’s history despite the threat of not blending in. This is the context that often goes unrecognized, when white colleagues quit before they start, in learning to pronounce or spell someone’s name. It’s a privilege of those that belong, one that excludes those who’ve been included more recently. It’s insulting and also invalidating.
If Americans can learn to pronounce names like that of Duke University head men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, they can learn to pronounce and spell names like Nii Ato and Tennesha. They just have to be willing to recognize the bias that prevents them from ever trying.
#8: “Oh Wow. I Never Had to Learn That. I Just Wasn’t Taught That in My Schools.”
This one is a bit more palatable. I went to all Black schools (until high school), where there was a significant focus on Black history in America, as well as in Africa and the Caribbean. I would later learn that this was completely unlike the experience of many of my white and even Black or other non-white friends. I learned that the American education system grossly omits or boils down years of Black achievement and oppression when we teach our children history.
Our past shapes our present, our disadvantages and our advantages. The systematic omission of Black history robs all of us of a true understanding of the contributions and resilience of the ancestors of 14% of the US population and reinforces a distorted narrative about merit and causality.3 Plainly stated, it diminishes the importance of the role of Black people in the advancement and wealth of our nation, and it absolves present-day white society of responsibility for maintaining the inequalities that still exist.
If you did not learn about Black history as a kid, you have to ask yourself, why? If this question seems like a bother to you, you might also ask yourself, why? But I’ll help you. The answer is racial privilege. We venture on.
#7: “You Still Think Racism Exists, Especially After Obama?”
The election of President Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, was a joyous moment that shocked me and people like me. I, sadly, never thought I’d live to see a Black president.
With the rise of the alt-right in our country, it might be said that his election produced many ripples, positive and negative. It helped give communities of color hope that the American dream is actually accessible to all. Divisive politicians use it to persuade citizens to believe the inequities in our country have been eradicated or, worse, flipped to disadvantage white people.
The leadership of Barack and first lady Michelle marked a breaking through of a monumental color barrier. It would also reinforce the status quo in many ways. The symbol of achievement they represent signaled that significant progress had been made for Black Americans and, ultimately, helped women’s rights take priority over racial equality for the next eight years.
People needn’t look far beyond their employers or even local government to see a lack of representation of Black leadership. Or they can look into their children’s school curriculum, where they find omission of the real history of genocide and slavery that built our nation’s wealth. Or even nearer, to their social media feeds, neighborhood associations, and even inner thoughts, to find stark segregation and generalizations born from a history of systemic and cultural racism.
White America, I ask that you catch yourself the next time you reference a high-achieving Black celebrity, colleague, or friend as an example of our country’s progress. Such referencing minimizes that person’s achievement and obscures the racist systems, racist psychology, and the effects of lifelong and generationally endured traumas. A commitment to unlearning racist tendencies means resisting the urge to use achievements of the extraordinary few as the strawman defense of our nation’s neglect of the disempowered many.
Our society needs an understanding of how and why we got here if we are ever to penetrate the armor of individuality and guilt. Are we so afraid to acknowledge the past that we are willing to ignore the history of Black oppression that surrounds us?
As we navigate through these difficult times, take comfort knowing history has taught us that what benefits the most marginalized of us benefits all of us.
#6: “They (Insert Black Employee Here) Would Be ‘Perfect’ for This Project (Insert Project Targeting Black People Here).”
Though our country prides itself on individuality, we tend to group ourselves and others more often than we recognize. My field of marketing and advertising relies on grouping people. We examine society and generate hypotheses on how to make a connection with millions of individuals. We find large groupings with similar thoughts and behaviors and develop strategies and messages to connect with them.
While “audience definition” is part science — data, surveys, interviews, and measurement — a lot of art and intuition goes into it as well. In reality, more often than not, audiences are defined by the people who are in the room where the definitions are being created. In an attempt to generate accurate, socially aware, and inclusive “audience profiles,” teams will “cast” for representative participants from their existing employee base to solve for potential biases that may arise. This model cannot solve for unconscious bias. In fact, every layer of this model protects and even validates bias. The data collection and even analysis are often conducted by non-Black individuals, who aren’t asking questions about what the data does or doesn’t show about Black communities.
When we cast from the pool of Black employees that exist within an organization that lacks Black representation, the opinions received represent, at best, a narrow segment of the Black population. We get the opinion of “safe” Black people. Black people who have learned to exist and survive in white-dominated contexts by not being too disruptive. This frequent act of tokenism gives employees a seat at the table but in a marginalizing way. It says, “You aren’t perfect for every project. Just the projects that target Black people.” It overlooks representation issues and exemplifies implicit biases that we subconsciously accept.
Black people are not a monolith. Our community has beautiful nuances, not limited to common descriptors like economic background, sexuality, country of origin, and education. Disregarding these facts ranks high on the spectrum of systemic and cultural racism. As with any other group that celebrates its individuality, we ask that you stop trying to put us in a box.
#5: “One of Your Colleagues, We Won’t Say Who, Felt the Way You Addressed Them Was Too Aggressive.”
All aggression isn’t created equal.
On our TV and mobile screens, in boardrooms and even public offices, aggressiveness is a virtue, so long as the person wielding it is white and male. Women, historically, have been socialized to be less assertive in professional situations and fight a double standard as it relates to aggressiveness. Rather than assertiveness being a sign of strength and leadership, women displaying it may find labels like “disagreeable” or “temperamental” being applied. For Asian employees, the perception of them as being “analytical” and possessing “high intelligence” garners them a pass on needing to strengthen interpersonal skills, if their assertiveness happens to attract negative attention.
Sadly, the culturally biased stereotype of Black people as “dangerous aggressors” is often used as a means of gaslighting ambitious and non-subservient Black men and women in business. Common tropes of the “angry” Black woman or the “threatening” Black man force individuals to contemplate and apply exceptional care not to disrupt the status quo. Plainly put, we have to shrink ourselves in order to be invited back the following day.
Even today, when a Black person is faced with accusations, bias prevails. Instead of receiving due process, invisible accusers are often given the benefit of the doubt. Workplace disagreements are always difficult, but we have to do a better job of acknowledging how bias might lead to unfair judgments in subjective situations and disproportionately marginalizing and punitive treatment for Black employees.
I personally have experienced instances of making it through the door, only to have it shut in my face for something I did or said but never had the opportunity to address. I take the time to ask myself, “What could I have done differently?” I ask my non-white colleagues who have encountered similar situations to ask themselves if the biased stereotype of Black people as aggressors might have been at play in their lives.
The racially biased view of Black people as aggressors actually serves to create a psychologically oppressive situation for the few Black representatives in majority-white environments. True allies bring this awareness with them as they do their part in dismantling racist systems.
#4: “Racial Diversity Is Not a Priority Right Now. Diversity of Thought Is What We’re Focused On.”
Too often when Black people or people of color raise an issue or opportunity born of their lived experiences of racism in America, they are met with a minimizing response. Every time that happens without intervention, a significant blow is dealt to the trust between persons of color and the environment in which they exist.
In workplaces, meeting rooms, and schools across the country where Black students, employees, and leaders are a small minority, it is common for them to face challenges to be perceived as credible and to attain psychological security. If you are Black or a person of color operating in white-dominant environments, you learn quickly that you risk forfeiting any social gains attained if you make statements that challenge the racial status quo and equilibrium. However, if you agree that we live in a racist system, then you must acknowledge that progress will only come through disruption.
To reference the James Baldwin quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If the issues that shape experiences for Black people can never rise to the level of being a priority, they will never truly be faced. When white people determine the priorities and goals and exclude the priorities and goals of Black people, that action serves to reinforce a racist system.
Until we have leaders, of all backgrounds, who are willing to challenge the status quo and wade into the uncomfortable experience of creating racial progress, we will be mired in a continued state of thinly veiled attempts. An aggregation of regressive incrementality.
My actions protect my self-respect, values, and boundaries. I’ve learned that spaces that refuse to see my experiences as a priority are not spaces that merit my investments of time, talent, or money. As I learn to push past the fear of offending my white colleagues, I embrace and model bravery and vulnerability. And I ask my allies to do the same.
#3: “We Have Corporate Diversity Training.”
I must concede that it’s been a few years since I sat in a corporate diversity training. I also want to honor the dedicated and passionate people that are advancing this field of work. I will also warn that my inner corporate cynic speaks out on this one.
My experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have, for the most part, been underwhelming. They would look like this:
For weeks, intraoffice posters and emails raise excitement and remind employees about the once-a-year, mandatory diversity training. Most people grimace at the time commitment amidst their regular workload. A few scoff at the necessity of the training at all. And even fewer, usually from underrepresented groups, look forward to the training with anticipation.
We have the training, which is often led by an overwhelmed HR leader and a consultant. The program is lacking in interaction and lands as a bit rote. As a call to action, there’s usually an invitation to volunteer for affinity groups, which are populated by the underrepresented individuals in the company and a handful of their empathetic and high-achieving white colleagues. These groups meet periodically, then plan an engagement or two over the course of the year.
The high-achieving white colleagues receive promotions, after being lauded for their citizenship and corporate engagement — a shining example of the organization’s racial progressiveness. The white ally leads the way … and we end up right back at the following year’s diversity training touting any statistical wins HR has been able to author.
I know this isn’t a complimentary view. I wish I didn’t have it, but I know I’m not alone. If this view bothers you, do what you can to make sure your actions coming out of this latest wave of Black Lives Matter activism don’t end up landing like this!
Black and other non-white candidates are paying attention to how companies support employees. Think about how you would like to be viewed and take real actions to make sure you can be proud of the values you exhibit.
#2: “We’ve Increased Our Leadership Diversity to Include More Women and People of Color.”
Numbers do not lie. Or do they? Depends on the story you are trying to tell.
One of the most pervasive and ubiquitous microaggressions against underrepresented groups is the eagerness to group us all as one, for statistical purposes. While we’ve seen progress in overall diversity and for women in leadership positions, there are issues that this progress overlooks.
To begin, grouping women, Asians, Latinx, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities into one bucket has an odd effect of pitting underrepresented groups against one another in a Hunger Games-like competition to siphon incremental gains from the white male hierarchy.
It seems benign enough. Especially grouped within a narrative of statistical gains. However, the problem is that this collective acceptance, from both the underrepresented groups and the dominant white male hierarchy, leads to an entrenched belief that this form of incrementality and protection of the white-privilege status quo is the answer.
As we close out the decade, data shows that white women are the biggest winners coming out of the last 10 years of progressive cultural and social gains. In 2019, 21% of those in C-suite positions in the US were women, but only 4% were women of color.4 Companies have increased representation of women in C-suite positions by an impressive 25% and commitment to gender equality by 13%, while showing a 5% decrease in representation of women of color and no meaningful change in microaggressions toward women.5
We need significant systemic and psychological progress that goes deeper than the numbers. When you look at the entire picture of representation, you will see the reality of disproportionate opportunity and advantage. Diverse representation is not just adding more white women; it’s making your leadership team look, statistically, as close to representative of the US population as possible.
#1: “I Don’t See Color.”
My last distinct memory of this microaggression happened during the first week of my last job in corporate America. After consecutive years of success developing results-driving and award-winning campaigns for the P&G and Coca-Cola brand portfolios and rising in the ranks of branded entertainment, I was recruited to join the executive team of a major global media agency as head of branded content.
As I was getting to know the existing executive leadership, I sat down to drinks with one of my senior-ranking leaders. Nervous, ecstatic, and eager, I used the opportunity to share about my background and path to this meeting and to hear about his. Later in the evening, a few drinks in and nearing our exit, I turned to the leader and with bashful sincerity, shared my gratitude for being trusted to lead this new venture for the agency. I acknowledged the bold nature of hiring a young Black man to do the job.
This vulnerable moment landed like a record scratch.
I couldn’t place it then, but it appeared the comfort and familiarity I’d fostered was disrupted. He responded to me that the country he was from didn’t have the context that we have here in America around race, and, as a result, he didn’t see color. He said, “I see you as a man or person, not as a Black person. Race has nothing to do with it.”
I felt completely awkward for the rest of the night. I attributed it to the drinking, which, suddenly, no longer felt right in this situation. The trust was gone. I’d exposed my most guarded insecurity in the hope of attracting an ally. But instead, I triggered his fear about acknowledging my race. His comment was seemingly innocent, but it diminished my trust and set the stage for my future tenure.
While I managed to secure many wins in this role — increasing billings, growing a team, and securing industry accolades — I struggled to secure cultural and interpersonal fit. I never sat in a single executive team meeting, though my understanding was that the role would have that access. I fell into a bureaucratic quagmire between two related but opposing reporting structures that didn’t have the time, or incentive, to set me up to succeed. I presented my bold ideas with youthful confidence, overcompensating for my insecurities about not fitting in.
In truth, I needed extra guidance and support navigating these new dynamics, personalities, and politics. I needed access and transparency to hearing opinions of my work. I needed goals and the support system to realize them. Most of all, I needed to feel trusted to do my job well. I needed validation that they believed I was the right person for the job.
From that one moment, when I vulnerably asked to be seen as I was, to my last day with that organization, I never felt safe. And so, they never truly got the most out of me.
A Cohort of Curious and Compassionate People Waiting to Support
Our lies about the effects of race in our schools and places of work serve to reinforce psychological and systemic racism at significant weight and cost. The role of race in our history, inequities, and collective psychology remains whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, and the option to ignore it is the epitome of white privilege.
We all enter the professional world with biases, beliefs, and habits. It will take proactive and ongoing efforts by organizations and the individuals within them to keep the current openness and momentum around issues of bias and to generate change.
At Curiosity Lab, we’ve begun to host workshops that help organizations to strengthen core competencies in creating safe spaces for marginalized communities, to listen and create action plans for inclusivity, and to recognize and address bias. The tools exist and are being created to facilitate this necessary cultural change. Start from within and trust there is a cohort of curious and compassionate people waiting to support your efforts.
The author would like to thank Nii Ato Bentsi-Enchill, MA, Ed.M founder/head coach, Avenir Careers, for his help with the initial editing of this article.
1In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is “a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection” (Wikipedia, 2020).
2“Chris Rock — Bring the Pain.” YouTube, 1996.
3Rastogi, Sonya, Tallese D. Johnson, Elizabeth M. Hoeffel, and Malcolm P. Drewery, Jr. “The Black Population: 2010.” 2010 Census Briefs, US Census Bureau, September 2011.
4“Women in Management: Quick Take.” Catalyst, 11 August 2020.
5Huang, Jess, Alexis Krivkovich, Irina Starikova, Lareina Yee, and Delia Zanoschi. “Women in the Workplace 2019.” McKinsey & Company, 2019.