The Only Black Guy in the Office

Black Employees Are Diversity Ambassadors by Default

I’ve accepted this fact and figured out how to use my powers for good

Illustration: Michael Kennedy

A few weekends ago, I bagged some clothes and kicks that had been collecting dust in the back of my closet and dropped them off at a local donation center. ‘Tis the season for spring cleaning and whatnot. What can I say, I’ve always been one for giving what I can to those in need. It’s the fulfillment for me.

This everyday, tax-deductible act — along with the world slowly but surely opening back up — got me to thinking about how I pay it forward in my professional life. My general workplace demeanor might be to keep to myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m stingy with knowledge. I’ll drop game on my direct reports and neophytes at the job when I can. And Clubhouse offers a digital forum to share wisdom (albeit in virtual rooms with people who are the literal worst). But throughout the pandemic, I’ve been missing the experience of getting out and meeting prospective colleagues and peers in person and really getting to connect with folks in my own industry.

In the Before Times, I’d leap at any chance I got to speak with students at my alma mater. Back in my collegiate days, I always felt like exposure to professionals in my course of study made my education worth the massive student loan debt. Seeing people who looked like me making big moves at major companies was always powerful; their impression made an even bigger impact if they were also HBCU grads like me.

As I’ve previously written, there’s a myth that an education at a historically Black college or university doesn’t prepare you for the real world — I knew that was a lie long before Kamala Harris became the first Black vice president. You see, when I was back in undergrad with nothing but a dream and a badly fitted suit, I attended career days and lectures that hosted women and men who’d graduated from HBCUs and became directors, VPs, and even CMOs of Fortune 100 companies. They not only inspired me but they showed me that I too can have a seat at the table like Solange and I can actually be at the head of it.

I’m still working my way up the ranks, but I’ve got much more than a bag of scuffed Nikes and old sweatshirts to offer. I’m sure my past employers realized that. But it wasn’t lost on me that there was likely some intentionality behind the panels, conferences, and job recruitment events for which they enlisted me. It felt a bit like being a Black mascot (Blascot?) — a poster child to help cultivate a BIPOC workforce and show just how much the company values diversity. Blah.

When I’d get to speak at HBCUs or professional conferences catered to Black attendees — away from the surveillance of colleagues or company partners — I knew I could give my perspective straight with no chaser.

Regardless of the underlying motivations, I’d usually be flattered when I got invited to these engagements, especially when I got to talk about my favorite subject: the astounding reality of being Black in corporate America. When I’d get to speak at HBCUs or professional conferences catered to Black attendees — away from the surveillance of colleagues or company partners — I knew I could give my perspective straight with no chaser.

(I pick and choose my spots, though. Sometimes I will decline conferences intended for general attendance, because honestly, the only thing more stressful than being the only Black guy in the office is being the only Black guy at the conference. Talk about awkward silences!)

When I started sitting on these panels a few years after graduating, I’ll admit, I didn’t have the best mentality. I think back to that first speaking opportunity, and all I remember is ego. I wasn’t a high-level executive, but I sure did have that young, fresh-out-of-college swagger (and a properly tailored suit). Every chance I spoke, I found a way to make it about me. I was so dead set on telling my story and trying to inspire the student attendees that I forgot the whole purpose of being there: To show them how they can be successful.

Since then, I’ve adopted a much more humble approach. I’ll talk to students about what they might expect in the real world and how they can navigate corporate America should they go that route. I’ll elicit specific questions at the start rather than trying to cram them at the end. If I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll exchange contact information with the inquirer and put them in touch with a more-informed peer in my industry. And since I’ve had the experience of working at Black and White companies, I tell students the common misconceptions and benefits of each.

By making my time with students more about them than about me, I usually came away feeling inspired, like a full-circle moment that reminded me of my journey. This is why I continue to speak on panels and at industry events. It’s important for professionals — especially Black professionals — to share our learnings with the young Black aspirants who are following in the trails we’ve already blazed. If diversity is the goal, we’ve all got to play our part. Even if it’s not in our job description.

Do you know him? Is it you? The trials and tribulations of a Black man navigating corporate life.