“You speak and write so well,” an older white woman told me after reading a press release I had written as a twenty-something public relations coordinator working for Ellen Tracy in New York. I remember thinking she meant it as a compliment. I knew this signalled she had likely never been in the company of educated, polished Black men — a cultural deficit if you will.
I was taught to accept racism as a way of life and avoid conflict. My family often managed my expectations and ambitions as a Black man. The older white woman was a friend in the office and someone I admired. I simply said thank you, knowing her intentions were good. These kinds of experiences were common throughout my career as a public relations executive.
Growing up in suburban Virginia, I understood from a very early age what being Black meant. At the age of five, I remember going into the bank with my grandmother and noticing that she spoke with a special, more elegant accent when addressing the white teller and conducting business. I would later learn that this was a conscious attempt to be accepted and respected as a Black woman who had lived in the South at a time when Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation, which had long-lasting effects on the psyches of Black Americans.
My parents went to some of the first desegregated high schools in Virginia and, as adults, would often reference the injustices they experienced in the workplace: being overlooked for promotions, being denied salary increases or suffering disrespect at the hands of their white colleagues. Being simply happy to have a job and be doing better than former generations of our family, my parents, aunts and uncles accepted the opportunities that were presented to them with gratitude, even if racism was inextricably woven into their career paths.
I was taught to accept racism as a way of life and avoid conflict.
I decided early on in life that I would not shy away from pursuing my aspirations. Growing up middle class certainly helped. So did my experience at Howard University, which celebrated Black culture through an academic lens and reinforced the positive images and rarely shown communities that I had grown up with and knew to be the norm: the Debutante Balls, the Jack and Jill summer programs, the upper-middle-class Black families that we knew existed, all of which gave me a sense of pride and understated confidence.
And yet I encountered plenty of racism. The thing about racism is that it sometimes manifests itself in subtle ways. And as an optimist, I learned to ignore these racial microaggressions and compartmentalised my feelings about race relations in an effort to pursue my career.
After university, I moved to New York, began working in fashion and first faced the rub of subtle racism for myself. It was humiliating trying to catch a taxi as drivers blatantly avoided picking me up, crossing three lanes to collect white passengers instead. Soon, I realised that if I wanted to make my meetings on time, I would have to order a car service.
In 2006, I moved to London to work for Miss Sixty and later Asos. During a social outing with a friend, I mentioned that I thought a store salesperson was racist. At the time, I lived in Marble Arch, which was walking distance to Selfridges, and I often frequented the store dressed in athleisure. After working out one evening, I popped in for a browse and was followed around by a security guard across multiple floors which made me very uncomfortable. My British friend said: “Race is an American issue. We have class here.” I still wonder which is worse.
In 2008, I moved back to New York to work for Condé Nast as a merchandising editor at Details magazine. At the time, I was the only Black person on the entire floor in editorial or advertising. The only other Black people were the mailroom staff. One of my colleagues asked me, “Why do the mailroom guys always stand around and talk to you?” I couldn’t explain that my presence was a positive accolade and that when Black people see each other doing well, it’s a win for the entire community. I was proud to be there and welcomed the irrelevant water cooler banter.
“You write and speak incredibly well.”
“I didn’t think you were Black from your name and voice.”
“You don’t really read Black.”
These are just a few statements my white colleagues and industry acquaintances have made to me over the years. Despite being intended as compliments, they are racist statements.
I now live in Los Angeles. One night, I was at a famous LA restaurant called Craigs, known for its celebrity clientele. The owner of the company I was working for took his executives out for dinner weekly and it was a privilege to be invited. During our dinner, at which I was the only person of colour, a frequent patron of the restaurant who was also Black walked by the table and said loudly: “I see you guys finally integrated.” My colleagues all laughed and the chief executive, having noticed my displeasure, quickly smiled and asked if I knew the gentlemen. Of course, I know every black person in LA, I thought to myself facetiously. His attempt to deflect my obvious emotional distress by asking if I knew the guy only made things worse.
I never said anything. But these are just a few examples of the subtly racist moments that I have had to experience — and ignore — throughout my career to earn seat at the table.
Kevin Fegans is the founder of The Communications Bureau, a global communications, marketing and brand strategy agency based in Los Angeles.
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