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Black Faces in White Places10 Game-Changing Strategies to Achieve Success and Find Greatness
By RANDAL PINKETT JEFFREY ROBINSON PHILANA PATTERSON
AMACOMCopyright © 2011 Randal Pinkett and Jeffrey Robinson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEstablish a Strong Identity and Purpose
Thank you [God] for allowing me to see myself the way you see me.
—Kirk Franklin, "Imagine Me"
IDENTITY IS NOT particular to African Americans, but it can present some unique challenges. Everyone asks themselves certain general questions: What are my values? What principles do I stand for? What are the beliefs I hold near and dear? However, for African Americans, having specific answers to these questions is of paramount importance, especially when you inevitably find yourself in environments that challenge or attempt to define you based on racial stereotypes, baseless assumptions, or ignorance. Establishing a strong identity can be the difference between thinking that people who look like you can succeed at anything and knowing it to be the case.
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You may be a Black youth growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, which was Randal's experience. Or you may be a recent graduate from a historically Black college or university experiencing your first foray into corporate America. Or you may be the sole person of color in a company or a city that lacks diversity. In each scenario, as you become more attuned with your identity, you fortify your ability to stay true to who you are in any situation, and you prepare yourself to effectively deal with any circumstance that challenges your core being.
As the first dimension of Black faces in white places, identity is a complex subject. But we believe it is an important and appropriate topic to confront early on because establishing a strong identity is a vital component of the foundation on which you can build careers and businesses and undertake other activities that will transform your life and the lives of others. It is also an important consideration for parents raising children in a race-conscious society.
To do this the right way, we'll need to start by defining a few things up-front.
Your identity is comprised of all those things that make you, well, you. Identity represents all of the characteristics for which you can say, "I am . . ." When we talk about identity we are actually talking about three aspects of the same idea, as shown in Figure 1–2:
* Personal identity (how you define yourself)
* Social identity (how you define yourself in relation to society)
* Identity negotiation (the interaction between your personal identity and social identity)
Society may seek to define certain people as African American based on their physical characteristics (social identity). However, those same individuals may not define themselves as African American. By contrast, there are people who do not look Black (that is, they could "pass" for white) who still define themselves as African Americans (personal identity). The process of working through all of these considerations is the negotiation of identity.
Personal identity represents the myriad things that make you unique. It embodies characteristics such as gender, height, weight, physical ability, and race. The formation of personal identity happens early in our lives, and parents play an important role. They tell us if we are a boy or a girl. Parents teach us language and are the first to tell us about our relationship to the world and to each other. These are defining moments that paint a picture of who we are.
For African Americans, you can't underestimate the role of parents in the process of forming a positive racial identity early on. The Pinketts were among a small number of Black parents living in the mostly white and Jewish town of East Windsor, New Jersey, who decided not to leave the development of their children's racial identity to chance. They helped form a group called "Our Kids" that provided opportunities for their children to interact with other Black children through trips to museums and amusement parks and homegrown cultural events like Black History Month programs, where the children starred in short plays. Sometimes the activity was as simple as just getting together at someone's house to have a meal and hang out.
The importance of their identity as Black people was further reinforced in the children through a Kwanzaa celebration. Between Christmas and New Year's, the family lit red, black, and green candles in a Kinara, with each candlestick representing one of seven principles (more on that later). Under the glow of the candlelight the family said out loud what each of those principles meant to them. It is these kinds of experiences—no matter where you live—that can help reinforce a positive self-image.
Of course, there are things that we learn on our own as well. We learn that we are tall or short by comparing ourselves to others. We observe that some students are better at math while we may be better at science. We learn that we are faster or more athletic than other children our age. Both of us learned we had athletic ability, for example—Randal while pursuing several competitive sports from junior high school through college, and J.R. (Jeffrey Robinson) while playing basketball in a competitive league through church.
What we learn about identity on our own is heavily shaped by communities, schools, friends, and extended family members. These influences—for better or for worse—are beyond our parents' control. Parental influence diminishes as we reach adolescence and the influence of peers becomes one of the most significant influences on personal identity, either serving to support a strong sense of who you are or making you question your identity.
Your social identity defines how you view yourself in relation to other people. As you gain greater awareness of self, you are able to further define and position your identity within the context of the broader society. For example, it is intuitively obvious that you speak a language. But it is not until you hear someone speak another language that you begin to define yourself as English-speaking.
Another way to consider social identity is to realize that we each have multiple social identities. Social identity includes, but is not limited to:
* Cultural identity (membership in a cultural group)
* Gender identity (the gender with which a person identifies)
* National identity (membership in a nation)
* Spiritual or religious identity (belief in a faith)
* Professional identity (career affiliation)
These broad categorizations, whether deliberate or not, help us decide with whom and where we spend our time and how we think of ourselves. What makes groupings distinct is that "members" of groups typically share certain characteristics, norms, and values.
During our years as engineering students, our identities as academically talented, responsible African-American students were supported and celebrated at Rutgers where we joined the chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). NSBE cultivated a culture that promoted students working together. They'd say hey, we're doing study halls Tuesday night; you all need to meet there and start working on that physics exam because it's coming. We'd work on problems from old exams so that we'd be able to handle the ones we'd encounter on our test the next week.
NSBE believed in recognizing academic performance. Through the first semester we both got "shout outs" for strong performance on our exams. At the beginning of the second semester members were asked to voluntarily share how the previous semester went. Randal stood and said, "I got a 3.9 (GPA). I got an A in almost all my classes." and then sat down. The decision to share came with a great deal of trepidation because he did not know if being academically excellent was going to make him more or less popular. Was he going to get stigmatized or stereotyped as an academic nerd, as a loser, as a geek?
Well, it didn't end up being a problem—in fact, the opposite happened. Randal became a campus celebrity, or at least in Black engineering circles. People whispered on campus, "That's the guy that got the 3.9." or "Did you hear about the Black guy who got straight A's in engineering—him right there."
Black students started to congregate around him. People wanted to study with him. They wanted to come to his dorm. The public nature of his academic performance allowed him to be accepted. It was academics, ironically, that became a conduit for his social connections.
The affirming connections we made through our association with NSBE are just one of many examples of the groups that have helped shape our social identities over the years. We are members of, or are affiliated with, many different kinds of groups, including racial and ethnic, religious, educational, and geographic communities. For example, we are both African-American men, Christian, alumni of Rutgers University, and were raised in New Jersey.
Identifying with a particular culture or nationality, for instance, likely means that you subscribe to the norms, customs, and/or values of that group. At the same time, it also suggests that in identifying with that group you are also helping to shape its ever-evolving norms, customs, and values. In other words, if being African American is part of how you construct your identity, then you not only reflect African-American culture, you also influence African-American culture.
Did our academic performance help encourage a culture of striving for excellence among Black engineering students at Rutgers? We certainly hope so.
There is an interaction between your personal identity and your social identity. They can reinforce one another or they can be in conflict. This negotiation takes place during our formative years, but it also takes place every time we find ourselves having a "Black Faces in White Places" moment.
For example, if you believe you are intelligent and those around you believe you are intelligent, then your identity of being intelligent is reinforced.
But what if you believe you are intelligent, but others tell you that there is no possible way that you are intelligent because people who look like you are not intelligent? This conflict poses a challenge to your identity. Do you really believe you are intelligent, or do you believe what others have said about you or people who look like you?
The negotiation of identity is the reconciliation of how you define yourself in relation to society. You must take into consideration how society may seek to define you. Accordingly, there are several "social identifiers" or discernable characteristics by which society can seek to define people. The "Big 9" social identifiers are: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical/ psychological ability, ethnicity, language, age, and religion.
These characteristics are the markers of human difference through which power and privilege have been differentially distributed and prejudice may accrue. Each dimension meters power and privilege in the dominant culture of America. To the extent that an individual is or is perceived to be white, wealthy, male, heterosexual, able-bodied and rational, European-American, English-speaking, young (or in the "prime" of one's life), and Christian, that individual has unearned advantages of which he or she may well remain unconscious.
So it stands to reason that individuals who deviate from these norms have, in effect, unearned disadvantages of which they may or may not be aware. While a person who embodies the characteristics associated with privilege may enjoy easy success in some areas, a person who does not embody these characteristics likely faces a harder road.
Redefining the game and reshaping America is fundamentally about moving toward a society where advantage and disadvantage are independent of identifiers. But to ignore or deny the gross and subtle effects of these identifiers and the role they play in generating and prolonging inequality, is to ignore or deny the very dynamics that underlie our society.
The reality for Black people is that race and ethnicity continue to be among the most salient of these social identifiers in twenty-first-century America. Consequently, while it is important that we establish a strong identity, it is of paramount importance that we establish a strong racial and ethnic identity. Our race and ethnicity must engender a sense of genuine pride.
The navigation and negotiation of identity that takes place in the lives of African Americans can carry a unique set of considerations. Among them is a fundamental decision about how your identity interacts with society. Will you completely assimilate—adopt the values of popular American culture—or will you negotiate—challenge these norms and leverage your AfricanAmerican identity in engaging others?
Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the complexity of Black identity in America comes from activist and author W.E.B. DuBois in his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois describes African Americans as possessing two "warring souls," one African and one American, a sort of "double consciousness" or a "veil." DuBois writes:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
A strong identity finds harmony between these two perspectives. And while this identity may be informed by your history, it is not defined by your history. We must comfortably embrace our history as both descendants of Africans and residents of America. But we must also acknowledge that while America has come a long way in its perception and treatment of people of color, it still has a long way to go.
Purpose is the remaining pillar of the first strategy for redefining the game and reshaping America. Your purpose is your reason for being. Purpose answers the question, "Why do I exist?" It explains your existence. It sheds light on what you are living for. It helps define your destiny. And there are a few considerations that can shape how you conceptualize and ultimately come to define your purpose.
* You were made to serve multiple purposes. Your purpose could be to serve as a loving and responsible parent; to uplift and inspire others through music as a composer; and to mentor young people in your neighborhood. You are not confined to one purpose and, in fact, you may serve different purposes at different points in your life. For example, if you are diagnosed with sickle cell disease, you may dedicate your life thereafter to increasing awareness of how others can live the healthiest life possible with the condition. Life's circumstances, including tragedies, may change or redefine your purpose.
* You have an individual purpose and one that is shared with others. Part of your purpose is particular to you, while in some instances it is intertwined with other individuals. For example, your individual purpose may be to serve as an advocate for quality education in urban schools, while your shared purpose may be to work with others to establish a charter school in an underserved community. We (the authors) have long believed that we have a shared purpose. Throughout this book you will learn about some of the products of our collective purpose, such as the businesses we have co-founded and the ways we have touched people's lives together. In fact, this book is one of those products!
Excerpted from Black Faces in White Places by RANDAL PINKETT JEFFREY ROBINSON PHILANA PATTERSON Copyright © 2011 by Randal Pinkett and Jeffrey Robinson. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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