How to manage your career if you’re black

Around 20% of the people I coach are black, and race usually comes up in conversation, but not in a very interesting way. However, recently I coached a black guy who was so interesting that I stayed on the phone with him an extra hour.

I used to think transactionally: you pay $350 I talk for an hour. Then I announced a temporary discount to $150 if people call at 7am or 10pm, and I thought I’d be annoyed talking for so low an hourly rate, but I have to admit that I talk to more revolutionaries at 7am and 10pm than I ever did in the hours in between. And this black guy is a great example of that.

His perspective on career management for black people is smart and fascinating, but if he wrote it candidly he’d kill his career. So I’m writing what I learned from him.

1. Go to a college where people will see you as a high performer. White kids don’t need to do this because white kids have people everywhere who can guide them, mentor them, write a letter or two. Black kids need credentials and a network of high performers who will support them in their adult life. Because people in the US have so much guilt about racism, people love helping high performing black kids. It’s so much easier than helping poor, low performing, probably destitute black kids.

2. Know what you want. As a high performing black kid, singled out by a college for high-performers, you make it easy for white people to help you. They will talk with you about your major, ask you what you want to do, and help you get that job. But you have to know what you want. You need help as early as possible and people can’t help you early if you don’t specialize early. Saying you want to try a lot of things means no one can help you.

White kids don’t have to know what they want as early. Part of being white is being able to make missteps, because people aren’t so fast to label you a failure. But as a black kid you could be labeled a failure with one wrong step.

3. Say yes when someone influential asks if you need help. Say yes first and then figure out how they can help you. They want to feel good about helping a black kid. They are looking for a way to help. You have to find the way, though, because they don’t know what you’re up against. So be sure to start by asking for help that’s easy for them to give. Then they’ll come back to help again. Keep in touch. Show them they’re making a difference. You’re their project.

Remember: I am not saying this is nice, or the way it should be. (And I’m not even sure it’s funny to create a Richard Scarry parody of the situation like Tony Ruth does in the picture above.)  I’m just saying this is an effective way to manage your career.

4. Expect Jews to be more helpful than other people. Most Jews in the US feel isolated in a Christian world. People who are biased against blacks know to shut up when there is a black person in the room. But people who are biased against Jews often have no idea there is a Jew in the room. So while there is more racism against blacks than Jews, the Jews are very conscious of being treated as an outsider.

Jews say they understand prejudice. And Jews try hard to help black people, but they don’t recognize black people try hard to help them.  In terms of career advice, this means pay close attention to the Jews. They are likely to give a lot of help.

5. Be open to envisioning yourself in the middle class. When white people talk about black people and work, so often it’s either dirt-poor people or  bankers, lawyers or other super-high performers. And the white mentors are enthralled with shepherding more black people to this echelon. Few role models of the suburban dad are black, and the prototype soccer mom is white. But for many white people the middle ground is right for them, and that’s true of black people as well.

You can aim for stability and sanity of the middle class instead of always having to prove to everyone how great you are. But don’t tell that to people when you’re getting help from them — because when they mentor a black person they want to think it’ll be grand and special and they’ll look really good.

6. It’s OK to not respond to everything offensive people do. Sometimes people may need you to be something to make themselves feel better. Like the woman who grabs her purse when a black man walks by. That woman imagines she has something much better than that man has, and he wants what she has. You don’t have to buy into that story.  That’s her baggage, not yours. Other people’s racism is so heavy. Don’t pick it up, because having baggage puts you at a competitive disadvantage in the market place.

7. Be patient with mentor racism. Someone sees you’re a high performer and they want to help. But they put themselves on the line to help. So they want to know you won’t fail, and the mentor has not seen black people in the jobs he can get you. So he’ll test you.

The mentor for a white person will say, “I have a job for you.” The mentor for a black person will say, “Do this, it’ll be a good first step to a job. And I’ll check back with you.” Check back is white people language for I don’t trust you to be successful so I can’t let you get too far away.
“That sounds a lot like what it is to be on parole,” is what the guy told me when I said that to him.

Yeah. I actually said that to him – after he taught me so much about the world – I said to him what his next step is and to get back with me.


This is how I know that everything he said is true. And smart. And while he was telling me about how black people manage their careers, he was teaching me about white people as well.

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