Blogger: Cherry Maggiore – “The Freak of Nurture”
Chapter 21: Woke at the Border
As I stand and chat with one of my colleagues at a networking event, another associate taps me on the shoulder to congratulate me on the event I hosted that evening.
Humbly and gratefully, I thank her and introduce her to the colleague I was chatting with moments before. She absently states that she knows him already, as she turns to him to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you standing there.”
My mouth drops open as she quickly wishes us farewell, as she rushes to catch her train home. I turn to him and stare with mouth agape…dumfounded.
It is critical to note that my colleague is a 6’3” African-American man who was a college athlete. Compared to my 5’2” frame, he was really fucking hard to miss; and to add insult to injury, she interrupted our conversation. It took me a solid five minutes to reconcile what I witnessed, and it hits me…it hits hard.
With the shock of the moment lingering, I ask him, “Did that just happen?”
He calmly responds, “What do you think just happen?”
I respond with disappointment and say, “I think that I just witnessed the most abject form of racism, subtext racism, and you were the victim of it.”
He firmly responds, “You are woke.” He then went further to correct my language around subtext racism and educated me on coded racism; which is defined as statements of racist ideologies that are carefully designed not to appear racist.
As I reflect on this interaction, it strikes me that I didn’t say anything to this woman; I didn’t stand up for my colleague. I was caught entirely off-guard. In retrospect, I wholeheartedly regret not saying something to support my colleague, and now friend. When we spoke about this later, he pointed out that she probably didn’t even realize what happened. That racism is so systematic and seeped into our culture, that for many people it has become subconscious. And this is where the danger lies…
When I found out that I was scheduled to publish my blog on Martin Luther King Day, I realized the enormous opportunity to use The Daily Feels platform to share this story. Furthermore, I wanted to challenge all of us to be more “woke”, and to inspire change by starting a long overdue conversation around racism.
As I began to write, I harkened back to my own history with racism as I tried to deconstruct the events that made this disgusting behavior and belief system uniformly unacceptable to me. The moment my eyes opened…
To start with, I am an independent, liberal-leaning outcast in my family and my community. But the collision between my beliefs and my family/community values came to a head the summer of 1989 (the summer of my 15th year of life, as I entered my junior year of High School).
Yusuf K. Hawkins, a 16-year old black man, was shot to death in Bensonhurst on August 23rd, 1989. Hawkins and three friends were attacked by a crowd of 10 to 30 white youths, with at least seven of them wielding baseball bats. As Yusuf Hawkins and his friends came to Bensonhurst to see a used car, they were beaten, and he was ultimately shot and killed on this tragic summer night.
In the days that followed, Al Sharpton along with hundreds of protesters, peacefully marched down 20th avenue in Bensonhurst. As they came to the corner of where we lived on 80th street, I recall (with disgust and rage) the Italian mobs, spitting at them, throwing fried chicken and watermelon.
It was not lost on me that Yusuf and I were the same age when he was murdered. While I would go on and live my life, his life was lost just because he was black.
What saddens me most, is that even after 30 years of this despicable, frightening and culture-shifting loss, we still see an excessive amount of black lives lost for no other reason than the color of their skin. These crimes against the black race live on…recurring as a living nightmare.
Around the same time, I remembered the day my friend Stacy (who was in the Academy with me in H.S.) came over my house to study for a project. I didn’t know my father was home and I thought we were peacefully alone. I decided to heat up some leftover pasta and meatballs, as it was her favorite meal. I promised her that my moms was the best ever and she sassily replied, “I’ll be the judge of that!
Suddenly my father appeared as he heard us in the kitchen noshing and laughing while we prepared to study.
As I introduced Stacy to my father, he mumbled hello but seemed extremely upset. He stormed back into his room and called me inside. He angrily whispered to me, “How DARE you bring home her into the house to eat MY food. How could you let that n##### eat off my dishes and use my fork???”
I got sick to my fucking stomach and screamed at him! “How ignorant and disgusting. You don’t even know her. She’s brilliant and one of the smartest people in my class! She was helping ME with my project!!!! How can you judge her and act this way because she’s black???!!!”
This didn’t end well for me…my father was not a good person, and he told me not ever to bring my friend Stacy to HIS house again.
I cried and cried that night out. I cried for Stacy; and roared out of pure frustration, embarrassment and white-hot hatred for the man I called Dad.
The division between my father’s values and my own worsened. Unfortunately, there are so many other memories, like this, that breaks my heart when I look back on my upbringing. Moments that confuse me as I cannot understand how skin color, cultural identity, religion or sexual orientation matter at all when you are engaging with another human being; that these things have anything to do with whether they are a good and kind person.
It’s these instances that made me want to disassociate with my culture and my race. I didn’t understand. I didn’t agree. I didn’t belong.
As I grew up and went to college, the people I surrounded myself with were vast and diverse. People who were open-minded, curious and accepting. Artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers who saw the world as much larger and more interesting than our small-minded Brooklyn ecosystem.
As I learned more about the origins of racism, I understood that racism was at the crux of nearly every single evil act and war in human history. This knowledge and my personal experiences were the foundation that helped me realize I had a responsibility to be better than my upbringing and even more so to drive change; to convince others and educate them on the evils of racism. To take advantage of my “privileges” that people of other races do NOT have in America.
It was the driving force behind my desire to foster diverse teams that represented all cultures, religions, and genders. Ironically, but not surprisingly, what I came to discover was that the more diverse my team was the better the work and the results. Our collaboration was better, our bond stronger as we defined our own communities and our own values that were grounded more in our similarities than our differences.
But as overt racism became intolerable and equal rights became law, the bubbling of coded racism took over as we have yet to solve the issue and origins of racism in human beings. The cause and the effect.
As I stood in front of my colleague and friend, I witnessed his disappointment. It broke my heart as he told me that this was an issue he still dealt with often. At that moment, I knew I had a chance to correct my inaction. So I decided to open this dialogue and in collaboration with my colleague, use my blog as a platform to help people understand the dire impact of racism and to call on our friends, colleagues, and family to join us in our efforts to change our culture of hate and judgment. That we could together inspire others to initiate an honest and transparent conversation. To communicate that we all have the responsibility to open the dialogue on the subject of racism and we all need to fight this on-going division of humanity, TOGETHER. We are ALL accountable!!!
I asked my colleague, to curate his advice and some essential facts to help lead this change… Here is his side of the story…and his heartfelt request of you all.
Be Mindful of What’s Going on Around You
When the event that Cherry Maggiore describes was happening in real time, I wasn’t shocked that it happened, as it is not an uncommon occurrence in my life. What surprised me was that the person that I was speaking with had the spatial awareness and aptitude to diagnose what was happening at the moment and most importantly, why it was happening. There is a certain sense of entitlement that many people have regardless of race or upbringing. As we progress in our career and journey as humans, we become accustomed to certain social norms and environments. It is entirely possible that many of us have never worked with a person of color and even more feasible that when we have, that person has likely not been in a position of power with the education and experience to support. What this means is that when a person of color is in the same room and space, it is entirely possible that one may assume that this person is “less than” what they actually are.
This happens to me on an almost daily basis. When people see my credentials, they often respond with shock and amazement. Rarely is it verbalized but the look on their face says it all, and then I am met with “oh, I didn’t realize…” usually followed by some form of coded language (more on that later).
The woman that did not acknowledge me or my existence at the moment was indeed not doing it overtly. Instead, she was just reacting to the environments in which she had become accustomed. Years of existing in a homogeneous work environment where a person of color is rarely on the same level or higher than herself. This is compounded by living and interacting with the same type of people.
At the end of the day, I was more proud than I was disappointed. Proud that a colleague recognized what was happening and articulated it instantly. Progress.
Be mindful of Coded Language
Author of the book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney Lopez describes coded language as:
- “… Coded speech operates on two levels,” he says. “It triggers racial anxiety, and it allows plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he’s even thinking about race.”
Coded language, or using phrases or terms that actually mean other things has been around for many decades; however, many black people today have become very skilled in recognizing when coded language is used to describe something about themselves or another person.
An African – American middle manager within a previous company that I worked for described an interaction with a white male leader within the company when that person used the coded language of sorts to describe another company’s black executive.
When describing this Harvard Business School-educated executive, this leader made a point to say that he was “well-spoken” and “articulate.” Now at face value, this may appear to be a compliment, but when we dissect the spirit of the comment, each black person will agree that it is indeed a derogatory statement to describe this person. It assumes that the expectation was that the black executive would not be articulate or well-spoken and that this came as a surprise. The fact that he was so articulate was the exception and not the rule. They may also agree that they had rarely or never heard those terms used to describe a non-ethnic person. These statements continue to chip away at their psyche of Black professionals while they try to navigate corporate America. In this so-called “post-racial” society that we live in, many have detailed that coded comments have replaced seemingly bigoted comments that many adults had to deal with from decades past.
Today, coded language infiltrates our homes via the television, cubicles, and boardrooms across the country and the worst part of it is that there is a sentiment that this must be endured or one will be labeled as using the proverbial “race card” if a complaint is made or if one points out the undertones of such language.
It is also clear that coded language is not something that is unique to minorities as women in the workplace face the same issues. There often remains a sentiment that when a woman has a voice that she may be viewed as being aggressive or angry. Women have often had to conform to standards acceptable by men to fit in. Especially when environments are predominantly male, the woman is put in a position where her voice will not be heard or where she needs to assume a macho role to fit-in. Coded language can also be used to discriminate against employees over a certain age. Common coded terms used are ‘youthful” or “enthusiastic” to describe the ideal candidate.
In fact, one leader at a former organization has mentioned that the most desirable candidates on an executive track are those with “a lot of runway.” It is clear that the use of coded language can intentionally or unintentionally be used to marginalize certain members of groups and that there is an opportunity to extract value from these members and execute upon an effort to celebrate each person’s differences instead of alienating them because of it.
Never say “I don’t see color.”
Often I have heard very well-intentioned people say that they do not see color when making hiring decisions. When I hear this, I usually think to myself, that’s bullshit, and then I make clear to them that they should see color.
It is impossible not to see that I am black when I walk into a room. It is the first thing that anyone would notice about me. Only a few times in my career has someone who was meeting me for the first time after a phone or email relationship said: “wow, you’re black, I didn’t realize that!”
Many would think that I would be upset with such interaction, but to the contrary, it does not bother me at all. I am proud to be black, and I am somewhat relieved that the person was acknowledging that without making a value judgment. Accepting that people are different than yourself (and provide value) is the first step in recognizing that a diverse team will, in turn, bring diverse ideas to the meeting and help shape an environment that is more representative of most consumers.
Hire people who look different than yourself
Have you ever been at a meeting or event where you were the only “one” in the room? Only Hispanic or Black person, woman, young person, older person? Many have not had this experience and certainly not over a sustained, but for those of us who have to endure it every day, it is not easy.
It is true that people are often attracted to people who have something in common with themselves. In fact, many of us who have hired people will say things like, “she reminds me of myself” or “I am from the same town as him.” Or “I went to college with his dad.” While on the surface, this may appear to be a benign comment but what it does is reinforce the fact that we often work in homogeneous environments with many hires being referrals from similar people like ourselves with minimal appetite for diversity as an input in our hiring criteria that would likely yield significant measurably better business results long term.
Everyone can agree that business is becoming increasingly global. Advances in technology allow for many companies to innovate, compete and differentiate from competitors. These changes present many challenges and difficulties to overcome, but they also create opportunities for continuous improvement. To win and maximize shareholder value, legacy companies, as well as start-ups, must rely on its visionary leader to make investments in the future to secure revenue growth. Companies must anticipate marketplace changes and evolution in customer tastes. Adaption to increased competition and making decisions about the complexion of human capital will be paramount in a company’s ability to be market leaders. The topic of diversity and inclusion can polarize and alienate many within the business while others may have an emotional reaction to the subject.
To extinguish emotions around diversity and inclusion, there must be clear metrics that allow for measurement of such efforts. The language of data transcends emotion and in many cases provides the data needed to make a decision about the future of the organization. Ultimately, any effort put forth will need to focus on potential problems and not specific people.
Ask questions and be open to dialogue
One of the most polarizing topics in popular culture today is the divide within our country about Black football players kneeling during the national anthem; the silent and peaceful protest of the injustice that many black people have had to endure as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or doing seemingly everyday kind things.
As a result of a varied career and education, I have become excellent friends with people that I would otherwise not come in contact with in my everyday routine. One of my closest friends is a 43-year-old white male from business school who lives in Columbus Ohio in an overwhelmingly non-diverse neighborhood, and his kid’s school has almost no representation of black or Hispanic people. I have visited him multiple times for long weekends, and as we move through the neighborhood, we play a game of counting the number of black people that we see. I often would joke that it was my cousin every time I saw a black person!
What makes him one of my closest friends is that we can have an open dialogue about race, inequality and our positions on it. Never do we argue or try to convince the other that our way of thinking is the right way, instead, we chat about our feelings but most importantly, we listen to one another. He asks me ignorant questions about my race and upbringing, and I feel safe to do the same.
Ultimately, we disagree on the merits of those football player protests, but we listen, ask questions and learn. The final question that he or none of my closest friends have been able to answer is why does the Me Too Movement likely have close to 100% approval amongst Americans but the Black Lives Matter Movement have, at best, 50% approval? Aren’t both about marginalization, abuse of power and injustice? I suspect Dr. King would have a strong opinion on both movements and the paths in which we take to support or denounce either.
Finally, I will add another request to the suggestions my friend and colleague provided above…
Take Action- If you see something, say something
Think back on some moments you may have witnessed racism or coded racism…challenge yourself to recognize the behavior and the language. One of the most important things we need to do is recognize it, and the next is to speak up.
Additionally, bring diversity into your personal and professional life. If you don’t have any friends outside of your race, culture, religion or sexual orientation make that a focus for the immediate future. If you do and have never discussed this issue, take your friend/colleague/neighbor out to dinner and start talking. Talk to your kids, ask them questions about this, educate them on MLK and other black leaders who have made such a tremendous impact on America and on the world.
One of the ways, I have contributed to making a change was by founding a diversity initiative at my company which we named, BOLD (Building Opportunity for Leadership and Diversity). I am very passionate about building diverse teams as well as the urgent need to sponsor diverse talent throughout every stage of their careers. And that was the foundation upon which BOLD was created and now exists (and my hope is that it will continue long after I am working at the company). As the Founder and Executive Champion of BOLD, it is my way of using my privilege to impact long-tale change.
Nearly 56 years after Mr. King uttered the words “I Have a Dream,” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28th, 1963, we have yet to fulfill his dream. And those words are as relevant and important today as they were the day he spoke them; especially as we continue to battle this pervasive, dangerous and systematic cultural problem that impacts the lives of millions of people.
Today, I will ask you all to do three things: share this blog, share our story with a friend and/or colleague and start the conversation. Don’t let fear or discomfort stop you…be brave and let’s decide to come together to wake the nation.
Let’s finally be part of making Reverend King’s dream come true because even the smallest act can help change the world.
Cherry Maggiore is the proud single mom of her 9-year-old super-sassy daughter (aka Miss Sassy Pants or MSP) and 15-year-old pug baby (Tiki Barber); in addition to being an award-winning senior marketing executive at NBCUniversal.
Beside her side hustle as the Freak of Nurture, she also started a home design company after being inspired by renovating and designing her 1880’s home in NJ.
This insanely curious and passionate “multi-potentialite” can be found dancing the Argentinan tango, swing and Hustle every Saturday, cooking her family an Italian Sunday dinner, singing and air drumming at concerts or searching for her next adventure.