Can people of color act “real” and be successful?

“Real” vs “Evolving”

While writing this blog post live on Instagram, an old friend asked: “What does it really mean to be “real”.  This is highly subjective. For artists, it is the debate of being “real” vs “commercial”. Real artists stay true to their original style – whatever that means. Commercial artists reflect trends in their new music – they even suspected to have sold their soul to secret societies like the Illuminati.  For athletes, like Lebron James, he expressed that people see his success, new environment, as a sign that he has lost his way and connection to his roots. Whereas Lebron sees it as his attempt to better himself. In my case, some people from my old neighborhood thought that I was not my true self when I started to dress differently, make new connections, spend more time on the golf course than the basketball court.

Why did I “evolve”?

  1.  I like to try new things. After being limited to my neighborhood for 18 years, it was exciting to share new experiences
  2. I thought it was a natural evolution. After all, we hear that the only constant in life is change
  3. My success depended on my ability to adapt. As soon as I left my neighborhood, most people at my college, my workplace did not look like me.  Suddenly, normal had a new meaning.  What was normal in my neighborhood, was an exception at work, or at my college.

Building rapport is essential to success with anything in life. Building rapport allows you to influence people. And regardless of what you can see on TV, nobody can make it entirely on his/her own.  The fastest way to build rapport is to have shared interests and look similar. Now consider this, The NY Times found that “only 44 out of 503 of the most powerful people in American culture, government, education, and business are minorities”.  Companies like Google, Facebook have ~1% of black employees.  So for people of color who want to build rapport, sharing interests is the best approach, because it won’t be based on looking the same.

I am not alone in this situation.  Several people of color or women feel like they must change or play a role to get what they deserve.  In an interview with Tristan Walker and friends by Fast Company the same line comes up.  The need to be two people at the same time.

Believe it or not, so far that was the good news.  This is what you do when you have people who are open to collaborating with people of color.  Unfortunately, the system was historically designed for white men.  How much of that legacy is left? this is unclear, but chances are high that there is a legacy that impacts the ability of people of color and women to succeed.


The downsides of fitting in

Over the long term, you realize that you worked hard to fit in whereas other people fit in naturally.  Nothing wrong with hard work. But fitting in is more than hard work, it is constant work. The camera is always on. That is exhausting. Ask anyone playing a role, it drains you over time.  So everybody needs to find their right balance.  Too much effort put into it and you won’t make it long enough to actually reap the benefits. Too little you won’t fit in and get what you deserve.

How to know when it makes sense to “evolve” to fit in?

It boils down to 2 criteria:

  1. What is at stake? I always think in term or return on my investment. How much do I put in – money, energy, time and what do I expect to get in return.  I always ask myself, is it worthwhile.  The answer will be different for each of us. Because of different rewards matter for each of us.
  2. What are the chances to change the environment? I also ask myself, is there an opportunity for me to change the system from the inside.  I am not talking about a way to make myself feel better about selling out. But genuinely, will my effort offer opportunities to other people of color in the future.

After a 15 year career as a professional chameleon fitting in almost any setting. I am glad to have found a place where I can be true and best self.  In hindsight, 15 years of making minor concessions to fit in, to eventually find a place that value my diversity was a small price to pay.