batman and black women

I’ve lately been fielding questions from non-black founders and hiring managers looking to diversify their teams. They sense the need to acknowledge the risk inherent in uprooting a person’s life when pursuing new opportunities, and acknowledge the challenges faced by blacks when competing for roles. The subtext of the questions are, “how do I show black people that I really care without being perceived as patronizing?”

I think this line of thinking is misguided. Black people don’t need special treatment.

What candidates (who happen to be black) want is the truth. They want to know what they’re getting themselves into. They want to hear the heart of the founder and what she stands for. They want to know that they’re not simply a row in a spreadsheet or the fulfilment of a quota or a token hire.

And from that perspective, the conversation isn’t about what black people need. It’s about the kind of companies and environments we’re looking to foster.

This isn’t to minimize the effects of racism and discrimination that anchor many of my fellow black countrymen to diminished levels of achievement and success. On the contrary, when I look at what black folks have overcome and continue to fight, my instinct is to reframe the conversation as one of opportunity and access rather than accommodation.

This thinking has significant economic implications, and the real question is this: how do we engage the 80-90% of the population that didn’t graduate from an elite school, doesn’t have relevant work experience, and who are completely overlooked by companies looking to win the “war for talent”?

An experience on the train last week made me think of the capacity for empathy and understanding that many people who hold historically disenfranchised identities hold. An older white man slowly hobbled in on a wooden cane, with a Batman t-shirt, a straw hat, and a simple request. “Any chance I can get a seat?” he said to no one in particular. Two black women seated closest to him sprang to their feet, vacating their bench.

Winners in the new economy won’t just look to Stanford and Harvard for bright-eyed recent graduates willing to grind out 80 hour weeks, they’ll also look to the Harlems and Detroits and Oaklands of the nation for a generation of leaders who can usher in a new era of innovation and creativity, in ways that we can scarcely imagine.

When we start to strip away our biases, look each other in the eyes, and begin to understand what life might be like for others, the empathy and compassion fostered by this radical (and simple) act of humanity will transform our experience of the world around us. A new rubric is needed for evaluating non-traditional talent, and it’s imperative that we aggressively share notes and discuss what’s working.

Abernathy is the leading online magazine for professional black men, and this is an excerpt from a recent newsletter. Subscribe for full and early access.

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By willie jackson

willie jackson is an inclusion strategist who empowers thoughtful organizations and the leaders who run them.