June 19, 2021
This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.
I didn’t know what Juneteenth was until last year. I’ve led a sheltered, privileged life, so it was never part of my consciousness. And while I’m happy that Congress voted for it to become a federal holiday, there’s still so much work to do to repair the lingering and wide-spread effects of slavery on people in America, and the effects of a white dominance culture on each of us. I wanted to share some of my own experiences here.
For most of my life, I called myself a “white boy from the suburbs of Chicago”. At one point many years ago, a friend who was more socially aware than me called me out by saying “Eric, you’re not white!” (my mother is Korean). And I said “Of course I am! I grew up in an all-white town, and I know all about sports and American culture. So why am I not white?” I thought that I could declare myself to be whatever I wanted, and since I didn’t identify as Korean, I declared myself to be white. I had been brainwashed to pass as white to fit into the dominant white culture at all costs.
And why wouldn’t I? Passing as white, while also being a tall man, has opened so many doors throughout my life and career. At my second job, I stood up at all-hands meetings, and called the (white male) CEO an idiot. At the time, I thought I could push the limits like that because I was so outstanding at my job; in retrospect, I bet it wouldn’t have mattered how good a programmer I was if I wasn’t also white-passing and male.
Certainly that was the case at a later job, where a short Indian woman and I were hired at the same time into the same job; we both had personality conflicts with the (white male) CEO, and we both eventually got fired as a result. When she was fired after a year and a half, she was immediately escorted out. I was given an extra year to prove myself before being let go, and even then, I was given several months to find another job. At the time, I thought I was given more leeway because I was better at the job, but I now wonder whether it was the color of my skin and/or my gender.
Getting my job at Google also involved a ton of privilege. I read about the job on an MIT alumni email list, and contacted the hiring manager (a white man) directly as a result. He and I went for coffee and hit it off, and he pushed me through the Google hiring process despite me not meeting the stated requirements of the job. After getting hired in that way, I was then consistently given the opportunity to speak up in rooms with execs, which led directly to me later getting hired as Chief of Staff to one of those VPs (also a white man). Would I have been given all those chances if I weren’t a white-passing man? I don’t know.
I have heard more of the other side of the story over the past year as I offered pro bono coaching to Black professionals and other women of color. In these sessions, I consistently hear about situations where they were fully qualified as job candidates, raved about through the interview process, made it to the finalist stage….and then a white man gets chosen for the job. When it happens once, maybe that guy was more qualified. When it happens nine times in a row, as it did for one woman, it seems a little disingenuous to not wonder if there are other factors.
It’s hard work to unpack this stuff. Racism does not show up as people loudly declaring they don’t like non-white people. There are all sorts of subtle ways in which American culture nudges us to favor those with lighter skin, and creates pressure for people like me to pass and fit into that dominant white culture. And in doing so, it is easy to fall prey to the cognitive bias of believing that we succeeded solely due to our talent and skill, rather than from the tailwinds of being privileged. We can’t run an experiment to see just how far we would have gotten solely based on our skills, but the evidence we do have is not promising.
After realizing how I benefited from this privilege for my whole life, I commit to doing this self-examination work and doing it in public. I also commit to finding opportunities to help others who do not benefit from such privilege, and assist them to pay forward my privilege where I can. Lastly, I commit to speaking up when I see conscious or unconscious bias, and/or call out perspectives rooted in privilege, so that I can bring the perspective of others into exclusive spaces where I have access due to my own privilege (e.g. coaching execs and CEOs). Juneteenth seemed like a good day to make those public commitments.
I’m still very much a novice in this work, and would love to hear any thoughts you have about how I can do better. Or if you want to share your own experience with race and gender, I’d love to hear that as well.
And now for the normal personal development content:
LinkedIn: These are ideas or questions that help my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience.
Inspired by Grant McCracken’s Culture Camp, I explored the idea that we are moving from a culture where we must perform societally accepted roles (family man, caring mother, hard worker, etc.) to one where we have more freedom to choose what roles we play.
Influence and persuasion are key leadership skills because while doing what you’re told can be highly valuable and impactful, it’s not leadership in the sense of literally leading people to new possibilities.
Reflecting on Seth Godin’s mantra that “Shipping matters”, I realized that it’s less about serving others, and more about delivering on commitments I make to myself. That enables me to set my own priorities and follow through, rather than being spun reactively by the asks others make of me.
Articles and resources I’ve found interesting:
A post from last year from an MIT grad student on dismantling the racist mindset, which includes this powerful quote from Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” (also documented by Claude M. Steele in his book Whistling Vivaldi)
A Time Magazine article describing that the top 1% have increased inequality by more than $50 trillion in the last 40 years: “the top 1 percent’s share of total taxable income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1975, to 22 percent in 2018, while the bottom 90 percent have seen their income share fall, from 67 percent to 50 percent. This represents a direct transfer of income—and over time, wealth—from the vast majority of working Americans to a handful at the very top.” (and that’s with the ultra-rich mostly avoiding taxable income!)
Surviving Ideo - a touching description of a man’s experience at Ideo, and his ethnographic exploration of other people’s experiences and the trauma they’ve endured as a result. He shares that he is writing now because “Unprocessed trauma doesn’t have an expiration date. Mine has been in my body for over a decade. I’m tired of hurting from the hidden humiliation, and I’m tired of pretending that I wasn’t a victim of the workplace culture.”
Thanks for reading! See you in a couple weeks.