The Performance of Leaders of Color

“The blackface tradition had hung on after its effectiveness had worn thin. The practice had originated in the days of slavery when Negroes were not permitted to appear on stage. Troupes of white minstrels blackened themselves with burnt cork better to mock and caricature the plantation slaves they imitated. After the Civil War, freed slaves could form their own minstrel companies, but they too were required to darken themselves with burnt cork”

--Donald Bogle

Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films

Rap artist Jay Z’s controversial single “The Story of O.J” from his recent album, 4:44, for some, represents a lyrical protest and indictment of structural racism in American culture. To others, it is simply a narcissistic tribute to black capitalism over a haunting Nina Simone sample. Either way, what can be seen as creative tribute to “Four Women”, the 1966 song where the genius artist, Nina Simone bellows the narratives of four black women, whose shades of skin color reflect both white terror and black resistance, Jay-Z attempts to hook the 2017 listener in a similar way, followed with a monotone recitation of the N word. Jay Z, as with Nina Simone and many artists before them, is pulling on prevailing black tropes, lingering stories of plantation conflict between enslaved Africans who worked the house of the slave master and those who worked the fields; to the soot faced Sambo child smiling and tap dancing for white audiences to…well….O.J.

However, what makes “The Story of O.J” and subsequent discussions about the song useful is that we heard it before, remixed in our social memory, felt it in our gut, whispered in conversations, dominant in our media images and even prevalent in our places of work. We have read memoirs from prominent leaders of color who share stories of grappling with racism, being mistaken for “the help”, or asked to sing at a venue when they were there to give a speech, asked to give messianic insights on “the race problem in America” in board meetings, or encouraged to entertain when their formal education didn’t include artistic performance.

As an African American male leader and Tri-Sector Athlete in Education, who has navigated academia and social enterprise sectors for 25 years, I have had too many experiences like Issa, the main character on the HBO show, Insecure, being the only black person in predominately white organizations like the fictional, “We Got Yall”, where the “disadvantaged kid of color” becomes the totem for inspiring the founding of organizations, motivating staff and assuaging the gilt of donors but serves as an albatross around the neck of leaders of color striving to move up the ranks of the same organizations. Its puzzling that the advocacy to identify and nurture the talent of a young person of color seems to fade or be met with outright hostility when that same young person of color reaches mature adulthood and seeks a more advanced leadership role in those same organizations that were established to “help” those like him or her.

And this insecurity is grounded in reality. According to author Derwin Dubose, in his 2014 article, “The Nonprofit Sector Has a Ferguson Problem”, at least 60% of the non-profits in the United States serve people of color. Yet only 7% of non-profit chief executives and 18% of non-profit employees are people of color. He cites research from the Non-Profit Leadership Alliance, that whites lead 9.5 out 10 philanthropic organizations. And the boards of organizations are not any more diverse. With people of color being approximately 36% of the population, and with Latinos being in the majority in the U.S. in less than 25 years, organizations are not reflecting the populations they purport to serve. In fact, it feels like we are regressing, not progressing in this area.

Contrary to Jay Z’s assertion, entrepreneurship is not the only answer for leaders of color. There needs to be targeted efforts to turn the tide, and support and develop more leaders of color in the social enterprise sector. Here are just three strategies that can be done to move the needle:

Talent Map Your Organization with a Diversity Lens

Organizations should formally assess where talent reside. Undergoing a talent mapping of your organization, with a particular eye toward diversity is crucial. Look at roles and responsibilities of current staff and ask what is the make up of our teams along the lines of race, ethnic, gender, and LGBTQ representation? Are we building a bench of talent in our organization that is diverse? How do we proactively develop leadership in our organization that reflects the populations we serve?

Diversify Your Network, Not Just Your Candidate Pool:

How many times have we heard “we tried but we just cannot find enough people of color to apply”. Or, my favorite, asking the small number of leaders of color in organizations to mine their own networks to find others like them for the candidate pool or simply hiring a Diversity Coordinator to do all the work. It never works, at least not at scale. The best way to address diversity is providing resources for senior leaders, department heads and hiring managers to expand their networks and affinity association membership to do recruitment themselves. For instance, if you are a white professional in sales and need to grow your team, then join the black or Latino sales associations to expand your network. Professionals of color have always had to straddle being in predominately white organizations while tapping racial and ethnic affinity organizations as well. It’s actually a great practice for all professionals. Diversity is a qualification and not a “nice thing to have” along with qualifications.

Provide Professional Development

Lastly, develop leaders of color by providing professional development and “stretch” opportunities. Fellowships and credentialing programs that enhance skills and competencies to lead and manage are essential. We recently launched executive leadership initiatives in my program at NYU, serving organizations wishing to develop cross-sector talent with a diversity and equity lens. It's a success but more people can be served. Also providing leaders of color with opportunities to stretch themselves with challenging projects or initiatives will build the talent that is needed for an organization and for the larger field.

The passive stories about the lack of diverse talent in the largest growing sector in the United States, the social enterprise sector, should not be a narrative we keep singing at fundraisers.

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