How to manage your career if you’re black

Around 20% of the people I coach are black, and race usually comes up in conversation, but not in a very interesting way. However, recently I coached a black guy who was so interesting that I stayed on the phone with him an extra hour.

I used to think transactionally: you pay $350 I talk for an hour. Then I announced a temporary discount to $150 if people call at 7am or 10pm, and I thought I’d be annoyed talking for so low an hourly rate, but I have to admit that I talk to more revolutionaries at 7am and 10pm than I ever did in the hours in between. And this black guy is a great example of that.

His perspective on career management for black people is smart and fascinating, but if he wrote it candidly he’d kill his career. So I’m writing what I learned from him.

1. Go to a college where people will see you as a high performer. White kids don’t need to do this because white kids have people everywhere who can guide them, mentor them, write a letter or two. Black kids need credentials and a network of high performers who will support them in their adult life. Because people in the US have so much guilt about racism, people love helping high performing black kids. It’s so much easier than helping poor, low performing, probably destitute black kids.

2. Know what you want. As a high performing black kid, singled out by a college for high-performers, you make it easy for white people to help you. They will talk with you about your major, ask you what you want to do, and help you get that job. But you have to know what you want. You need help as early as possible and people can’t help you early if you don’t specialize early. Saying you want to try a lot of things means no one can help you.

White kids don’t have to know what they want as early. Part of being white is being able to make missteps, because people aren’t so fast to label you a failure. But as a black kid you could be labeled a failure with one wrong step.

3. Say yes when someone influential asks if you need help. Say yes first and then figure out how they can help you. They want to feel good about helping a black kid. They are looking for a way to help. You have to find the way, though, because they don’t know what you’re up against. So be sure to start by asking for help that’s easy for them to give. Then they’ll come back to help again. Keep in touch. Show them they’re making a difference. You’re their project.

Remember: I am not saying this is nice, or the way it should be. (And I’m not even sure it’s funny to create a Richard Scarry parody of the situation like Tony Ruth does in the picture above.)  I’m just saying this is an effective way to manage your career.

4. Expect Jews to be more helpful than other people. Most Jews in the US feel isolated in a Christian world. People who are biased against blacks know to shut up when there is a black person in the room. But people who are biased against Jews often have no idea there is a Jew in the room. So while there is more racism against blacks than Jews, the Jews are very conscious of being treated as an outsider.

Jews say they understand prejudice. And Jews try hard to help black people, but they don’t recognize black people try hard to help them.  In terms of career advice, this means pay close attention to the Jews. They are likely to give a lot of help.

5. Be open to envisioning yourself in the middle class. When white people talk about black people and work, so often it’s either dirt-poor people or bankers, lawyers or other super-high performers. And the white mentors are enthralled with shepherding more black people to this echelon. Few role models of the suburban dad are black, and the prototype soccer mom is white. But for many white people the middle ground is right for them, and that’s true of black people as well.

You can aim for stability and sanity of the middle class instead of always having to prove to everyone how great you are. But don’t tell that to people when you’re getting help from them — because when they mentor a black person they want to think it’ll be grand and special and they’ll look really good.

6. It’s OK to not respond to everything offensive people do. Sometimes people may need you to be something to make themselves feel better. Like the woman who grabs her purse when a black man walks by. That woman imagines she has something much better than that man has, and he wants what she has. You don’t have to buy into that story.  That’s her baggage, not yours. Other people’s racism is so heavy. Don’t pick it up, because having baggage puts you at a competitive disadvantage in the market place.

7. Be patient with mentor racism. Someone sees you’re a high performer and they want to help. But they put themselves on the line to help. So they want to know you won’t fail, and the mentor has not seen black people in the jobs he can get you. So he’ll test you.

The mentor for a white person will say, “I have a job for you.” The mentor for a black person will say, “Do this, it’ll be a good first step to a job. And I’ll check back with you.” Check back is white people language for I don’t trust you to be successful so I can’t let you get too far away.
“That sounds a lot like what it is to be on parole,” is what the guy told me when I said that to him.

Yeah. I actually said that to him – after he taught me so much about the world – I said to him what his next step is and to get back with me.


This is how I know that everything he said is true. And smart. And while he was telling me about how black people manage their careers, he was teaching me about white people as well.

77 replies
  1. Sherry
    Sherry says:

    Wtf did I just read. You just grouped all white people together like we are all one. I am a individual not a race and neither are black people.

    • John
      John says:

      The comment was for black people, not white people. Your comment is more ideal than reality. Black people face racism every day. They might not face racism from all white people, but they will run into it from someone in the course of a day.

      I’m a white guy and I never knew what it was like until I hung out with a black friend all day. And even then, it took months of knowing and regularly hanging out with the guy before I could really see it. Once I opened my eyes, I could see it everywhere.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      We are all individuals but at the same time, our experiences of the world are in many ways determined by our race. It’s something defined by the society we live in, not by us.

      We can take that knowledge and apply it to the interactions we have in everyday life. Also, to the thought processes behind our interactions. It’s a start!

    • May
      May says:

      Are you an XNFP Sherry.
      Buy a consult if you wanna be specifically addressed for being a “special individual without racial baggage”. :D

    • D
      D says:

      I’m glad you wrote this. I shared it, but omitted anyone I currently work with or rely on for possible future networking opportunities because, well you know why.

      I’m not black and I don’t have any black friends (sorry to the few casual acquaintances I do have but I’m smart enough to know its not the level of friendship that breeds familiarity with your experience). I do read A LOT. About a lot of topics and from a lot of different voices. I read random strangers on the internet being racist. Those who know they are and those who can’t imagine why they get called that and go complain to their like minded friends about it.

      I read random black voices on the internet explaining for the thousandth time some giant or tiny aspect of racism that others don’t see. Willing to be publicly on record with their real name attached because they actually DID have the energy that day to defend.

      Thanks for giving this man a voice, maybe some day he will be able to claim credit without impacting his career. God Willing.

      • jen
        jen says:

        “I read random black voices on the internet explaining for the thousandth time some giant or tiny aspect of racism that others don’t see. Willing to be publicly on record with their real name attached because they actually DID have the energy that day to defend.
        Thanks for giving this man a voice, maybe some day he will be able to claim credit without impacting his career. God Willing.”

        Agreed – Also liked your point about how we (black people) sometimes have to really hammer it home to people how something they never noticed can be racist.

    • AWA
      AWA says:

      It would be great if you would be open to understanding that perhaps this is speaking from an experience base you do not have. It’s not that all white people behave in one particular way, but it is that these experiences are pervasive enough that as a black person you kind of have to be ready at any moment for these behaviors to be at play. Some days I wish I could have white people try two weeks as a black person, and then… get back to me. What a coaching assignment that would be!

  2. william dickerman
    william dickerman says:

    I’ve got some ideas for black people (and Latino people and Asian people, and Indian people–and, yeah, WHITE people, too) to manage their careers. First, stop looking at dope dealers and professional athletes and rap/hip hop “artists” and other criminals as role models. Second, decide that real “success” in the world in general depends largely on hard work, self-respect, respect for others, emotional maturity, hard work, ambition, good character–did I say “hard work”?–and taking responsibility for yourself. Here’s a hint: stop seeing yourself as a victim and blaming everyone for your life. Act respectfully toward all others. Dress and groom yourself appropriately. Work hard. Do your best. Don’t get anywhere near those groups who depend on failure for meaning in their lives (e.g., Black Lives Matter; BD; NOW; and all other I’m-a-victim self-hating orgs). Hang out with those you admire, who will help you improve, which will lead to self-respect and self-confidence. Work your butt off. And, oh yeah, stop the insane blame game.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      There is so much irony in William Dickerson’s “stop the blame game” advice, he is no doubt blind to the fact that what he wrote is not only filled with blame, it is dripping with condescension.

      • Angela Armstrong
        Angela Armstrong says:

        This topic is so important and almost invisible to me. I’m glad you shared your client’s insights. I am curious about the comment “White people don’t have to know what they want as early.” This was not my experience at all. During college, when I didn’t know what I wanted, people tended to say something that like “Then I can’t help you.”

        I am from a poor, white background. Neither of my parents attended college. My dad didn’t even finish high school. They had no network for me to tap into to get internships or jobs after college, a benefit that many of my classmates had. I REALLY needed the mentorship and support, and I met people who wanted to help and were willing, but they also tended to say things like, “Do X thing. Then let’s talk again.” I wonder if some of this is as much about class background as skin color?

        • Charlene
          Charlene says:

          Have you considered that it might be both a class and a race thing. I agree with your message about what you have overcome, and that there is definitely a class “thing” but it might be doubly or triply as bad if race is factored in as well.

    • Anne Marie
      Anne Marie says:

      Aaaaand as if on cue, random white people either:

      1. pop up to share their own sad, sad stories of disadvantage and discrimination


      2. ride in on their sweeping generalizations to point out how the difficulties of black folk are of their own making, and how best to address those troubles, as though every single, solitary black person in the USA is from a broken home wherein only Ebonics is spoken, Momma’s welfare check is spent on $300 Nikes, crack vials are strung into teething rings for the kiddies.


    • Shannon Graham
      Shannon Graham says:

      > First, stop looking at dope dealers and professional athletes and rap/hip hop “artists” and other criminals as role models.

      Wow, patronizing.

      > Second, decide that real “success” in the world in general depends largely on hard work, self-respect, respect for others, emotional maturity, hard work, ambition, good character–did I say “hard work”?–and taking responsibility for yourself. Here’s a hint: stop seeing yourself as a victim and blaming everyone for your life.

      Holy shit, SO patronizing.

      • Jima
        Jima says:

        Also pretty much exactly what Bill Cosby used to say. Which Hannibal Burress pointed out was hypocritical. We don’t know the author of this comment, or how they live their life, but these sorts of condescending comments tend to be made by hypocrites.

    • jen
      jen says:

      Black Lives Matter isn’t a “I’m-a-victim self-hating org”

      I guess your life has never been endangered as a result of the colour of your skin? As a black person there are several times when I have been verbally or physically attacked as a result of my skin colour. One of those times I happened to be a racist area and the police officer who was outside the building refused to help me despite the fact I had nearly been raped and was physically attacked.

      Don’t speak against what you do not understand.

  3. Dana
    Dana says:


    That was so beautifully written. Wow. I think I’m in love with you, lol. But I mean it. That post was so well written and executed. You wrote it “second person” meaning that it wasn’t something you had a “a-ha” moment about and figured out all on your own. You listened and relayed the message and acted as a shield (proxy?)for him. That.was.amazing. Thank you! And you did it from a place of humility. And he is right, Jewish people are a huge help to black people. When my great grandfather left the Georgia where he was a sharecropper and moved to NJ, it was a Jewish man owned some kind of construction business that hired him and paid him well and eventually put him in a leadership position. This was around 1950s or prior. And I have another friend who was born and raised in Seattle and she recalled it was Jewish tutors that helped her in grade school. She later went to and graduated from American Univ in D.C.
    But I just want to say thank you. Thank you.


  4. Elenor Desai
    Elenor Desai says:

    It is decidedly telling, if not boringly so, that those are the first two comments. Offended outrage and bootstrap talk, the cornerstones of white people’s idea of what it means to understand the experience of black people in a white world. I’d write more, but I’m actually exhausted of explaining to white people that the world is quite different when you’re black, that decades of discriminatory housing laws, racist hiring practices, the consistent denying of loans and mortgages, persistent racist school admissions, mass incarceration, obstacles to wealth creation, brutal law enforcement crack downs, lack or withholding of quality care in the health sector due to race, and more racist air than needs to be swallowed has led to many of the repercussions black people face today, while at the very same time, benefiting white people. Realizing this does not make you bad, or someone else good, these are things that are. But it does allow for forward movement toward repairing those systems so that people today can have the same opportunities and the same outcomes, so that hard work can indeed pay off for everyone, and that people are not disadvantaged at every turn by the colour of their skin.

    I guess I wasn’t exhausted enough.

    • Sherry
      Sherry says:

      Since when is your job to explain shit to white people.I grew up with black people in fact I went to an ALL black school literally I was the only white person there umm so yeah save your uppity opinion. You didn’t grow up like me you have no idea what life I dealt with. I can guarantee it was way different than anything you’ve experienced.

          • Bos
            Bos says:

            Actually, Sherry, what you came off as is a racist.

            For future reference, you might consider not using the word “uppity” to refer to African-Americans, unless your intent is for people to think you are a racist.

        • H. Szold
          H. Szold says:

          Hey, Bos: I want to write some other stuff about this topic, but I’m afraid of using the wrong words. Now that I know “uppity” is “racist,” it would be helpful if you would supply a list of other “racist”words not to use around, for, with, or discussing black people. Is it okay to say “black”? Or is that racist, depending on what word Bos prefers? Can a black be “dangerous”? A criminal?Undeducated? Angry? Besotted w/victimhood? Are all negative words/phrases verboten when writing about blacks? Which ones, then? It would be helpful not to run afoul of the word police.

          • Sherry
            Sherry says:

            The girl I wrote uppity to is white. I wasn’t sticking up for white people at all, I was trying to say we are individuals. I guess I have a lot to learn. I will tell you, when someone says something derogatory about another race I dont let that slide, I tell them it’s 2018 time to stop talking like that.

      • Julia
        Julia says:

        It’s the “everyone is a snowflake so we can’t say anything about black people’s experience with racism” theory. Got it. Tell us more about what you had to “deal with” as a white minority in an all black school. Your snowflake experience is so important and fascinating.

    • jen
      jen says:

      Thank God you weren’t exhausted enough – You perfectly summarised what black people go through when living in a Westernised society/ “The World”

  5. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    Great choice of topic, I wish more white people would talk, and be allowed to talk, about race, without having to have all the “black friend” credential signaling.

    My signal: I’m a white guy in a suburb where our token black is actually a rich Nigerian immigrant; who was born in the inner city during white flight whose parents moved to the suburbs and so did grandpa, dropping the nword all the way; who wonders how his kids are going to avoid being casual racists – overly guilted clueless do gooders is probably more likely.

    Great comment Elanor. The others were terrible.

  6. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    When I was in graduate school in the 80’s, studying in Germany, I experienced intense hostility just for my citizenship and I came to the realization that it wasn’t even a glimpse of what black people live every day. It was a beneficial experience.

    I also have a Jewish maiden name (but am not Jewish…while it is very likely in my heritage) and most people assumed I was Jewish.

    People who meet me assume, and I have even been told to my face, that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My dad was an immigrant cab driver and I was the youngest of four…my parents divorced when I was 6 and grew up with a mom who was a single parent with four kids.

    People assume, assume, assume……..we can all do better by not assuming things about other people….even people we think we know. It is a starting point to address racism and to just be authentically considerate as a way of being.

  7. Gaby
    Gaby says:

    So glad I’m Canadian…. when I travel to the states, I do find a difference in how different ethnic groups are treated and act. In Canada, ethnicity is of no relevance, at.all. It’s sad.
    AMERICANS have always treated a different race as inferior then the white people, then want a medal for helping the “black” kid.
    Make “merica” great again, Penelope. SMH…… no wonder the rest of the world hates America.
    You all think you’re doing the world a favour by existing with your backwoods, racist , ignorant and uneducated beliefs. So embarrassed for you

    • May
      May says:

      Canada kind of has it’s own deep problems with the First Nations though. Canada has a dirty storied history with residential schools and racism against their indigenous populations that is perhaps on the same level of neglect and violence as the US has against its black population.

      Power always breeds some form of problems that it would rather not resolve because then it will lose its own standing, but of course since the US is the “superpower” they will have giant glaring problems that will be hard for any outside the US to miss.

      Penelope’s post is useful in that it helps black people navigate a system that is generally rigged against them. Finding opportunities to exploit and capitalize on in order to circumvent the barriers is definitely a Te-Ni way of doing things haha. I also like that she normalizes in “secretly aiming for the middle class”. You don’t have to become the “exceptional minority” they want you to be (inspiration to all or tragic story). You can just be happy too.

  8. Dale Harris
    Dale Harris says:

    Way to stir the pot. Communication is the answer even if it is not what some want to hear.
    I sent this post to my wife and kids. This is rich, thank you.


  9. David Fernandes
    David Fernandes says:

    “White kids don’t need to do this because white kids have people everywhere who can guide them, mentor them, write a letter or two.” To “prove” this you put an article from 2006. Are you sure that with the demographic shift going on in the US, a White id in a majority Black, Asian or Latino region won’t need people who “mentor” them? Won’t they face the normal racist prejudices any minority has in a majority region of other race?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This post isn’t about Asian or Latino discrimination. For one thing, it’s not nearly as damaging because there is no history of slavery. For another thing, the discrimination is much different. For example, Asian discrimination is in and out of the the Supreme Court lately because Asian kids have to get higher SAT scores and GPAs than other races in order to get into top colleges. That’s discrimination, okay, but in the US it’s not nearly as institutionalized, systematic, and long-standing as discrimination against black people. And Latinos also do not face the level of discrimination that black people do.

      If you look at healthcare (black people get worse outcomes than Asians, Latinos and whites) or education (black people are at the bottom of the performance meter) and divorce (black people are at the top) it’s clear that pervasive discrimination is doing way more damage to the black people than to any other race.

      The history of slavery in the US cannot be underestimated. It has persisted today, in the prison system, and in the education system, and it has destroyed black families and communities since the beginning of the founding of the Americas.


      • David Fernandes
        David Fernandes says:

        Thanks for your reply. I was taking the perspective of the White kid, not of the Latino or Asian kid. I was just stressing out that a White kid in a region where he\she is the minority will also have major problems with racism and discrimination. And as consequence he\she will need help with for his\her mentorship. Just to clarify that point: I am directly questioning your conclusion “White kids don’t need to do this because white kids have people everywhere”, that seems a racist generalization of White people and its experiences.

        • Bos
          Bos says:

          It might be worth educating yourself about what “racism” means. It’s not ‘the perception that people belong to different races and are thereby different.’ It’s a social system with institutionalized oppression of certain people based on their perceived race. There is no such thing as “racism against white people” in this country. White people are not oppressed here, and never have been. If you think there is “racism against white people,” that’s real racism speaking through you, making you justify the continued existence of racism and white privilege based on a fantasy.

          As for the statement, “White kids don’t need to do this because white kids have people everywhere,” sure, it’s not entirely true.

          However, the extent to which it’s untrue is irrelevant, and the assertion is sophistic. Places exist where white kids don’t have people, but those places aren’t necessary for their advancement. A white kid could conceivably encounter an all-black college class, an all-black bank staff, or an all-black investment team. But honestly that won’t matter at all to the white kid, except to the extent he gets a momentary thrill from being the odd one out or feels aggrieved about being picked on – which thrill or grief he can leave behind as soon as he leaves the room.

          • David Fernandes
            David Fernandes says:

            “There is no such thing as “racism against white people” in this country.” That is a preposterous racist statement against Whites and like every form of racism, impossible to discuss or reason with it.

            “Places exist where white kids don’t have people, but those places aren’t necessary for their advancement. ” So which places are for the “advancement” of white kids? If the places where there are whites are also for the advancement of other races (just like what this article is proposing), what is the place where white kids can find support and guidance?

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            Sorry David, you seem to be honestly trying to understand this, and it is so hard to understand but it’s true — there is no racism against white people in this country and probably in the world. Thank imperialism and slavery for that. In my own experience, I lived as a white minority for over a year and it undid any idea I had about the possibility of racism against whites. Individuals or even small groups might show hatred against a white person, but the whole world systemically favors white people.

            As for where white kids can find support and guidance — anywhere. Again, any individual white kid can be too annoying or incompetent to succeed at getting support and guidance, but systematically, that kid has the advantage in getting support based on being white.

        • Angie
          Angie says:

          David, my brother-in-law grew up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood and was one of only a few white students at his high school. He dealt with a lot of discrimination in addition to violent attacks from black students, both at school and outside of school. So, at least anecdotally, your post rings true to me. He was the victim of race-motivated discrimination and violence. But it’s also true that most institutions he had access to (law enforcement, the city’s public school system, etc.) were still much “friendlier” to him than to the black people around him.

          • Mrs. Ralph
            Mrs. Ralph says:

            Now you’ve posed a real conundrum, a brain teaser, a mystery at least: why ever would the cops, school, and other institutions that promote goodness, treat your white victim brother-in-law in a “friendlier” way than they would his evil, racist oppressors? Don’t got to know much about history, biology, or nothin’ else to figure that one out, Angie. Should the cops and school authorities be “friendlier” to the pricks who victimize Dave? Or maybe they should be even-handed? Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya.

      • Leslie
        Leslie says:

        I agree, Penelope. The institution of slavery meant that wealth was built on the backs of slaves for the benefit of other families but they had no family unit they could rely on for an inheritance. This reverberates over generations. This damage is exacerbated when other people tell black people to “just get over” it.

        I am not being as articulate as I should be on this topic because the emotion of it overwhelms me.

      • Charlene
        Charlene says:

        I heard on NPR today that the tradition of slavery is perpetuated against black people in the NCAA. Think of what they are putting their bodies through and how much $$$ the colleges are taking in as the fruits of black young men’s blood, sweat, tears and labor. I never thought of it that way before, but if the shoe fits….these young black men deserve the fruits of their labor and talent.

      • jen
        jen says:

        1000% This!!

        Thank you for summarising the problems black people face and linking it back to the root cause which is slavery.

      • M. Mitchell
        M. Mitchell says:

        Thank you, Penelope. You pretty much summed it up right there. I guess folks will continue to have a hard time understanding the SYSTEMATIC measures that have been taken by the government and private companies to put black families and individuals and the economic and psychological bottom of society.

        Suggested Readings:
        The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America


        Dream Hoarders

  10. Sam
    Sam says:

    This is some of your best writing. Thought provoking and humbling. I second the admiration of your normalization of aiming for the middle class. It’s a helpful reminder for white people, too. So much of your writing is really a reminder that it’s okay- or better than okay- to have a stable job, raise a family, and generally be a kind person. I wish more people realized this. We’d be a happier and saner society.

  11. Gayle
    Gayle says:

    Love this. Much of this rings true for me. Especially #4. My best mentor and cheerleader was at a publishing company right after college. It was very entrepreneurial company which made it a great fit for me. Then things changed and it wasn’t. I think my career would have been less chaotic (and more successful in terms of my own standards) if early on I had people who could have “kept it real” like this guy, so at least I’d known what to look out for, rather than learning through trial and error.

  12. sarah
    sarah says:

    I watched the music video, This is America by Childish Gambino, (
    He puts in many points about the black culture and the problems they face. His main point is, if black people want change, then they need to step up and create change, instead of pouring themselves into materialistic things. It reminds me of Wesley’s Theory by Kendrick Lamar ( When he goes off on a tangent how much the black community cares about image and spending:

    What you want you? A house or a car?
    Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
    Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam on your dollar
    Motherfucker you can live at the mall
    I know your kind (that’s why I’m kind)
    Don’t have receipts (oh man, that’s fine)
    Pay me later, wear those gators
    Cliche and say, fuck your haters
    I can see the borrow in you
    I can see the dollar in you
    Little white lies with a snow white collar in you
    But it’s whatever though because I’m still followin’ you
    Because you make me feel forever baby, count it all together baby
    Then hit the register and make me feel better baby
    Your horoscope is a gemini, two sides
    So you better cop everything two times
    Two coupes, two chains, two c-notes
    Too much and enough both we know
    Christmas, tell ’em what’s on your wish list
    Get it all, you deserve it Kendrick
    And when you get the White House, do you
    But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school
    And everything you buy, taxes will deny
    I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five.

    Of course, it is unfair to group the black community into this, the poorer white class also belongs, spending more than they earn. The point being, things can’t change if you keep doing the same. And I think this post is a good example of this.

    It’s stupid to give advice on how to sneak around the system when we live in a country where the people can overhaul the system. The truth is the system is set up for rich white men, and there is no room for anyone else. Why keep fighting to get in? It’s like the medieval times when countries would surround themselves with Stone Walls. For a time, this was effective in keeping life the way they wanted. Until someone came up with a brilliant idea to simply starve the people out. This is what America needs to do to the top 1%.

    I don’t know all of the solutions, I’m not a revolutionary leader, but trying to be the 1% that knows how to manipulate a system set against them is unattainable. A new system has to be put into place, and I’m sure we can figure it out.

  13. Jane
    Jane says:

    I work in an rtc with cps kids. We have a nice mix of black, latino, and white. Surprisingly the mix is pretty equal. These blue eyed, blonde, adorable white kids look like they belong ( stereotypically) in the middle class, yet this can’t be farther from the truth. They come from broken homes, most of their parents are in jail or they abandoned them. They have been abused, bounced from foster care to psych hospital, and are horribly behind academically. There lives resemble ( stereotypical) black lives, yet because of their looks, people assume they dont need help, guidence or any special favors. Yet they need it so much, much more than their middle class black peers. I hate the kkk, yet I imagine it is made up of these type of kids, who had horrible childhoods but were told that all black people had it worse.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Why can’t this be a sharing of experiences black people have in American society without all the dismissive “whataboutism”? Yes, poverty is also a terrible problem, but that’s not what this post is about.

      Listening is humanizing.

    • Jima
      Jima says:

      The KKK is made up of normal people that didn’t necessarily have worse childhoods, that are obsessed with blaming other groups of people for their problems. If any single person became racist against black people because they were told black people have it worse…. They would still be a racist KKK member! And they would have no sense of logic, but a strong sense of self-victimhood.

  14. Jane
    Jane says:

    But this post isnt just about the black experience in america. It’s peppered with sentences about how white people have it much easier. My point was that a lot of obstacles black people face( the issues mentioned in this articles specifically), white people also face. And dismissing those experiences creates resentment which leads to the racism we all are against.

    • D
      D says:

      Jane I have a question for you. The opposite of oppression is ?

      Antonyms for oppression

      White people may face separate individual obstacles similar to some a black person will face no one here says otherwise, but to add all of the obstacles up and place them on one minority group of people due to something so completely beyond their control like their skin color gives White people an advantage. We may be poor, but we can throw on nice clothes and be assumed to have the money to shop in just about any store. We can call the police when we need assistance and be reasonably assured that we will not end up being the ones arrested. We can commit crimes and be pretty sure that we will either be overlooked entirely, or if we are caught are reasonably sure that we won’t end up dead in the process.

      I contemplated sharing a link with you about examples of institutional racism, subtle racism, racism within the black community towards those with darker skin, unpacking your bias, the genetic testing commercial where racists find out their enthic history includes minority groups, or the white adoptive dad of a black young lady who I saw on social media this morning who was embarrassed and shocked that he could not erase his own bias, and was brave enough to share it with the world. But you probably wouldn’t listen anyways because these stories are ALL around you, 1,000 different search terms will bring them to your fingertips. Or you could read half way up this page from what Elanor said.

      I’m sorry you feel that white people do not have it easier than black people regardless of financial means in America today. You are wrong.

      • Jane
        Jane says:

        Institutional and systematic racism happens because of racist individuals. The way to end racism is through inclusion not a “mine is bigger than yours” contest. Yet this keeps happening whenever this conversation happens. If a black person complains about oppression, is it helpful to tell them, ” well you don’t have it as bad Latinos who have to worry about deportation?” No, its not. Yet if a white person shares a story of discrimination they are told ” that sucks, but at least you dont have to worry about police brutality.” Is any person who suffered from racially charged discrimination going to respond positively to that?

        The way to end racism is through inclusion. Regardless of whether its right or fair, as long as people have the attitude black people always have it worse than white, there will always be a wall against races, and that wall is where racism is born.

        If a black person tells a story of how extreme poverty hurt his life, and a white person chimes in about their poverty, the black person can say ” this is about the systematic poverty that affects my people.” They would be correct in their statement, but what did they achieve. They just told this white person to stay on their side of the racial wall. However, if they replied with ” yes, poverty sucks” and then compared battle wounds with the white person, they just made a human connection. The problem of poverty has become a joint problem for these two people to overcome together.

        I know you ‘ll prolly say it isnt the job of the black person to be inclusive, and while you may technically be right, inclusion is the only way to end racism.

        • Mary Jane
          Mary Jane says:

          In the examples Penelope gave, a person kid with a difficult background would still face less prejudice (about being able to succeed) once they receive the help they need than a black person.

          That’s the whole point of the post and you’re being deliberately naive (and distracting from the point) if you don’t want to acknowledge that.

        • D
          D says:

          You are asking the black person to say yea poverty sucks and letting the white person off the hook for saying yea racism is real and here and now and affecting your life. Your scenario doesn’t make a human connection, it makes an unequal connection one where the white person concedes nothing and the black person has to avoid talking about a huge part of themselves.

          I have engaged enough online with people who make comments like all lives matter, claim reverse racism, disparage affirmative action, enter their own one up games of hard lives, spread fear about the majority minority, say disparaging things about Native Americans or football players taking a knee who REFUSE to acknowledge it exists right now right here and has compounding effects on the ability of people of color to succeed. They absolutely don’t believe it.

          Its not individuals racism in my view, it is unconscious bias where we seek out like individuals to recruit, hire, join together with, that leads to it. The way to end it is not passive and vague “inclusion” but a strong effort at facing our bias, including diverse voices in our DAILY lives and a focus on how it prevents organizations from being the best they can be, from making the money they could make, from not having a blind side when it comes to hiring that creates an unimaginative homogeneous workforce.

          This man who is writing this advice through PT’s blog was willing to share with a white woman his cultivated advice over his career as to how to combat some of the common pitfalls he has encountered. Now through her others can read it. That is a blessing. I won’t reply again as we have both said our piece.

  15. D
    D says:

    I’m glad you wrote this. I shared it, but omitted anyone I currently work with or rely on for possible future networking opportunities because, well you know why.

    I’m not black and I don’t have any black friends (sorry to the few casual acquaintances I do have but I’m smart enough to know its not the level of friendship that breeds familiarity with your experience). I do read A LOT. About a lot of topics and from a lot of different voices. I read random strangers on the internet being racist. Those who know they are and those who can’t imagine why they get called that and go complain to their like minded friends about it.

    I read random black voices on the internet explaining for the thousandth time some giant or tiny aspect of racism that others don’t see. Willing to be publicly on record with their real name attached because they actually DID have the energy that day to defend.

    Thanks for giving this man a voice, maybe some day he will be able to claim credit without impacting his career. God Willing.

  16. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Thank you for recognizing the truth in your client’s words and posting here. This resonates.

  17. Galexan
    Galexan says:

    The mental gymnastics that blacks have to do, to game the system is insane! I hope you refunded his $$ back for his hour of teaching you!

  18. RoseAG
    RoseAG says:

    I think these are good points.

    You can go around being all liberal-artsy, and offended by subtle slights, but it’s not going to pay the bills once you’ve graduated. White kids have families who’ll help with the rent, leave a kid with a credit card or pay for graduate school while they continue to sort themselves out.

    If you don’t have that backstop you need to get focused and stay that way.

  19. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    What about the issue of black kids getting into colleges they may not be able to get into if they weren’t black, and then can’t perform at the levels of the other students? Whereas if they just went a college their abilities aligned with they’d perform fine.

  20. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I read this post a week ago. I thought at the time there’s no way I’m going to comment on it. A few reasons came to mind including I’m not black (which is to say I haven’t lived with the experience of being black) and there may be some things I write that could be construed as me being racist (which I don’t believe is the case at all but today it seems everybody is walking on eggshells and falling all over themselves to not give that impression). And sure enough, I see it here in the comment section.
    What changed is a story (short news snippet) about a black man that I heard about this morning. It sounded very interesting to me as he was a professional football player, materials scientist, and astronaut and some things were said that piqued my interest including the fact I was a materials scientist. I did a search and found a C-Span video ( ) of him (Leland Melvin) as he recently wrote a book titled ‘Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances’. It turns out he is black and has encountered racism. The best part is his outlook on life and how he has reacted to situations in his life including racism. Which is my point. Whether it’s racism, misogyny, bigotry, antisemitism, or any number of other _isms. We can’t control other people’s _ism’s. However, we can control our reaction to them. Which I believe this man has done well throughout his life. That’s my takeaway after watching this short video. His experience in space as an astronaut on the space shuttle has fundamentally altered his view of the races. It’s now more than ever about the human race for him. And that’s the way it should be in my estimation if we’re to advance as humans. It’s not as if this is the first black man I’ve heard about or met who is successful and managed their career well. It’s the latest and they all have certain things in common including grit and kindness. Now, with all that being said, I agree with many of the things which you have written regarding managing a career if you’re black. There are certain hurdles to be aware and overcome. And as I write, I think there could be a whole series of works for each race, religion, etc. The one I would focus on, though, is one that could somehow be applicable to all us regardless of how were identified or classified by other people.

  21. Cate
    Cate says:

    Interesting column. I’d like to know what this gentleman Penelope references thinks about it. Does he have anything to add/support/clarify?

  22. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Great post, Penelope. I’m a black woman in an elitist field (law) and all of the above are true. I got the job I have now because even I went to undergrad at a school ranked in the top 50, and the person interviewing me said, “I don’t need to ask you about your experience because you went to a school for overachievers.” I have natural hair, but I wear it straight for job interviews and the first week of a new job. I make a point of smiling and speaking to everyone I see in the office (even though I’m an ISTJ who hates small talk). All those little things make a difference. The truth is that black people have to walk of fine line of being themselves, and not being too black to be accepted. Until it changes, you have to play the system to get where you want to be.

    • jen
      jen says:

      “I have natural hair, but I wear it straight for job interviews and the first week of a new job. I make a point of smiling and speaking to everyone I see in the office (even though I’m an ISTJ who hates small talk). All those little things make a difference. The truth is that black people have to walk of fine line of being themselves, and not being too black to be accepted. Until it changes, you have to play the system to get where you want to be.”

      I 100% agree with this post I also make a point of making small talk when in a room with people (especially if I don’t know them) so I don’t come across as a stereotypical passive aggressive black girl with an attitude. Which has happened as being an INTJ I think mean people mistake my bluntness or quietness for being rude or being in a mood.

      I also wear my hair in a slicked back bun instead of curly sometimes if I’m meeting people in a professional setting, as I worry they will think I’m unprofessional and not able to perform the job if I have my hair natural.

  23. AmayaRC
    AmayaRC says:

    I’ve read your blog for years and never commented. I was so relieved to read this post. As an African American, 1st gen college grad who’s worked in big industry-your advice to folks to bypass college always rankled. Why? Because college affords many 1st gen’s, especially black kids, the opportunity to meet High performers, mentors or advisers (since familial networks can’t provide that academic or career support), future funders, and enter the middle class through elite jobs. Education (certain colleges of course) grants access that many of my white colleagues, and trust fund black friends have naturally through intangible, cultural capital (family, friends). People who benefit from cultural capital can sniff out the folks who are just like them – college helps those without learn the markers of that type of capital (ie the ways of Richard Reeves’ “Dream Hoarders”)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is such an eloquent way to describe all the benefits people have without noticing. Thank you so much for commenting from not only a black perspective but a first generation perspective.

      As a kid who comes from four generations of university educated family members, it’s very difficult to understand how hard it is for first generation kids to get to college. I was mentoring a girl who was a freshman at a not very impressive college, but she had amazing grades and amazing test scores. She was an immigrant and her high school teachers helped her get to college.

      But the first thing I said to her is, “Why are you at such a bad school with those credentials?” And she was so frustrated. She told me her family didn’t even know there were good and bad colleges. No one told her she could get a scholarship. A college near her high school literally walked into her classroom and told her they would give her a full scholarship so she went there.

      The story is remarkable to me not only for how much she didn’t know, but for how much I assumed she did know. It never occurred to me that there would be someone with such high grades and high test scores who didn’t know how to navigate the world.

      Privilege to rich people is so much like social skills to people with Aspergers. We are blind to it. Even if people say “you need to pay attention to this because it matters a lot” we think we are paying attention and we are actually ignoring it.


  24. jen
    jen says:

    Thank you Penelope for writing that post. I wholeheartedly agree
    with what your client said/ with most of what you wrote.

    As a black British woman who has always tried my best to have a good career, I have been following your advice for years – It was you who made me decide to specialise in marketing/marketing strategies – So I internalised point number 2 over 4 years ago- When I first began reading your blog.
    And I agree that people are quick to label black people a failure – Which is why I decided early on I wanted to have a good career in order to lessen the stereotype of black people being uneducated and unsuccessful. The other 2x reasons why I decided it was important to successfully navigate a career are as follows:

    1. I’ve always felt that as a black woman born in 1990 I’m very lucky to be born in this day and age rather than 50-100+ years ago, as my experience in this world as a black female would have been very different. As such I should make the most of the opportunities I have available today (can work/vote/ go where I want) Thanks to the sacrifices of thousands of people who fought hard, so that I could experience those opportunities.

    2. My parents have always drilled it into me that it’s important to have a good career and credentials – Hence why I also did post grad qualifications after dropping out of my law course at Uni- As even though I’m a marketing manager I’m not sure if I could still have reached this level without my credentials.

    I’ll never forget that when I was young my dad would always say I have to work doubly as hard as everyone else, because I have 2x strikes against me: 1. I’m black 2. I’m a female.

  25. Alyce
    Alyce says:

    As a black female lawyer, this has 100% been my experience, aside from not really letting as many people help me as I can…

  26. Ivan Karamazov
    Ivan Karamazov says:

    How would you modify this advice for black people with Asperger’s? You may not be black, yet a synthesis should still be quite possible.
    As a black person on the autism spectrum, I am very curious how this would work, since career advice for autistics looks a bit different.

    It may be worth noting that I am an engineer, and never ‘mentored’ with anyone but I am an autodidact and taught myself everything needed.

    I went to an expensive private college after getting good test scores and scholarships but dropped out after the first year because I couldn’t understand why I would be there without having chosen a specialization first. The whole experience seemed to be pointless for me.
    I learned why my family pushed so hard after I left school and had to work any job I could get hired for, educate myself, and eventually land a career in IT.

    I don’t really see myself as a person who needs a”…network of high performers who will support them in their adult life…” but I can recall several individuals (all happened to be white, except one black person) that were woefully unprepared for the job and needed extensive training before they wound up leaving for a job with less responsibility anyway. I always wondered why they would wind up getting hired over any person that knew what they were talking about.

    So even if this is how the world works, how does it differ from nepotism?
    Isn’t the advice here to basically just make friends and get help from them when you need it?

    I would hate for other black autistic people to think that the only way to progress in a career that interests them is with the help of well-to-do white (or black) “friends”. People tend to get in the way of my objectives, personally. Not to mention the implicit difficulties of navigating personal relationships.

    That said, now that I’m older, it would have been nice if I could’ve met a black VC with deep pockets when I was younger… Oh well.

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