Thursday, August 03, 2006

i had lunch with an intern and two other brown girls yesterday from my office. the poor little intern had no clue how to go about grad school, finding a job - totally lost.

we were talking about how she needs to create a network for herself and i found myself saying, 'you need to widen your circle of friends. and it wouldn't be a bad idea to make sure one of them is white. some white folk can be very helpful.'

'i don't know any white people.'
'you need to. at least one.'
'really. but find a good brown mentor, too. you'll need both. cover all your bases.'

the other two women nodded. 'we didn't think this was important when we graduated college, but after working for a while, yes. ding is right. you need a white friend. at least one.'
'but why?'

i said, 'first, it's always good to be friends with everyone, but it's especially good to have a bridge to white folk. it's about strategy. i've grown up around white people; i've always had white friends. but it was still an eye-opener to see how white guys i worked with made connections, met one another, promoted one another, got up that ladder. they're bold, assertive, they do their homework and they think ahead. i learned a lot observing them and my roommate's way of thinking about work and management has actually helped me. our friends and family back in the neighborhood - they're about safety. as long as you find a good job, baby, you'll do ok. nice advice, but not really gonna help you be anything more than safe. you need someone to show you how to get your foot in the door and keep it there until you get what you need. white folk know how to do that.'

(the white guys at the table next to us fell silent.)

the other two brown girls nodded.
one of them said, ' my dad worked his way up the ladder to a senior executive position at the post office. he has a great job but all he wanted was for me to get a good job at the post office. i didn't want to work for the post office.'

i said, 'and my mom wanted me to get my teacher's certification and be a high school teacher back in california. she thought grad school was risky.'

the intern asked, 'does everyone know about this?'
'well, you won't find it in a black MBA book, but we think it's useful.'


john patrick said...

Diversity is a professional asset.

Cultural knowledge is precious, and cultural differences are always, always seem counter-intuitive at first glance. They are hard to believe. If they weren't so hard to believe, they wouldn't be cultural differences.

I wonder what the white guys at the next table were thinking. They're not accustomed to being thought of as useful by us.

You have to know white people in this country. They created it so that they could perpetuate their success. You can't swim against the current forever

bitchphd said...

That's totally fascinating. It makes perfect sense, too.

Damn, you brown people are cunning.

ding said...

we are!
oh, the worlds that would open if people knew what we really thought!

June said...

I loved what you just wrote. So true Ding. So true. I've being telling so many"brown" people this for years. I going to send your blog there way, hopefully they'll get it, now.


ding said...

you're welcome, june!
i think that a lot of us don't do this because it smacks of 'selling out.'

hell, that's all working in corporate america is. so why not be as strategic as possible in everything we do? getting a white person into your circle is not so much about race as it is about deciphering cultural codes in a place and finding the best person to help you navigate them.

like jp said, since most of our institutions are built around a 'white' model, then who's going to best show you how to move in and out of it? someone who knows the 'code.'

FemTeacher said...

The new ABA journal has approached this issue, specifically women of color in large law firms. The connection is made between the lack of "climbing the corporate ladder" and the distance between white men and women of color, because sadly the "white boy club" is still alive and kicking.

Prof Mama said...

This is very interesting. As a white woman who grew up in a blue-collar family, I heard the same advice: get your teaching certificate (which I did) or go work for "the city"--like my dad, both my brothers, and both their wives (all of whom do blue or pink collar labor). Working for the city is secure employment (as one of my brothers says, the sewers always have to run--that's where he works) and has good benefits, which is why they pushed that on all of us (my siblings and me). I was a first-generation college student.

I didn't get during college that I needed to figure out how to connect with middle-class and upper-middle-class folks, especially men. And even though I had excellent grades and recommendations, I didn't get a teaching job, either.

Later, when I went to grad school, I started to see how the students who came from more privileged backgrounds operated. I learned that self-promotion isn't bragging and how to do it. I learned how to be very strategic in my choice of mentors. The Advisor was African-American and came from a WC background as well, and she was important in teaching me how to play the game and is one of the few people who understood my struggle with feeling like I didn't belong. But I also worked closely with male profs who could model and teach me certain behaviors, such as negotiation--a subject I don't have a clue about.

Now that I'm starting a new job, I'm still trying to be strategic. I deliberately asked for a particular male prof to be mentor in the formal program. He has already been very useful in teaching me how to deal with certain situations in the dept (like when they weren't going to give me an office!). I also want to develop other mentors as well, who have a background more similar to mine.

This very loooong comment was to say that I found your post really fascinating and was also surprised by how it resonated with my white girl experience. :) Not that it's the same, because it's definitely not--whiteness give you privilege, no matter your gender or class. I was still struck by reading about experiences and feelings I have certainly had. I feel like I'm playing a chess match most of the time, strategizing and anticipating others' moves.

ding said...

prof mama -
thank you thank you thank you.

i was afraid that this would mainly come across as a race thing - and a problematic one, at that. thank you for articulating how this is a larger 'privilege' thing.

like it or not, those of us who come from experiences that could be said to be liminal because of race, class or ethnicity are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to navigating The Man's world. i also learned this in graduate school, but in an opposite way - i saw what my friends were doing to land those grant recommendations and great research fellowships and i scoffed.

i said, 'that's weak. that's sucking up.' well, they got funding and i didn't. now i've learned better. and i've benefited from it. it still takes some getting used to: to be assertive, to say no, to negotiate, to look in a crowd of people and consciously think 'who do i need to make contact with?'.

i've barely been in my new position a month and already i'm thinking about how i can parlay this into my next professional move in 18 months or so.

it is thinking that is utterly alien to my upbringing.

ding said...

femteacher -

my first corporate pseudo-mentor was a white man from the south. gosh, i liked working with him. he first found out i didn't want to be an assistant my whole life, i had a graduate degree and he started taking me around to meet other people in the firm.

it didn't work out, but i remember being puzzled: why is this white man so gung ho about this?

now i know. and every year i send him a card, letting him know how i am and what's going on. networking, baby.

Changeseeker said...

This post is excellent. I'm getting ready to post a second part on some thoughts related to European-Americans becoming allies to people of color (first part here). I'll definitely link to this.

Anonymous said...


Yes- I will just say as a Jewish, white upper middle class girl it has been hugely eye-opening to have many relationships accross class and ethnicity and to recognize both the probems AND advantages that having a sense of entitlement can bring. Clearly too much of that is obnoxious--when our students come by demanding an A that they clearly do not deserve, etc...but the sense of--I have a right to go to college etc, is something I always had---and so many people I've been close to have to be convinced that they have entitlement to education, a challenging job, etc----the second anything goes wrong, they often blame themselves...we should always look at ourselves---but when someone is screwing you it is also important to realize it and to know how to seek redress...

It is challenging to communicate to someone that they have abilities and potential when they did not get this form parents, teachers etc...that is truly the secret special sauce that many upper middle class, and wealthy folks give their kids. Too much=bad, but a fair amount of entitlement plus the tools to seek out what you already feel you deserve ---really helps.