Yes, you read this right, “a progressive environment”. I did not say a Trump rally, I did not mean deep in the most monochrome country in the world. I am really talking about a “progressive environment”. How do I define a “progressive environment”? It is a combination of place and people who by and large have progressive views on sociopolitical topics. You know the type of people who know Global Warming is real, who are anti-Brexit and would not ban immigrants from Muslim countries.
My European alma mater, is exactly that type of environment. I recently went back to Europe for my 5th-year business school reunion. This was the first time I attended one of my reunions so I did not know what to expect and I had several superficial questions: How to dress for the day sessions? How to dress for the evening gala? How to dress for the sunday picnic? Pretty basic questions right? You may even think, why does it matter that much? Well through my upbringing I realized that the way you look matters. Attracting attention by standing out from the crowd can be good, but rarely is. And I wanted to fit in. I graduated from that business school. I am one of them. If it was a weekend with my childhood friends I am certain that we would all show up dressed similarly, without even talking to each other. Why, because we have a shared background; a shared culture.
However, the situation was different at the reunion:
- There was only a handful of black people. My best guess would be about 2%. There are so few of us that I barely remember giving the “black nod”, and I noticed the photographer covering the event taking numerous photos of me. I wish I could claim that my good looks attracted him, but that would be lying.
- The majority of people come from money, are in high paying jobs, or pretend to be one or the other. Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with coming from money or having a high paying job. Matter of fact, I found that these groups were the most humble people. People with real money never rub it in your face. But, they usually have a shared culture, just like I have with my old neighborhood friends. For example, they buy clothes in the same places.
- I wanted to be myself. For as far as I can remember, I decided to adapt and blend into my environment. It was my decision. It was convenient, and really comforting when you are far from what you know best. And it served me well. I learned to experience things from a different perspective. But now, at age 37, and working for a company that values diversity and encourages everybody to be themselves, I want to respectfully show the world and my alma matter who I really am.
I clearly had my own insecurities. Not so much about being a minority. After 15 years in corporate, I learned how to fit, even to use it to my advantage. The real game changer was the combination of being a minority, having rich people around me but above all my willingness of “being my true self”.
Let’s face it. Acting true to myself at my alma mater was new to me. That felt uncomfortable. So while it would be convenient for me to blame that discomfort on the environment made up mostly of white people, the reality was that I had to fight my own demons. That does not take away challenges minorities face, privileges that white people enjoy. These things are real. But I am convinced we all have superpowers and we need build on them. In that situation I needed to forget the worst things a handful of people may think, and instead focus on what I had to offer. Easier said than done. Over the 3 days, I probably failed on the last day.
Next occasion I have, I won’t hesitate to show the value that my diversity brings. I won’t hesitate to rock my limited edition sneakers and my tapered trousers. I won’t water down my original point of views. I will speak up when I think necessary. I am perceived differently, because I am different and I love it.