Standing Out When Black

Most of the time it sucked for me. And 20 years of that feeling has long lasting impact

Why does it suck to stand out when Black? Let me go back, way back. As far as I can remember.

It takes me to when I was 6 years old. Of course I would not remember every details. I simply remember the feeling. That feeling that trouble was at every single corner and that the way to stay out of trouble was to travel in group and keep a low profile. As simple as that. Fast forward a few years later… I am now 11. Trouble is no longer a feeling. Trouble is real. You stand out with nice sneakers, you might lose your nice kicks. You stand out at recess, you may get picked up on for no apparent reasons. Fast forward more. I am 16. I am full grown: 6’2, 190 lbs Black man wearing a hoodie. Now suddenly I am perceived as a threat. The police stops me for random ID checks on the street, camp sites are suddenly full when they see me and my friends come, people hug their bags when we cross path in the street.

This is why I have been a ruler follower for so long. And my wife often reminds me how much of a rule follower I am. I can’t help it. This is how I was raised, that is what I saw in my environment, and this is what created positive outcomes for me. Some people think it is simple to take risks, try new things, be creative… If you are one of them, I invite you to think again. Imagine that over decades, trying new things meant at best a weird feeling and at worst physical or emotional pain? Would you take risks often?

Some people may still say that you should go after what you believe. I agree. This is what I say to everybody. This is what I want for my kids. What changed? My confidence level. My level of “safety”. My network. My savings. NOW, I get why people in a comfortable situations talk about taking risks. Risks do not look like risks. They look more like inconvenience. If I lose my job tomorrow. It is no fun, but also not the end of the world. Chances are I will find another job. May not be as good, but I’ll find one. I have savings to keep my family ok by the time we land on our feet.

Today I understand the take risk and the play it safe mentalities. This is why I shared both perspectives. I want the privileged crowd, mostly white men, to appreciate the extra difficulties that the non privileged crowd, mostly minorities, endure over a lifetime.

How much should I hate slavery’s legacy

The answer is not that obvious… just kidding!

One of my new year resolution was to take a 2 week vacation with my family. A few months later, here I am in Martinique. A French Caribbean island. It is nicknamed the island of flowers. Due to French laws, its coastline is pristine. No high rise hotels nowhere close to the beaches. Actually, what I enjoy most, is to swim out and look back and mostly see trees and the mountains in the background. I have seen more beautiful beaches, but I rarely saw a similar landscape.

A few more facts to set up the scene of the benefits of riding with France. Martinique has benefited greatly to still be part of France. The roads are like 10 times better than the roads in New York state. The Health system is as good as in many places in France. although official unemployment rate is high, especially with young people, they benefit from France min subvention of 551 euros per month. Not meaning that everything is perfect, the high rate of drug related criminality shows the limits, but many of neighboring island envy Martinique.

Let’s talk slavery legacy. Well, no spoiler here. The island was built on slavery. Main crops were coffee, cocoa, and sugar cane. The latter is what caused me a major conundrum this year. Yes only this year, not the other 20 times I visited my parents homeland. Why? my wife. On day 2, we went to visit a former “habitation”, a euphemism to describe a luxurious house where slave masters where living. On this domain, we visited a cocoa plantation. As we walked through the beautiful gardens and old buildings my wife kept asking pertinent questions: “who does this belong to?”; “why all the good jobs are for whites”; etc… and quickly we got to the obvious, yet quiet truth of Martinique. This habitation belongs to slave masters descendent, Bekes as called in Martinique. Although we are being frugal to become Financially Independent, we aimed to buy from locally owned businesses. It was hard in the US, but I truly thought that in Martinique I could easily spend on Black businesses. Well, it was possible until we came to the staple item of the Island: agricultural rum. I should have known. Rum is made from sugar cane. Sugar cane was one of the major crop during slavery. Buying rum benefit descendent of slave owners. That is true for all brand except Neisson, because that brand started after slavery was abolished.

I am bothered. I used to come back from Martinique with some amazing bottles of rum. A 40 year old bottle, limited editions, etc… a true palate reviver.

Now the real question. Am I right to penalize the Bekes? Like my dad said, the pyramid were made by slaves, and I would still visit it (it is on my list). Well the descendent of Pharaohs are dead. and if not dead, they are no longer in power. Martinique may be a unique case in the whole world. 2000 Bekes control 20% of the island wealth, and own 50% of the cultivable land.

How come? In 1793, slavery is abolished in France, after the French revolution. In France, nobility get their head chopped. The same happened in the other French island, Guadeloupe. But the Bekes from Martinique get protected by the Brits. Hence they are probably the only one in the world that still live where they enslaved people and still enjoy the wealth built on the misery of slaves. True, this is the past and it can not be changed. What I can do though, is to choose where I buy my rum. I know it will taste better knowing it has nothing to do with Bekes.

I found the Black version of “West Side Story”

It is “Kicks”

I just watched an independent movie. For once I felt exactly what I heard so many people describe before. A deep connection to the movie. I felt like the movie described one of my potential life in a dimension not too distant. I felt that the characters were distant relatives. I felt that where the movie was filmed could have been a version of where I could have been brought up. I had so many different feelings over 90 minutes… I get why this movie got 84% on rotten tomatoes, with a probably a very low budget. I get why it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. That movie is “Kicks”. Here is some info from rotten tomatoes:

In Justin Tipping’s feature debut Kicks, nothing is as simple as it seems. Fifteen-year-old Brandon longs for a pair of the freshest sneakers that money can buy; assuming that merely having them on his feet will help him escape the reality of being poor, neglected by the opposite sex and picked on by everyone — even his best friends. Working hard to get them, he soon finds that the titular shoes have instead made him a target after they are promptly snatched by local hood, Flaco. Seemingly the embodiment of menace, Flaco harbors complexities of his own that will be revealed when Brandon goes on a mission to retrieve his stolen sneakers with his two best friends in tow. The film transcends a deceptively traditional hero’s journey to deliver an entertaining and sobering look at the realities of inner-city life, the concept of manhood and the fetishization of sneaker culture. Visually and thematically rich, with an amazing soundtrack of both hip-hop classics and Bay Area favorites, Kicks creates an authentic and original portrait of a young man drowning in the expectations of machismo.

Why am I calling it the Black version of West Side Story? (Frankly, it could have been any other classic mainstream movie). How often I went to watch independent films, with very high scores on rotten tomatoes and felt like poking my eyes would have been less painful. And that is even when moves come highly recommended by great friends! I thought people were doing that to me by malice. Now I understand that they have a different worldview. What they see, feel, hear is based on their worldview, their experiences and to some extent their expectations. I need to “Kicks” on some of my non-initiated friends and study them very carefully. Well, I won’t do it, but instead, I am ready to bet a whole quarter that it would go as follow:

  • Is that his natural hair?
  • What are Air Jordan 1 BRED? and why are they so expensive?
  • Why are the shoes wrapped in cling film?
  • Why he does not want to play basketball with basketball shoes?
  • Where is the police? why are people being beaten up for no reasons?
  • Is that Flaco guy a thug or a caring father?
  • Why is there so much intimidation and bullying?
  • It does not make sense to risk your life for a pair of shoes?
  • Why are his friends following him, when they know they are risking their life, and it does not make sense?

Let me shed some light through my experience. Actually, I can not. The same way my friends cannot explain to me why some emotional scenes are having such an impact on them… I can not tell how likely and easy it is to do something stupid for your best friends. I get it that it is dumb… because it is! But your friends are everything in a particular environment. They are your life insurance, and you are theirs…

For parents, another way to express that feeling is through the love and dedication you have for your kids! There is probably no way to understand how much parents love their children, except if you have some.

Watch “Kicks” regardless of your background. You may or may not feel it. If you do, this is probably once of the first time! so enjoy. If you don’t, you will have experience how culture changes your worldview.

Frugal while Black

Frugality! I did not even know the meaning of this word until a few weeks ago! Even if I had known the meaning, I doubt it would have been a life objective. Here why I was wrong!

Over the holiday break, a good friend of mine introduced me to Financial Independence. In a few words, Financial Independence is about having F@ck You money. Being able to support your lifestyle without having to work. Sounds like everyone’s dream, right? Yet not many people are ready to do what it takes. The chances that Blacks become financially independent are even slimmer. I heard shocking data recently:

  • The wealth of the top 1% Black families is $1.5 million
  • The wealth of the top 1% White families is $12 million

Let’s put things into perspective $1.5 million is the number I believe my wife and my 2 kids would need to become financially independent. With that amount on a bank account, we should get about $60,000 per year in cash, and that forever. I emphasize the ***forever***! That is until the end of my life and that is for our kids, etc… Yes, the great thing about F@ck You Money is that you pass it on.

How to get F@ck You Money and be set for lives?

  1. Earn more: It is easier than you may think. Probably involves you doing things that you (and many others) may not especially enjoy to do. Anyway, surprisingly this is not the most challenging part of getting F@ck You Money. Keeping reading to learn more…
  2. Spend less: This is much harder than you think! Most people when they earn more, they spend more. It should be ok, but it is not. My personal example. During my glory days in London. My salary would increase by 25% and I would spend an extra 35%. And I was the reasonable guy! Most other people I knew would spend the bonus they were expecting to get 6 months later. Again, in my case, coming from a humble working-class single mom family I was buying stuff/experiences to show my “success”. To belong when I was with my banking/consulting colleagues. To get in and show off in hype clubs. It was futile. But again, after owning little, being rejected from even bad clubs more time than I can recall… it felt good to spend that money. Would it have been as good as being financially independent by age 35… I doubt it!
  3. Make your money work for you: So you did 1 and you did 2. You are better than most people! kudos! However, if your savings are on a checking account that does not pay interest… You won’t become financially independent. Your money should work for you. Following the most basic investment approach, in the long term, you should manage to get an annual interest rate of min 8%.

Want more information? Read what the experts say. This is a link to one of my favourite expert, the mad FIentist. 

Most, if not all of you would say that this idea is crazy. How could I get $1.5 million? Yet, some people will try to become a pro baller, rapper, etc… The crazy thing is that you are much much much more likely to get $1.5million than become a professional athlete. You just have to be ready to get F@ck You Money slowly!

El Chapo or Pablo Escobar

Who was the best negotiator?

I wrote before about Pablo Escobar and how his infamous “Plato or Plomo” (silver or lead). That made him, in my eyes, a savvy negotiator. I do not support illegal activities and the killing, but I am fascinated by how bad, and good people negotiate. Just like I despise Donald Trump, but his book The Art of the deal provides relevant insights.

So, in the villains’ negotiations series, I introduce villain #2 El Chapo Guzman. And as I research the topic, I realise that the timing is excellent! Because he is on trial right now in NYC, and it is a tourist attraction!

El Chapo. In case you are not watching the series on Netflix, El Chapo was once ranked the 41st wealthiest man in the world! How they calculated how rich he was, well probably the best guess, just like how they derive the wealth of everyone else on that list. Still, if you are on Forbes radar, you are RICH. And if you are rich through drug smuggling, you have left bodies behind you. In the Netflix series, the estimate is between 2000 and 3000 bodies. Again, no clue how accurate this is, but it is a lot if one loses track of killings!

Timeline refresh. First, there was the Medellin Cartel, then the Gentlemen of Cali and then the Guadalajara cartel before giving us El Chapo Guzman.

Beside all the atrocities, what did he do right, negotiation wise?

  • Explicit messages: As clear as it gets. The shipment does not arrive, you do not live another day. That way there are two options. The shipment arrives, or you die trying.
  • Consistency: No (good) surprises. No variations. It is always the same outcome if you do not deliver. And make sure there are plenty of witnesses to spread the word!
  • Patience: Make time work for you. Understand how to leverage it. Understand when you must rely on time and when you can influence and make things move in your favour. During one of the episode, they show how many times he had to try to get his wife and children out and how he will abort the plan if everything was not perfect
  • Unpredictable: “I’ll be where they would never expect me to be” this is how he expected to evade the Marines and also how he got caught. I am sure that this strategy allowed him to confuse everyone who was after him!
  • Collaborate: Partner when you have to. And when you are the world largest drug exporter, you probably need to partner with a lot of people. Still, you make billions; you must understand how to a little as needed while ripping off massive benefits!

I want to understand how good skills are used by bad people. With this type of skills, El Chapo could have been a very legit and powerful man and leave a fantastic legacy. It is disturbing, just like when I heard that 1 out of 100 people is a psychopath. oh yeah, I’ll close on that to let it sink…

When to open your mouth…

… and when to shut it

Today I could not hold it anymore. I had to say what I thought to an ex-classmate. I had enough and was frustrated that no one else objected to the borderline sectarian opinions. But what does it achieve?

We are a group of 70 people in a WhatsApp group. The group exists for 6 years. We talk about everything. It has been a great source of knowledge and a fantastic way to look at situations from different lenses. The 70 people in the group are without exception bright. Moreover, they come from all other the world and probably represent all the different walks of life.  Ask a question about Greek philosophers or latest trends in Taiwan, someone will have informed insight.  

What went wrong? Other the past couple of months, just like the whole world, conversations started to be more and more about politics. Not just the “classics”, like Trump. The group discussed refugees & migrants in Europe, Brazil presidential elections. That was all good at first for me. We are so different that we have loads of different opinions. But as the conversations were progressing something did not sit right with me.  I could not put my finger on it though. I was not even sure if something was wrong with the conversation or if it was me being in a foul mood for any random reasons. After all, I believe in people having different perspectives, and I am used to respecting them (in my honest opinion), even the wild ones. So how come every time I saw the WhatsApp group notification I started to boil from inside even before reading any new messages.

What is the problem? There are more than one:

  1. Using smoking mirrors to hide your views: Having narrow views and opinions standing for them for what they are. I respect that. I even recognize if you debate and defend your beliefs.  What bothered me is when you pretend your views are not what they are using a series of smoking mirrors.  Especially when it seems that you are using that crafty language to confuse people about your views. The rest of the group and me is no longer debating; this is manipulating at best and lying through your teeth at worst. 
  2. People are jumping on the illiberal bandwagon:  As soon as it became clearer that we were on the edge of intolerant comments, I expected the whole group to jump in and expose the flaws. Wrong. People preferred to deflect, minimize the comments. 
  3. Some & I pretend to ignore the situation: You know when you stumble upon two people fighting in the street, and there are already people looking at them struggling. Nobody is doing anything and as a result, you are also doing nothing. Well, that was the rest of the group and me. I think I was mad at myself for being a bystander for too long. And the reasons why I was a bystander were even worse. How the group perceives you may in some situation have an impact on your future. By default, I, and others perhaps, could tend to wait for things to pass and not disturb the peace. 
  4. Crossing the line: Free speech and opinions have limits. When you start to casually talk about serious issues as if it is not a thing, it should raise a red flag.

I opened my mouth, what’s the point? I know and so should you too by now, that the best way to get someone to change their point of view is to first show empathy, build rapport and engage in a dialogue.  Flat out telling people they are wrong almost never make them change their opinion.

So I initially felt awful. Because I lost the opportunity to productively engage with someone whose achievements I value.  I also disturbed the peace in a well-oiled group. And eventually also burnt some business connections.

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. I see this message from Kaepernick every day at the moment on my way to the office.  And it reminds me that I need to stand for what I believe. In this situation, it should not have been about me or my feelings. It should have been about what I believe and pushing that cause forward.

I loved childhood neighborhood, but I do not want it for my kids

What’s wrong with me?

I grew up in the French “banlieue”. Actually, up to age 5, I lived where the famous movie from Mathieu Kassovitz, “Hate” was filmed. The movie is about 3 friends in their early twenties from immigrant families living in an impoverished multi-ethnic French housing project (a ZUP – zone d’urbanisation prioritaire) in the suburbs of Paris.  Yes, not exactly postcard scenery.  After that, we moved to a “nice” neighborhood. It was 2 min drive away.  It was a huge upgrade, still as a teenager, not many people wanted to visit…

I truly loved my childhood neighborhood. Even in hindsight. I would not change a thing.  I grew up with great friends that are still my best friends 30+ years later.  We played sports all the time, we had each other’s backs in all kind of situations.  We created fun out of nothing.  The parking lot, a car’s sound system, a good playlist some rum and there you have it the best bar in the neighborhood.  A ping pong table in the parking lot, and you have the county championship.  Some chalk to draw the court, 2 tennis racquets, a ball and you have the neighborhood’s French Open.  There was never a dull day.

Now I am building the future of my 2 kids.  It would be logical for me to reproduce my childhood environment.  After all, I really enjoyed it.  So why am I building the exact opposite environment for my kids?  Nobody will be playing loud music on the parking lot or do anything else for that matter on the parking lot. While the parking lot was the place to be when I grew up, There are no parking lots close to our new place.  Kids probably go for rides on someone’s boats or ride their horses.

Now let’s think about what my younger self would say about the lifestyle I am planning for my kids… yeah, it would not be pretty.  So why do I want that lifestyle for my kids?  Moreover, I think that some form of hardship growing up is a real plus.  By 18, I developed a Spiderman-like feel for danger.  I was super aware of my surrounding. Can I see the hands of all the people who just entered the parking lot?  What’s their body language telling me?  I could also remain calm in any situation and see actions in slow motion.  School bus on fire when it is time to go home, no stress, just adrenaline.  Spot the lookouts, understand who they are after and get away from them.  Oh, and drag my friends, who grew up like I want to raise my children because they are walking in the wrong direction.

So, once again, why do I want to keep them away from these lifelong learnings?  I do not know. This is the honest answer.  Maybe it is because the risk is too high. While I turned out good, several of my friends did not.  Maybe because it is normal for parents to offer the best opportunities to their children.  And while my mom offered me the best she could, I want to build on that and do the same for my children.

The short answer is that I do not know.  And I wonder if it matters to know why. The real question is: How to give my children a well-rounded childhood?  Probably encourage them to make the most of the privileges they enjoy.  Push them to aim higher and build wealth for themselves and the community.  All that while finding ways to lift up people from the banlieues, because their dad came from there and if nobody had helped me to come up their lives would be very different.

Photo by Raoul Droog on Unsplash