Starting in 1936, for three decades, Black Americans taking trips depended on The Negro Travelers’ Green Book to know what restaurants, hotels, automobile service stations, and other businesses would be relatively friendly to them.
Unfortunately, for Black employees seeking to climb the corporate ladder today, there is no such clear-cut guide.
“There really are no safeguards and no book to say, ‘This is a safe place for you.’ You only figure that out when it’s not a safe place,” said Kevin Greene, chief operating officer of the Faces International marketing and development agency. “The impact of that is it really derails your ‘trip.’ ”
Greene’s comments as moderator helped kick off “Traveling While Black: Up the Corporate Ladder,” a panel discussion at the Northampton Community College (NCC) Fowler Family Southside Center on March 8, one of several community conversations in the Lehigh Valley taking place in conjunction with the virtual reality experience, Traveling While Black, hosted by Lehigh University at the Zoellner Arts Center.
Created by Academy Award winner and NCC alum Roger Ross Williams and Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios, Traveling While Black is set at Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant in Washington, D.C., where several customers discuss their experiences of restricted movement and race relations in the United States.
Panelists at the March 8 event were Monica Brooks, manager of diversity and inclusion at PPL Utilities; Natasha Ljuiljic, human resources business partner at Air Products; William Brown, co-founder, CEO, and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the FIA NYC staffing agency; and Veronica Moore, director of educational programs, Delta Upsilon International Fraternity.
Brown advised job seekers to conduct background research so they can avoid places that do not truly want Black employees.
“Once you get in there, the other problem you run into is they try to make everyone into Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Now you need to be the face of representation. And a lot of times, I just want a job. I don’t want to come in, run your DEI department, and be the person that makes the change for everybody. That’s frustrating.”
A recurring theme of the evening was the pressure placed on Black employees to modify their appearance to conform to corporate expectations. Many will cut their hair, relax it, or even wear a wig to fit in, noted Moore, who started growing out her locks as a “transformational spiritual experience” when pregnant with her first child.
“Can you do the job? Can you change the culture? Your appearance does not matter,” Moore said. “That’s not a popular opinion. I’m alright with that.”
Brooks added that she had kept her hair short and refrained from wearing big earrings on the job so her appearance wouldn’t hurt her credibility as a leader.
“Because stereotypes are real, and bias is real, and people lead with those before you even speak and have an opportunity to show who you are,” she explained. “It takes a lot of growth and courage to get to that point where you can be unapologetically you and go into a workplace.”
A particular challenge for Black female employees, noted Brooks, is that they are discouraged from being assertive because that can be misconstrued as being “bossy” or overly demanding.
“As a woman, and especially as a Black woman who’s smart, who’s opinionated, who can execute and get results, you have to manage not destroying someone’s ego,” she said. “It is a delicate line to have to balance.”
Ljuiljic said others often fail to recognize her as a leader and ask, “Who’s in charge?”
“They’ll do it front of people with the hope that you’ll back down, or that you’ll be quiet, or that you’ll shrink,” she said. “You have to find graceful ways to say, ‘Who are you looking for?’ And put it back in their lap and let them sit in the discomfort of being exposed … You do that one good time, and you’ll never do it again because that discomfort is crushing.”
“When my black skin isn’t enough, and my straight hair isn’t enough, and my heels aren’t enough, I’m showing up twice as early and doing twice as much so my work can speak for what my skin takes away from,” Ljuiljic said.
Greene asked, Is it worth putting your career advancement on the line and enduring the mental toll to advocate for cultural change?
“Is it hard? Yes, every single time,” said Brooks. “Is it exhausting? Yes. The judgment, the criticism, the risk that you run [of hurting] your career potentially, it’s always worth it. It was worth it the day that they decided to march across the bridge for Selma. It was worth it when my dad stood up to the folks that punched him in the face. It was worth it then, and it will be worth it until there is no more fight.”
The panelists emphasized that what they have to deal with in all situations while traveling while Black, in life, careers, schools, is not an experience they wish on anyone.
“To be honest, white folks know that. Ask yourself, would you want to be a Black person in this world? Would you pick that?” Powerful words from Greene that echoed in the room as the night concluded.
The virtual reality experience, Traveling While Black, will be running until April 2. If interested, visit https://zoellner.cas.lehigh.edu/content/traveling-while-black.