Aim high, Josh. Only your best is good enough.
I am a first-generation American, raised in a modest suburb of Hartford, Conn. Growing up, I attended private preparatory schools. Immediately following my time at Hamilton, a best-in-class publicly traded real estate investment trust recruited me to join its management training program. At just 23, as real estate markets were reaching all-time highs, I was exposed to amazing domestic and international development projects and had the opportunity to excel professionally. Most recently, I accepted a dream opportunity in New York City to operate a 15-million-square-foot retail portfolio. While achieving the standard milestones by which many young people measure material success, I also was periodically reminded of the inevitability of my parents’ warning — that American society would subtly, or sometimes flagrantly, remind me of my Blackness.
This is neither a sob story nor an opportunistic means to air my grievances. I am sharing my personal experience, the Black experience, hoping it finds resonance in, perhaps, a single reader. I’m obliged to share what that means to me and what changes I wish to see in the world so that other Black experiences can be enhanced and become more equitable.
When Hamilton magazine invited me to share my views on last summer’s uprisings following George Floyd’s brutal murder, I felt both honored and overwhelmed. The burden of responsibility feels significant. To speak my truth will ultimately be to some the truth of a larger Black culture. Since I began writing this, our country has experienced several cataclysmic events: the continued demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisc., the insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and ongoing coronavirus-related deaths. The last year has left me little time to process and reflect before the next crisis. Events in any other year that would have dominated headlines hardly get proper airtime before being forgotten.
As you read the following anecdotes on my Black experience in America, please pause and ask yourself the following questions:
How does this make you feel?
What would you do if you were me in the same scenario?
How would you feel if this happened to your child?
What can you do to change the status quo for others who are perpetually subjected to demeaning actions?
We are at an important crossroads of morality and social responsibility in America. We have immeasurable power to upend longstanding systemic biases within our academic, corporate, and economic institutions. We have always had that power; do we now have the will to actually do it?
‘The Talk’ A Rite of Passage for Survival
Growing up, my God-fearing father often gave me pointed lectures on what to do if I were ever confronted by a police officer. He taught me to give pious obedience to the police because a single misstep in my interaction could place me in handcuffs, or worse, in a body bag. In the Black culture, we call this lecture “THE TALK.”
These plainspoken conversations were blueprints on how to survive another day. They intensified when I got my driver’s license at 17. Using my father’s heavy Jamaican patois, I vividly recall our conversations going something like this:
Me: Daddy, may I take the car to visit my friend?
Father: I won’t prevent you from visiting your friends [in the neighboring white communities], but you need fi [to] understand that an officer will treat you differently than your white friends.
Me: Okay, yes, Daddy.
Father: First and foremost, never make choices that would place your fate in the hands of the law. The law is not on your side. Therefore, obey all traffic signals, watch the speeding, use your turn signals, and don’t drive distracted.
Me: Yes, Daddy.
Father: Now, if they pull you over while driving, make sure you do the following: Turn off the car’s ignition. Remove your license from your wallet and the registration from the glove compartment. Do it before the officer gets to your car and place them on the driver’s side dashboard. Boy, are you hearing me?
Me: Yes, Daddy.
Father: Okay. Next: Place your hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2, and DON’T mek [make] the officer tell you fi [to] do so. Greet the officer with respect, and watch your tone. You say, “Yes, sir. No, sir.” Nothing more. Nothing less. And you always maintain eye contact with him.
Me: Okay, Daddy.
Father: Ask permission to move, if you feel compelled to do so, but mek sure yuh [you] nuh [don’t] move! Keep calm, and do not panic. Believe it or not, the police officer is more afraid of you than you are of him.
Me: Huh? I mean, what do you mean?
Father: They’ll shoot you.
Me: (Eyes widen) What do you mean they’ll shoot me?
Father: (Frightened eyes widen; he’s at a temporary loss for words.) They’ll shoot you! They won’t take any chances because they consider young Black men and boys to be armed and dangerous. Dem [they] will shot [yes, he said shot] you down. Don’t give them an excuse!
Me: Okay, Daddy, I got it.
Father: (Still upset) I’m serious! Now, repeat what I said back to me.
Me: (Eyes roll, sighs, and quickly recites the steps)
Father: Good. Do you know this could be the last time I see you?
Me: Yes, I understand, Daddy.
Father: Now watch the speeding. I love you.
Me: I love you too, Daddy. See you later.
By and large, that is how “The Talk” often went in the Bruff home, although I am confident you would find few, if any, Black households in America that do not have a similar discourse between a concerned parent and an innocent child. The burden of being a Black parent is a heavy load to bear. Black parents may have a rough delivery, but their words of love and wisdom can send chills from the back of your neck to your spine. I am not a father, but I am an uncle, a proud godfather, and a mentor to several Black men and boys. I take no pleasure in reminding them how a police encounter could potentially be their final encounter, period. Since our emancipation, these generational anxieties have been passed down for generations and routinely recited like biblical scripture. Yes, you better believe it, the fear in our culture is very, very real.
Tell Me Everything
I felt the realization of my ethnicity again during a job interview. I had applied to be general manager of a new luxury mall in the Caribbean. The hiring manager, a white woman and also head of business operations, flew me in for an interview and Myers-Briggs personality test. Once I completed the test, she said, “Tell Me everything about you. I want you to tell me about your parents; tell me about your siblings; tell me where they went to school and what they do now. Tell me about your life. I want to know it all. In this organization, we like to know that our employees really fit in.”
Naïve and anxious to win her over, I fell for her illegal questions and told her everything. I thought if I could just be open, I would likely get the job because, prior to that, I had accumulated a lot of success and was making significant advances in the shopping center industry by managing complex portfolios and redevelopment projects in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
“Explain to me how you got your job,” she said. “You’re not even a native Spanish speaker. I don’t understand how your company would give you so much responsibility at your age. (I was 32 at the time.) Do you understand that many people far older than you say working for this firm is like going to an Ivy League school?”
I answered every one of her backhanded questions. I shared all my professional accomplishments and insecurities, and none of my answers satisfied her. Two-and-half hours later, she ended the interview by saying, “You know, I really like you, but you’re a risk. I thank you for your time. It was truly a pleasure.”
That interview was the most humiliating experience of my career.
In hindsight, had I had any self-respect or awareness of what that woman was essentially telling me (you’re not worthy; you’re an imposter) or what she was doing to me (undermining my aptitude despite my empirical success), I would have walked out of the interview. Nevertheless, I gained valuable insight into how hiring managers and employees use implicit bias to propagate discriminatory company cultures. This legacy of bad business can no longer be ignored, and I am encouraged to see many global corporations taking committed action to remove people who perpetuate these behaviors.
However, sometimes we confront these social obstacles on our own doorsteps.
“Growing up, my God-fearing father ... taught me to give pious obedience to the police because a single misstep in my interaction could place me in handcuffs, or worse, in a body bag. In the Black culture, we call this lecture ‘The Talk.’”
There Goes the Neighborhood
A few Sundays before the pandemic halted the world, I arrived in my neighborhood at 5 a.m. I live in the Upper East Side, a wealthy, predominantly white area in New York City, which is usually quiet at that hour, give or take a few people walking their pets. My home is 10 minutes from Central Park. On this particular morning, I stopped off three blocks short of my apartment at a local diner. On my frigid walk home, I was approximately 30-40 yards behind a white male. By the third block, I realized we were headed to the same place.
“Okay, cool,” I thought. I understood the situational context and the time of day. “Don’t hover over the man. It’s late.” I patiently waited for him to enter the building, but he yelled, “No!” as he spotted me looking at him and hurriedly shut the door. This man’s reaction did not surprise me. He’s white and visibly frightened. I am physically bigger and was dressed head-to-toe in black. I slowly approached the entrance, and there he was, standing behind the locked door in a defensive stance. I kindly explained to him I was a resident of the building and dangled my keys.
“No! You are not coming in here,” he said. Again, I said, “Sir, I am a resident of this building. These are my keys.”
“Back up, or I will F-you up and call the police,” he shouted.
Unbeknownst to him, I am panicking with rapid-fire thoughts, such as, “What if he calls the police?” “What am I to do in this scenario?”
I am tired, getting colder by the second, and I don’t have anywhere else to go besides my apartment on the top floor. So, how do I resolve this situation without getting the police involved? I’ve never been arrested in my life. What could this entitled man, who will not let me enter my own building tell the police about me? I can’t force my way past him. Seriously, what am I supposed to do?
I continued to plead with the stranger, who by the way I have never seen either, to let me in. I lost patience and begged him to move beyond the second locked door of the entryway so I could prove to him the keys in my hand were mine. The man relented his guard when I finally proved my case, but his hateful eyes said otherwise. He followed me into the elevator and demanded to know my floor and unit number. I ignored him in the politest New York way I could.
“Yo, not today, man. You will not talk to me,” I said.
My inner dialogue fired up again. This man seriously did not think I belonged at my residence. Why? Is this the type of assumption that led George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old mixed-race man, to confront 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black high school student walking home from the store? Zimmerman gunned down the teen on Feb. 26, 2012. Although George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, a jury acquitted him, based on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, sparking a wave of civil nationwide demonstrations and the birth of #BlackLivesMatter on social media.
Black people abide by different social codes in America, and most of us do so begrudgingly for our own survival. The psychological aerobics we endure before we act are wearisome. Was I polite enough in my exchange? Did I raise my voice? Was my King’s English precise? Did I smile … you know, to make them feel safe? What is my body language? Am I walking behind a white woman too fast or too closely? What am I wearing?
Like “The Talk,” Black people internalize these scenarios when dealing with the police, but these situations repeatedly manifest in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, our homes, on the subway, or even as we’re birdwatching at the park.
Allyship is a Practice, Not a Buzzword
My fellow Hamiltonians, there is a certain type of person who needs to hear this message, and why can’t it start with you? I am not asking you to make a grand gesture nor make sweeping changes to your lives. I challenge you to make conscious decisions to speak out on behalf of those who are historically underserved and mistreated. I have benefited from white allyship. Here are just a handful of instances where Hamilton people stood in my corner and helped me rise.
The late Hamilton drama guru, Carole Bellini- Sharp, the Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Theatre, told me I looked weak when I spoke with my hands in my pocket and rocked my body side-to-side: “Show your hands and stand up straight. Why would you make yourself smaller than you are? Your body and personality are art. Why hide them?” Little did she know, her advice told me to be myself instead of what the world had been telling me. Two-time football captain Sam Bowlby ’04 said, “You’re good, but you can be better. Let’s be lifting partners and watch film together in the offseason.” Little did he know, his exemplary leadership taught me how to foster a culture of growth and dedicate my life to serving others.
Alex Morrison ’05 personally invited me to audition for the Buffers men’s a cappella group: “Hey, man, I noticed you’re in Choir, but you didn’t try out for Buffers. I want you to be a part of the group.” Little did he know, he made me feel like I belonged and would add value to any community I desired.
At football training camp, Jay Rishel ’06 told me to contact an alum who founded a real estate investment fund, which ignited my real estate career. “Bruff, what do you want to do when you grow up? I know a guy. Please contact him.” Little did he know, he told me I was enough.
“Lauren Johnson ’06, in response to last summer’s nationwide protests: “I hear you; I am with you, and I believe you. What can I do?” Little did she know, she told me I mattered and she cared.”
If you do not feel your actions and words can improve a person’s self-esteem or trajectory, think again. Though we face big challenges, I have hope for America’s future because I was raised by several lifelong influencers who told me I was enough, that I have a bearing. My friends, for those of you who have not even begun the journey, make productive changes to your thinking and behaviors. Open your eyes and hearts. Dare to trailblaze, defy, and amaze.