The Need to See Yourself in Those Who Lead

 

I was one of the several million moviegoers who went to see Marvel’s Black Panther earlier this year. The film exceeded my expectations and I left feeling inspired, empowered, and hopeful. It’s interesting how a fictional movie can have such a powerful impact on the human psyche. I’m not alone either, I know several people from different walks of life and backgrounds who were equally captivated by what I consider a cinematic masterpiece. One of the most compelling elements of the film for me was that finally, we (black people) had a superhero with which we could identify. I love Batman (who was my favorite super hero up until that point—just being honest) and Iron Man, but, Chadwick Boseman (aka Black Panther) took the cake for me. It is rare to see positive powerful images of people of color in mass media. Thankfully this is (slowly) changing for the better.

 

The film exceeded my expectations and I left feeling inspired, empowered, and hopeful.

 

I cannot speak for all, but I’d wager most black people would agree that watching a rich, successful, authentic, and sovereign black superhero along with his equally impressive entourage on the big screen was cathartic. Although we don’t live in a world where humans exhibit such massive physical powers, we still walked away with a little more pride because we saw ourselves in the mighty Wakandians. At least that’s the feeling that I had after the film. So much so that I quickly went to see the film a second time with my 5-year-old son, hoping to plant the same seed in him. In a must watch Brown University panel discussing the social impacts of Black Panther, Jim Gates, the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, asserted “the most important thing about this movie is that it will set light to fire to imaginations for a whole generation of young people and especially young people of color on the issue of how they are capable of engaging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” I highly recommend that you watch the Brown University panel that he and other academics sat on to discuss the social impacts of Black Panther.  

Identifying with others who look like us and hold influential positions boosts the collective self-esteem and dignity of our respective groups. Think about it, if someone from your hometown goes on to do something amazing, you probably feel a sense of pride. With them occupying such positions, we believe that we can aspire to do the same or even more. Their example shows us that progression is possible. When we don’t see others who we identify with in key positions, it can kill morale and prevent us from giving our whole self to the work we are doing. Here the phrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see” rings true. For those of us who do blaze a new trail where no one who looks like us has been before, anxiety often results. If there’s no point of reference for you regarding something you’ve never done, or a position that you’ve never occupied, you have to work twice as hard to be successful in that space. Not only are you striving to prove to yourself that you can do it, you feel an unhealthy pressure to show others that you deserve a seat at the table. Your not only tackling the challenges that come from a new position that holds more weight, you are battling against the stereotypes and biases that those around you may hold. We all need role models, mentors, and advisors that we identify with. What makes figures likeJackie Robinson, Madam CJ Walker, and Barack Obama so phenomenal is that against incredible odds, they became the representation that was either sorely lacking or non-existent.

 

 
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The presidency of Barack Obama represented an idea that we haven’t fully uncovered the ramifications of yet for the next generation of emerging leaders. This idea is that black and brown girls, boys, men, and women can reach and grab ahold of the same dreams as their white peers. If not the presidency, they could aspire to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, the president of an Ivy League School, and/or  heck… the owner of an NFL team. Imagine that! While this belief can be euphoric, it can also be disillusioning. Currently, there are a meager three black CEOs who head Fortune 500 firms, one black president led one of eight Ivy League institutions (who retired last year and was the lowest paid among her counterparts), and no black ownership amongst the NFL’s 32 teams. When you go from the mountaintops of Wakanda to present reality, it’s disheartening. Our nation still has a lot of work to do.

With these types of stats, the question begging to be asked is: Is there a sincere desire by those who currently occupy the conclaves of power and influence in our corporations, governments, and institutions to increase the representation of blacks in prime leadership roles? One of the reasons why diversity and inclusion is so tricky is because it really disrupts the status quo when it is operating in its truest form. In my estimation, minus all the buzzwords, fancy jargon, and wonderful Employee Resource Group (ERG) events, inclusion equates to EVERYONE having an equitable seat at the table of power and influence. Inclusion is not only being invited to the dance, but also having a say in which venue it will be, deciding what type of music is played, and what the dress code is. For true inclusion to take place, those who usually plan the party would have to be okay with giving up some of their control. This is not an easy task, but for other groups to be empowered, those with power must share it. In truth, this is the direction our world is heading in, one in which there is more shared power.

 

 
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It is my firm conviction that if we want to get inclusion right, at its deepest levels, there must be representation of diverse groups in key leadership roles. If we want our employees and stakeholders to do their best work on our behalf, we must show them that there is a real path to advancement for their efforts. This is demonstrated—in part—by having people who look like them in upper level management. If this is not seen and something intentionally put into place, people may smile and grin when we tell them that they too can become president of the US or king of Wakanda one day. Yet, in their hearts, they won’t believe it. Let’s help them believe!