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I’m a Fortune 50 leader. An executive producer of documentary films. An author. A motivational speaker. A good friend and neighbor.

I’m also a Black man.

Though it is simply one piece of many, that facet of my identity runs through every other piece, because that is the prism through which the world views me. When people look at me, they see me as a Black man, and that comes with assumptions and biases.

In nearly every situation, I am keenly aware of this fact, and so I carefully consider my every word and action. I know that if I say or do the wrong thing, I will be seen as unprofessional, difficult, dangerous or any number of other assumptions that would not be made about me if I were of another race.

It feels like walking a tightrope, with every step precisely placed in a constant balancing act. It is frustrating, sometimes terrifying, and utterly exhausting.

This tightrope is something that most people of color can relate to, but if you haven’t lived the experience, it can be hard to understand. In sharing a bit about what it feels like to be a Black man in America, I hope to encourage more empathy and understanding, and to help others walking the tightrope feel less alone.

What the Tightrope Feels Like

I imagine that walking this metaphorical tightrope feels a lot like walking an actual tightrope. You are acutely conscious of every move you make, and there’s always the fear in the back of your mind that you might fall.

One of the places I’ve felt the tightrope the strongest is through my educational journey and in the corporate world. Many people don’t expect me to be in the position I am. I can’t even count the number of times in which someone has assumed that one of my (white) team members is my boss instead of the other way around.

It has happened enough times to know that it is no accident. It is because of what they perceive when they see the color of my skin. These individuals may not consciously think Black people aren’t leaders, but that is nonetheless the bias they are operating from, and I am reminded of it in dozens of small ways. I try to not take it personally, but it’s hard not to. How do you mentally cope with knowing that so many people around you think you don’t belong? Self-doubt naturally creeps in.

That self-doubt is intensified by the fact that, as a person of color, you are evaluated at a different standard. Where others are given the benefit of the doubt, I must prove myself — or more accurately, I must constantly disprove people’s assumptions and biases regarding me. If another colleague makes a mistake, it’s just a mistake. If I make a mistake, it’s a reinforcement of people’s conscious or unconscious racist beliefs about me.

It often feels like there are people waiting for me to slip and fall. So I carefully weigh every decision. If I say X or do Y, how will it be taken? Will it come off too aggressive? Too weak? Will I seem arrogant, or not confident enough? Will they think I’m smart and taking initiative, or overstepping my pay grade? 

It’s like a chess game in which you analyze every single thing you say and you do. How you style your hair, how you dress, how you speak, how much emotion you show. Every day, in every conversation and interaction, there are thousands of calculated decisions I must complete in nanoseconds.

And I have to get these decisions exactly right. I can’t dress too casually, or I’ll be perceived as unprofessional or even “thuggish.” But I also can’t wear a too-expensive suit, or people will think I’m vain and putting on pretentious airs. Cognitively and emotionally, it’s exhausting.

This tightrope extends beyond the workplace too. Anytime I am navigating a white space — which is most spaces in America — I am walking a tightrope. When I interact with  neighbors, when I am in the presence of women, when I am pulled over by a police officer, I am aware of my Blackness, and I tiptoe across the tightrope, trying to conform and fit into a world in which I’m viewed as different.

The Burden of Being a Representative of Your Race

Navigating the tightrope is stressful enough on its own, but to add to the pressure, there are people depending on you, and you don’t want to let them down. Like anyone, you may have family who depend upon you to provide for them, but unlike other individuals, you also have complete strangers depending upon you, because as a person of color, you are a representative of your race.

In so many of my interactions, especially in corporate America and in my educational journey, I am the only Black man and often the only person of color in the room. Everything I do will be viewed and scrutinized thoroughly, and it is done through the lens of me being a Black man. If I lose my temper, people won’t just think, John’s kind of a jerk. They’ll think, Black men are aggressive. It’s not fair, but I have to carry that load for my whole race.

This burden is coupled with the burden of being a role model to Black kids. In The Last Dance documentary, Michael Jordan said, “If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. You know, there’s no way I can win.”

As a role model, particularly one of color, you are expected to be perfect. You can’t do anything that would set a bad example. That’s why it feels like a game that’s stacked against you.

Yet you have no choice in whether to play that game. Even if you’re not a professional athlete like Jordan, Black kids may look up to you. You may be the only example they have of a Black pharmacist, or a Black company president, or a Black computer scientist, and they will look to you to see how you’ve done it.

I’ve had young people write to me and tell me that seeing me speak at a symposium changed their life. That feels incredible, but it also increases the pressure on me. It reminds me that, with every decision, whether I want to be a role model or not, I am one.

So as I walk the tightrope, every step of the way, I am aware that I am leading people behind me. If a crosswind comes and knocks me off the rope, it’s not just me who falls. It’s everyone following in my footsteps. It’s the other Black people in my company trying to climb the ladder. It’s the Black kids who have listened to me speak and saw a new future for themselves. I can’t let them down, so I walk all the more carefully.

What Happens When You Fall off the Tightrope

People have told me that this is all in my head — that I don’t need to be walking a tightrope. Indeed, there are some people of color who are comfortable being fully themselves in nearly all situations. They are who they are, and they don’t worry about what others think. I think that’s wonderful, but I also think it is naive to believe there aren’t consequences for not walking the tightrope.

The discrimination is pervasive but can be hard to recognize because it’s not explicit. Nobody is going to say, “You didn’t get the promotion because you wear your hair in braids.” But if you wear your hair in braids, your boss might think that you’re less professional than your colleagues and thus pass you over for the promotion.

If you don’t walk the tightrope, you might be branded any number of damaging things: “not a team player,” or “too opinionated,” or “not easy to get along with.” So much of career success is based on what people think of you, so all these judgments have an impact on your ability to secure promotions, new job opportunities, raises and more. This could be the same for joining different types of social organizations, i.e. country clubs, tennis clubs etc.

In the personal sphere, the consequences are just as bad and potentially worse. If my neighbors see me jogging through my neighborhood with a hoodie on at night, maybe they call the police. Then, if I don’t walk across that tightrope absolutely perfectly — no sudden movements, hands visible at all times, polite tone — it could cost me my life.

While there’s increasing tolerance in our society for a lot of different things, like natural hairstyles, all it takes is one person to knock you off the tightrope, and you never know who that person will be. So you have to walk the tightrope with everyone.

Ultimately, the tightrope is in my head, but it’s in my head because the world has taught me that this is what I must do to succeed. It’s not as if I was born walking the tightrope; it is something I learned to do, through trial-and-error. I know what happens when I don’t walk the tightrope, and that’s why I work so hard to keep my balance.

A Constant Balancing Act

Everybody has some form of tightrope they walk. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing or make mistakes, but for people of color, the pressure is exponentially magnified. You are held to a higher standard, and the consequences of failing to meet that standard are greater for you than your other colleagues. So you don’t have room to not do it right. 

You must balance a myriad of forces acting upon you as a person of color, including conforming to white spaces and representing your race well. It’s incredibly challenging, and it can lead to you becoming so focused on the tightrope below your feet that you forget to look in front of you, to where you’re going. You make so many compromises and sacrifices, that you lose sight of who you are and what you’re trying to achieve.

This is the final stress you feel in walking the tightrope: remaining true to yourself, even as you cut away pieces of your identity in order to fit into this world.

It’s an impossible task, and I hope to one day live in a world where it’s not necessary. Until then, to everyone with the privilege of not having to walk the tightrope, I ask that you examine and question your assumptions and biases. And to those on the tightrope, remain strong. Keep walking that tightrope if you have to, but know that you are not alone.


This piece has been adapted from the book 'What About Me'.