Why Is Corporate America So Obsessed With Mediocre White Men?

Photo: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock
business man

There was something I always admired about Ryan Rogers*. No more than 6–7 years my senior, I worked alongside Ryan while I was in Public Relations. I, a Senior Account Executive, he about three promotions ahead of me as a VP.

A 30-something-year-old white man, Ryan was the type of person who clients gravitated towards. He was smart yet affable. Approachable but confident. Funny without trying too hard.

Ryan somehow always appeared unfazed by problems that would leave our fellow colleagues in a tailspin. In that regard, Ryan had this effortless way of moving within PR — and arguably — the world.

But I had a hard time working under Ryan.

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I needed more direction than he wished to provide. I craved more project organization than he felt necessary to have. I was hungry for more managerial support in busy seasons than he offered to give. In my opinion, Ryan was simply fulfilling his duties; rarely going above and beyond.

Throughout my time working in corporate America, I’ve met many Ryans. Not simply because the name is common, but because corporate America is filled with white men who are good enough.

Good enough to get the promotion.

Good enough to get by without exerting too much effort.

Good enough to be considered great.

To be fair, Ryan was not necessarily doing anything wrong. It took me years to realize this, to understand my frustration with him or every other white man who got by on average effort was because of my innate knowledge that I could never be afforded such a luxury.

The Impact of Upbringing

I spent great effort battling my own imposter syndrome in my first years in corporate America. Despite growing up in a household in which my parents affirmed my wits — early in my career, my belief in them evaporated as if a switch was flipped off.

Maybe the light was dimmed before I even started working. In those final years of high school, when I was the lone Black girl in my International Baccalaureate classes. In those days, I felt I was being unfairly compared to classmates who had no problem dedicating entire weekends to studying as I tried to gracefully fit it in among extracurriculars, time with friends, and a part-time job.

Perhaps it became darker when I saw how one of my bosses fast-tracked the career of the white man — we’ll call him Matt — who filled the position after me. A couple of years after Matt started in the role, I was surprised to hear that the scope of the position significantly decreased because Matt “couldn’t handle it.”

But somehow he was still receiving invites to basketball games and dinners at the boss’s home. I believe the access and familial adoption of Matt given then played a role in the esteemed position he has at the company today.

Or maybe doubt crept up in more subtle ways. Moments where I was branded a diversity hire; times where I saw nepotism trump meritocracy; the occasions where my voice and opinion were ignored in favor of that of a man’s.

I remember not all the specific moments as I do the question that my imposter syndrome continued to ask.

Am I smart enough to be here?

Ryan vs. Me

“Everyone is just so smart,” I vented into the phone to my mom after another instance where imposter’s syndrome had successfully weaseled its way into a brainstorming session at work. “I had ideas but I just couldn’t bring myself to say any of them out loud.”

For my first year in PR, this was my norm. I would toil away, day in and day out, completing account work, strategic planning, project management, email responses, and coworker networking. But the open stage of sharing thoughts at a packed brainstorming session was too intimidating for me; the heightened expectations of presenting to clients too harrowing.

But this is when the Ryans of the world came alive.

Having never been given a reason by society to think otherwise, the Ryans threw out every plausible idea and a whole heap of implausible ones. Ryans didn’t seem to be weighed down by the same fear I had of sounding stupid. They didn’t lose their voice. 

Was there no code-switching for white men? Oh yes, corporate jargon was their native tongue. These were the people who made up phrases like “reinvent the wheel,” “low-hanging fruit” and “boil the ocean.”

(For comparison, as I wrote this article, I asked my Caribbean mother whether she was familiar with the “boil the ocean” phrase, to which she replied, “What is that, some undercurrent in the water?”)

No, as a Black woman born of immigrants, I was overtly and subtly taught that to achieve the oft desired “American Dream” and overcome 400 years of slavery and institutional racism, I must “work twice as hard.”

I’d eventually learn that the blueprint of success was mapped a little differently for white men, who, benefitting from their de facto position running corporations and the world, were allowed to “work twice as smart.”

At the time, I didn’t understand these nuances, so I spent countless years fooled by men in corporate America, where I conflated flare for creativity and oratory skill for intellect.

This confusion led to an internal conflict of sorts as I put people like Ryan on a pedestal, while simultaneously harboring envy for the lower expectations that sat on their shoulders. I longed for the ease Ryan seemed to navigate the world with and I was desperate for the natural bend the world attached to his movements.

All the while, I failed to see the gap that existed between Ryan and me was not a result of intellect or creativity — but rather a byproduct of socialization, representation, and discrimination.

The Impact of Culture and Society

Much later in life, thanks to the Associate Dean at Goizueta Business School, I learned about Stereotype Threat, or “being in a situation or doing something to which a negative stereotype about (an) identity is relevant.” This happens to women in high tech firms; white men in basketball; Black people with standardized tests.

When a minority group is exposed to something that has the opportunity to affirm a negative stereotype, they feel a subconscious need to disprove this stereotype.

However, the dual effort of both performing an act and overcoming a stereotype leads to higher levels of anxiety and, in effect, lower levels of achievement. This lower level of achievement occurs regardless of whether that person had the same level of preparation as others.

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As an overachiever and a Black woman operating in a mostly-white environment with individuals whom I viewed as intellectually superior, I was primed to give into stereotype threat in my first years in PR.

The American DNA

In so many ways, we were all screwed since colonization. Through manipulation, rape, and war, whiteness became our default. In time, this bled into the halls of corporate America, where leadership became synonymous with the laidback persona of a Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey.

While there has been a gradual change in the norms we accept in professional environments, the way corporations have been running since their inception has already contributed to further stifling the voice and progression of multiple generations of marginalized people.

Microaggressions — or subtle biases against marginalized people — happen every day and in ways that can leave minorities feeling deflated or powerless.

Times like when I was told, by the Chief of Staff no less, that the braids I wore were “aggressive.”

Or when my Black friend working in finance realized her coworkers kept asking her to carry out office administrative duties.

Perhaps when another close Black friend was told by her boss that the Black girl she included on her marketing slide was “not the company’s target consumer.”

These types of micro-aggressions are the minefields that people of color, immigrants, and women are left to traverse. All the while, the men still running these companies have not dramatically changed.

Thus, we are still largely being assessed — now in the form of evaluations, corporate culture, and biased hiring practice — through a white lens. This presents more hoops and hurdles for marginalized people to maneuver through to get to the same places as white men.

Take, for instance, President Barack Obama, who was sandwiched between two, well, mediocre white men. With his Ivy League education, Senate and grassroots organizing background, picturesque family, general charisma, and character — the first Black president had to be spotless.

This is a fact that every Black person knows. We understand that President Barack Obama could, in no way, have been voted in had the variables not lined up in the precise way they did. And we know that, unlike what happened with №45, that Barack wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of winning a second term had his presidency been tarnished with stains of mediocrity.

People of color and women are still getting our “firsts” and as long as that’s happening, we will be required to bring our excellent into rooms where white men can bring their “good enough.”

A New Average

But where does that leave us? How do we make space for all the truths of representation and race in the corporate world?

The truth that there is a whole heap of internal hurdles that erode the confidence of Black and Brown people?

The truth that microaggressions, racist hiring practices, and a lack of inclusivity measures hinder marginalized people from being hired, promoted, or motivated while at work?

The truth that Black people have had to work twice as hard to get half as far as our white counterparts for most of this country’s history?

The truth that being among the first or only demands excellence in the same spaces white mediocrity is acceptable?

Well, for starters, it’s on marginalized people to gain the self-assuredness to know we are in no room by accident. My experience has taught me that it matters less if you’re the smartest person in the room and more that you don’t waste the energy believing you’re not.

Diversity action plans that sometimes get us a seat at a table are not putting us into spaces we don’t belong. No, they’re simply removing the biases that prevented us from getting there in the first place.

Remembering this will allow the more bashful among us to approach daily work with Ryan-level confidence — but, of course, with your unique voice and perspective.

And culturally, we stand to shift our definition on what we deem as “good.” As long as I’m being compared to the Ryans of the world and their boiled oceans, I’ll always come up short.

White men have historically set the bar because they were both in power and the majority. But the country is changing and corporations need to reflect this in everything from their culture to leadership.

My hope is that once we start making some of these changes, we move past being able to count the number of Black Fortune 100 CEOs on one hand. That with these efforts, underrepresented minorities find their way into board rooms and are receive their due VC funding.

And that despite a label of “marginalized” — we are no longer excluding people of color from important conversations, decisions, and opportunities in the workplace (and every other sector of life).

My hope is that in my lifetime, we start pushing deeper into the true value and beauty of a diverse workforce.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

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Simone Keelah is a storyteller who writes about personal development, love & relationships, and the beauty of diversity. She is also the host and creator behind Sōl Talk, a podcast that explores what's good for the soul through thoughtful discussions with dope human beings. Follow her on her website.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.