Once I heard those words, sweat formed at the corners of my temples. What little blood usually rests in the cartilage of my ears began to boil, and the typical, unnoticed swallows of saliva began to feel like gulps. I assumed that the person sitting to my left and the person sitting to my right could feel the heat of my righteous indignation rising.
To be honest, my feelings were suspended between confused and angry. Confused, because I thought that maybe this was my classmate’s misguided attempt to embrace the counterintuitive. Maybe he hadn’t realized that over the past half-century, most of the world had reached the conclusion that colonialism was and is a bad thing. But more importantly, I was angry because about 15 or so other classmates nodded their heads either in agreement or sheer amazement that such a “bold” statement could be made to “shake things up.” It’s the same sort of passive adulation Trump’s “shaking up the Republican Party” garners from political pundits too shocked by what he said to deride him, and too impressed by his ability to be unabashedly white, male, and wrongheaded to interject with “No!”
With enough nodding in agreement from classmates, each face blended with another. Every comment from one person to another became a haze of gray view and a blur of somehow grayer sounds. The blurrier the sound and the view, the angrier I became. But that anger wasn’t distributed normally. The comment went as quickly as it arrived. And soon I couldn’t figure out if I was angrier at what he said or that not enough of my classmates seemed as indignant I was. So, before I could collect my thoughts or jot down a rebuttal, impulse got the better of me, and my hand shot up. My hand flew up without the style and calm, cool grace of a “man in control.” Steady, tidy CEO-like temperament had been replaced with all the rage of a “protest first, interrogate why I’m indignant later” activist. The realization hit me that I had to have something to say, but before I knew it, the professor called on me.
Having just graduated less than one year ago, the start of Harvard Business School still rests top of the mind. And with recent books, such as The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite and bombastic articles like ‘“When You Get That Wealthy, You Start to Buy Your Own Bullshit’: The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg,” HBS is likely on the minds of many non-HBS graduates. But let me distill the bombast with some quick facts and brief anecdotes.
With roughly 940 students matriculating every year, split almost evenly into 10 sections — approximately five or so black people in each section — slotted into windowless classrooms every weekday for 80 minutes per class, our “RC Year” commenced.
No textbooks for HBS students. What CEO would read hundreds of pages before a meeting? Besides, which global challenges can’t be truncated into five- to 20-page documents and a collection of financial statements? I mean, those challenges can hardly be worth studying let alone solving, can they? And we all know that “leaders who make a difference” are always CEOs or at bare minimum “general managers,” the theme of HBS’s signature academic program that can apply business thinking to any problem, business or otherwise. So instead, we’d prepare for each class, by reading what’s called a case — one case per class session. Each case contained some tightly, almost formulaic narrative about a protagonist who is faced with some decision — if lucky, the case would end on a cliffhanger: “My goodness how will pseudonym-ed ‘Joe’ or ‘Jane’ fix the company’s accounting system?”
Class would start, usually, with a cold call — when the professor calls on a student to answer a question without forewarning. Then, students chime in and dominate the dialogue, while the professor, for most classes, serves as the facilitator, not a lecturer. Roughly half of the total grade comes from class participation, leaving to the professor to assess the quality and quantity of your comments.
The design of the curriculum makes failing hard and surviving standard. Or at least that’s what the professors told us. “Just get into the conversation,” they’d say. Excelling could prove risky because it means that you’re talking in class often, preparing more intensely, and performing well on exams instead of relationship building and partying hard enough to remind yourself that you’re no longer working.
I remember every professor reiterating that I and my classmates were not admissions mistakes — reminding us that the imposter syndrome stopped short of the river we crossed to get from Harvard’s main campus to the business school’s sacrosanct, pristinely manicured lawns. Across the river at the Kennedy School of Government where I was also a student, talk of imposter syndrome, especially among students, took a different tone: painstakingly unpacking the “insidious ways white supremacy had found its way into the recesses of our academic discourse causing the marginalized to feel even more marginalized.” It was almost as if most of my classmates at the Kennedy School came pre-loaded with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. And faculty and staff who did not reckon with this reality would be “checked” and “held accountable,” sometimes in real time. Wrapped around my memory are outbursts of righteous indignation disrupting an ethics professor’s pedagogical flow with accusations of “Orientalist” and “racist” when a professor potentially misremembered the intricate details of the history of Indian Political Theory.
But at HBS, the academics mattered far less than the social and, to be clear, the word “social” would rarely be bookended intentionally by the word “justice.” I couldn’t afford the fancy trips — we called them “treks” that totaled sometimes over $3,000 before you factored in flights — where people would “bond.” I pulled out of one trip to several African countries by saying that I had other commitments when in reality, I just would never be able to pay for it. I tried to afford the bottle service that seemed required for an HBS night on the town, only to be left with gaping holes in my shrinking bank account. And I certainly wasn’t willing to take out more loans or another “Hurry! 0% APR for the first year” credit card to finance “fitting in” at a yacht week, a collection of expensive dinners, or costumes for every themed party. So maybe HBS made an admissions mistake not on my academic potential, but certainly on my potential to “belong.”
Not to mention, the lack of faces that looked like mine made believing these professors’ claims that I belonged nearly impossible. And if I wasn’t a mistake of the admissions office then I must have been a token, either for a smiling picture in a brochure to show “We like Black students too” or “Oh, look what capitalism did for even people like me, because what can’t capitalism do?” Or perhaps my “belonging-ness” was to be built on moments like these when people like me are maybe supposed to say something about colonialism or race. But saying something that might ruffle a feather, as a token, can prove to be risky business — and the mental math becomes too complex to remain calculable.
That day we had been discussing something about China’s investment in Zimbabwe. The class began like any other class. The professor cold-called somebody to review the basic facts from the case — essentially present what’s at stake for the main protagonist.
As the white guy with the backward colonialism comment stated with such surety, I noticed his seatmate (because what is an elite school without basic terms like “seatmate” taking on extreme significance), a Zimbabwean turning a faint blue-ish purple, because we, darker skin black folks, don’t turn red. She seemed stunned, and while I might have been ready to join her in that shock, I was waiting on another shoe to drop — someone to speak up that didn’t look like me. Someone white, tall, male, WASP-y, and wealthy to enter the dialogue with the confidence that they deserved to speak and the desire to stand with pride that expected adulation for their moment of ally-ship.
Instead, I saw maybe 15 to 20 (my view was limited to about 30 or so folks) of my 93 classmates nod and quietly utter things like “Hadn’t thought of that before” and “Wow, interesting point.” Soon the shock of my Zimbabwean classmate washed over me. I didn’t have to say anything because I knew there was a white guy somewhere in that classroom who was just itching for ally-ship.
I began to wonder: “Maybe I’m not an admission mistake because I’m here to make a fuss and raise hell for moments just like this.” But how could I be indignant without seeming like I’d flown off the handle with my emotions? How could the groundswell of my anger — as a son of parents who grew up in Jamaica, a country that suffered under the hand of British colonialism — be packaged into a succinct “You’re wrong” or the pseudo-respectful response, “Let me push back on that”? And how could I express myself without being simply, incoherently woke?
My mental calculus, like the mental math of many tokens, concluded that my indignation would need validation. Either my hand shot up before my brain could finish processing or the professor sensed my anger through my loud, bated breaths. Before I knew it, I started wrapping “You’re wrong!” with the flowery academic language needed to make myself worthy enough to have an opinion.
I wish that the rules were different — that I didn’t have to wrap the rage that Baldwin said every person of color in America who is relatively conscious is entitled to hold. I wish that I could have communicated the economic toll colonialism takes on people. I wish I could have talked “business talk” about the humanity that suffered under the reckless reign of colonialism. I wish I could have remained calm and that my bald black head didn’t glisten with beads of sweat. I wish I could have quipped “Imagine Holland or the UK without colonialism” — this way my classmates could understand what little the colonized get versus the colonizer.
But instead, sweaty and stammering, I reached for the muses of left-leaning, post-colonialism thinkers more fit for an American Studies class at a school where students walk barefoot, smoke weed, and smell like patchouli.
I tried to recite parts of a Frantz Fanon’s (muse of my post-colonialist persuasion) treatise, The Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon talks at length about the psychological damage incurred by colonization. Even worse, I used the word “treatise.” I talked about the colonial origins of comparative development and the trio of economics scholars who wrote it: Drs. Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson. And of course, I left out their first names so I could sound more like the fancy people who know so many things that they can’t be bothered to say the first names of important people. And at some point, I tried to dazzle whomever managed to continue listening by that point with Mancur Olson’s “roving banditry.” And if I’ve lost you, you’re probably right to have stopped reading just as my classmates stopped listening.
I said a whole lot of everything without saying much of anything, only to have my voice crack and spend nearly four minutes — about 3.5 minutes longer than the ideal HBS comment. My black consciousness came up in the arrears that day. But blathering for validation’s sake dashed my classmate’s opportunity to hear and understand just how wrong he was. Being a token is as much about getting access to the rooms and spaces I’ve been systematically left out of as it is about giving a bunch of other non-marginalized people the opportunity to confirm or negate the biases they have about tokens like me, and how I arrived in that same space.
It isn’t fair that my mental math at that moment had to be so complicated. A lot of my time at HBS was spent stewing in jealousy or at least envying the boldness of the thoughts shared by my white classmate. His math was simple: “Have a thought plus share the thought minus concern for how what you say will be interpreted as too loud, too angry to be indignant equals valuable contribution.” My math? My math for making some meaningful, memorable contribution in class was “Have a thought, but take that thought and question it the millionth power, minus the fervor and emotion that come with important discussions, times your best impression of a voice that your family and friends who look like you from home would never recognize equals a contribution that your white colleagues can hear and not fear.”
And it won’t stop at an HBS classroom. I have felt the same pressure at that moment that I have felt when a co-worker makes an incendiary comment about the curliness or “nappiness” of my hair. I have felt the same when a white high school teacher remarked about the overreach of gains Blacks have attained after the Civil Rights era. In each of those times, I have tried to do the math and as I age the consequences of doing that mental math “properly” only increase. For most of my life, I have used every status symbol imaginable, from Oxford to Harvard, to help institutions like HBS claim diversity. My face on a brochure helped not just my mental math as a token but the math every institution feels compelled to do so they can claim that they are “diverse and inclusive.” But it is precisely my aid to these institutions that causes me to recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 speech at Southern Methodist University. He said, “If we are to have a truly integrated society, it will never develop through tokenism.”
Bungling that math, on that day, offered me another chance to realize that the status quo would never let me be anything other than a token. The more mental math I do, the more I try to validate my place in elite spaces, the more I do a disservice to everyone who’s not in that room. The more math I do, the clearer it becomes that I’m dedicating my life to validating a system constructed to invalidate me. Not doing the math might cost me a lot — the respect of my classmates and co-workers, my perception as “just as smart,” and maybe a chance to show off that “I belong here too.” But the only way I’ll ever stop being a “token” is if I belong, with no math or validation needed. Maybe it’s time to give up on surviving the status quo. Perhaps, I’m past due to agree with Dr. King when he said, “Tokenism is much more subtle and can be much more depressing to the victims of the tokenism than all-out resistance.”
Caleb Gayle is a writer based in New York and author of forthcoming book, Cow Tom's Cabin, which examines the true story of Cow Tom, a former Black chief of the Creek Nation, and a narrative account of how many Black Native Americans, including Cow Tom’s descendants, were divided and marginalized by white supremacy in America. Book is under contract with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Featured image: "Inside a Harvard Business School classroom" by HBS1908 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.