Kwame Salter and How How Business Is More than Black and White: Success in a Complex World
Top: Kwame Salter and (above) the cover of his book about being a Black manager
By Jonathan Gramling
Kwame Salter has succeeded at many things in life. A graduate of UW-Whitewater — he was one of 14 African American students at the time — he earned a master’s degree from UW-Madison in 1970. He led the protests over the closing of the UW-Madison Afro Am Center in 1973. At one time, he was president of the Madison public schools board and was executive director of Madison’s Head Start Program. Salter went on to a 22 year career with Kraft/Oscar Mayer, steadily moving up the chain of command as director to senior director to vice-president to senior vice-president until he retired in 2008.
Recently, Salter released his second book called Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White: 7 Strategies to Manage the Nuances and Challenges. In some ways, it is his autobiography on how he successfully managed a high level career in white Corporate America and he speaks about it in a very unemotional, matter-of-fact way.
Salter talks about the systemic racism inherent in American institutions that determine who receives the benefits and resources produced by those institutions. And while it might be based on “whiteness,” the definition of whiteness has changed over time to allow the system to perpetuate and sustain itself.
“There are privileges that are inherent in this country if you are ‘considered white,’” Salter said. “You have a lot of ethnic groups who were not considered white in the early part of the 20th century who are now white: Italian, Irish. The Eastern Europeans were not considered white initially. But now they are white adjacent. And I point out that they spend their weekdays working as white people and then they go off on the weekends and go back to their ethnic enclaves and they become ethnic people. They enjoy themselves. But they understand the political benefits of being white adjacent, which is access to privilege. It used to be that people would say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ Now they say, ‘I’m white.’ It’s ironic.”
The systemic racism can be built in, but it is also based on the pervasive shared attitudes and beliefs that a group may share and then express in ways big and small.
“In the book, I talk about the micro-aggressions,” Salter said. “You’ve seen that. You’ve heard those comments and sometimes they are innocent comments. But they really do form a micro-aggression. ‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘Oh, I went to Tuskegee.’ ‘What’s that? Where is that?’ ‘It’s an all-Black school.’ ‘Is it accredited?’ That’s a micro-aggression or a micro-validation.”
And within that system of racism, you have to realize that the power dynamics are much deeper than skin deep.
“You have to know where you are at in time and space at every second,” Salter said. “You can’t be paranoid. But you have to be alert. And you can’t make assumptions. When I talk about the homie, the Black person who reports to you and gets comfortable with you because you are a Black boss, it borders on disrespect. They can’t acknowledge your position, but, ‘Hey Brother, we’re all the same. You got that position because they needed a person of color.’ In that statement, there is a denial of your competencies and abilities.”
Within this very complex structure of an organization, one must keep their head and be able to navigate the complexity. Sometimes the only thing a person can control is themselves and their reactions. And that’s a good start.
“I want people to get real,” Salter said. “First of all, I talk about the first strategy as keeping your cool, the No Drama Obama approach because we never get the opportunities to claim provocation. Someone could walk up to me and call me the ‘N-word,’ push me and if I respond, then I become the aggressor. Ergo, this whole concept of standing your ground doesn’t apply to us because we’re never viewed as being capable of being provoked. It’s almost part of the culture that you continue to think that. You see these people going off on people and spewing these vile names and racial putdowns. ‘Why would they say that?’ What they are saying is that the value of this country is that you are inferior, you are marginal. The takeaways are keep your cool. Develop your emotional intelligence, which is self-awareness and self-control, empathy, the ability to organize and gather people around you and having a perspective in terms of a vision, these are things that you have to do. You need to face your fears. Don’t be afraid to face your fears. What’s your fear? Your fear is that I got this position. If I don’t do the right thing by this unseen jury of people, then I am viewed as a failure.”
Salter goes on to talk about how people can absorb and take on aspects of that structural racism.
“No one ever has to say that they got beat out by a person of color because if you got the job, you got it not because of your abilities and competencies, you got it because of your color,” Salter said. “And that mentality or mindset exists not only among white folks, but also among Black people. ‘I want to be the best of the rest.’ I want to be the best of the best.”
Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White has seven basic strategies that Salter wants to impart to the reader and summarizes the strategies at the back of each chapter. In one chapter, Salter talks about leadership.
“Leadership is not a concept,” Salter emphasized. “It’s a situational thing. Situational leadership is important. There are four elements of situational leadership. It is sell, tell, join and consult. Some leaders are stuck on telling. ‘I’m going to tell you what to do.’ You have to find the right situation to tell. Some people are good at selling. They can sell any concept. They don’t necessarily believe it, but they can sell it. There are people who know how to work with other people. They join in. ‘There go my people. I must catch them so that I can lead them.’ And so when you start thinking about all of these things, you start thinking, ‘Oh my God, what do I need to do to be effective as a leader? And what are the challenges and nuances of being a Black leader?’ That’s what this whole book is about, discussing the undiscussable, identifying and acknowledging the elephant in the room.’ The takeaways are to take each chapter and look at it and understand that if you can identify where you are missing the target, then course-correct and adjust your behavior, so that you can get the outcomes that you want.”
We all stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. For the Black executive, they can stand on the shoulders of Kwame Salter as they learn to navigate Corporate America through his book “Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White: 7 Strategies to Manage the Nuances and Challenges.” It’s an easy read that will yield clarity in a complex world.
Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White: 7 Strategies to Manage the Nuances and Challenges can be purchased on Amazon for $17.76.