I am often asked during interviews to share my experience as a black business owner in the startup world. You know, how I got started, how I’ve gotten this far. My go-to response is to explain that I have had many positive experiences, some negative, and I consider myself to be a business owner who happens to be black — rather than a black business owner.
Yet, I have had to admit that I am somewhat offended by the question. And perhaps more offensive than the question being asked is the answer people want to hear.
It has become clear that people fully expect me to tell some version of the urban tale of triumph — the one that has me growing up in the inner city, determined to make it out, and working diligently to change my life and improve my family’s situation. The one that expresses the frustration and angst I feel everyday surrounding the seemingly insurmountable hurdles I face in my business because of my blackness. As dramatically inspirational and true, for some of us, as these versions of the black road to success are, they don’t represent my own.
I grew up in a great suburb of Philadelphia, full of Blue Ribbon schools and beautiful homes. My parents were married, and still are. Dad was a working professional, Mom stayed home to care for me and my sister. I was guided very early in the ways of success and responsibility. There was no struggle. None apparent to me, anyway. It was a pretty Huxtable-esque experience. And most notably, many of my black friends had a similar story. And still do. Which is most probably why the idea of black folks like my friends and I as some kind of unicorn anomaly is as offensive as untrue.
In fact, nearly 75 percent of blacks are not poor. The vast majority of us do not live in urban blight. That’s 75 percent of us who do not live under the bigoted blanket thrown over us by politicians and the media, both conservative and liberal. Yet here we are, somehow obligatorily apologetic for our success because we didn’t have a desperate circumstance from which to escape.
My personal experience with this passive form of racial profiling has been sobering. I was approached by Inc. Magazine for a feature on the life of a successful black entrepreneur. I agreed to participate because I enjoy the publication, and it has a great reputation. The piece was going to be quite involved, so they had a writer shadow me for about 60 days. Subsequently, several months passed with no word from them. I reached out and was told by the writer as politely as possible, that the editor killed the story — because I wasn’t the “archetypal Black entrepreneur to hang the story around.”
Translation? I wasn’t black enough. My experience wasn’t interesting because I couldn’t recount a “started from the bottom now we here” narrative — or express angst behind all of the discrimination they assumed I encounter in my business life. I was disappointed. Offended. And saddened.
Yet I was not confused. This notion that the black experience is only worthy of recognition or discussion when there is, in some capacity, negativity expressed is the old normal. Publications are looking for a modern entrepreneurial version of being chased by dogs and pummeled by fire hoses. They seem to need a “rose that grew from concrete” struggle story, as validation of my determination and fortitude — and my success.
The standard by which my archetypal blackness is accessed, is in the hands of every person who contributes to these stereotypes — black and white. By refusing to negatively exaggerate what has been, for me, a predominantly positive experience in business and life, I am refusing victimization.
Let me be clear: I am not claiming that racism does not exist. Yet, the constant retelling of the black struggle to success has become a problem because it masterfully serves a “click bait” culture that shares sensationalism like wildfire, but isn’t doing much to tangibly benefit black founders.
The real problems are things like unanimous votes at Venture Capital firms. There is always someone who “can’t get comfortable” with the black guy’s deal. It’s gray, and blurred, and subtle, and can always be substantiated by some facts. And though this type of discrimination exists, it certainly does not leave black entrepreneurs completely underfunded and out in the cold. For example, black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country — outpacing all other startups by six times the national average. This is significant, yet woefully underreported.
We have a responsibility to command an image of the “archetypal Black entrepreneur” that represents the majority of us, and not just the minority. By realigning the story from stereotypes and struggles to the significant amount of positive movement in the black entrepreneurial space — and acknowledging the fact that many of us come from backgrounds set up for success, we can better serve our collective advancement. Let’s move away from the emphasis on black suffering and make the celebration of black excellence the new normal.
Brian Brackeen is the CEO of Kairos.com, a facial recognition firm based in Miami that has seen average growth over 100 percent month-over-month for 24 months. This piece originally ran on FacesOfFounders.org, a publication powered by the Case Foundation on entrepreneurship, place, race and gender.