Book Review — “Plantation Theory: The Black Professional’s Struggle Between Freedom & Security” by John Graham
As author and corporate diversity thought-leader John Graham will attest, kids have no qualms in questioning things that make little sense to them
Case in point: One afternoon his wife, clearly a bit rattled, approached him about something their daughter had asked after overhearing a phone conversation:
“Mommy, why do you change your voice when you call the doctor’s office or call the school?”
For the Grahams, responding to this was a moment of truth in terms of their everyday experience as Black Americans. John recounts the tender yet uncomfortable response he gave to his daughter:
“Mommy changes her voice when she talks on the phone to make white people feel more comfortable.”
This story serves as a fitting backdrop for Graham’s new book Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom & Security. Scheduled for release on June 19, 2021, it provides an unfiltered deep dive into the personal and professional experiences of Black American in their quest for equality.
Sharing first hand accounts and case examples, he takes aim at the microaggressions and other forms of racism that Black folks encounter on a daily basis in their personal and professional worlds. Graham then offers a thoughtful set of prescriptives for addressing workforce behaviors that fuel inequitable and toxic environments.
In a recent interview with “Black Books, Black Minds”, Graham says that his own workplace encounters over the course of an 18-year career as a marketer and brand advisor served as the main inspiration for the book. He also credits his parents as major factor in his decision to write it saying
“I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the role that the experiences of my parents, who both worked and excelled in corporate America, had on my trajectory. Watching them climb the ladder while navigating their own journeys of being Black in predominantly white spaces, managing the threat perceptions and making the adjustments required to achieve success had a profound impact on me.”
In his own corporate journey, is where Graham first began to recognize that some of his experiences as a Black professional weren’t unique:
“The slights, the dismissiveness, the isolation, the lack of attribution of credit for my ideas and my work outputs, all of these were universally lived experiences by people who looked like me. I continued to find myself articulating what many of us were afraid to say in public spaces for fear of losing their jobs. It is here where I realized that instead of putting these truths out in the form of posts on social or as blog articles, it was time to express these experiences as a complete thought. Thus, ‘Plantation Theory’ was born.”
Asked how his book “Plantation” compares to the litany of other books published in recent years about race, from “White Fragility,” and “Stamped From The Beginning,” to “You Want To Talk About Race”, he had this to offer:
“All of the titles you mentioned are juggernauts in the space of race and history and I’m honored to be mentioned in the same breath. My book adds to the conversation by bridging the gap between history and modern-day reality as it pertains to the Black professional’s experience in corporate spaces.”
Graham says that he has felt for some time a profound disconnect between the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives he had been seeing in the post George Floyd era and the underlying historical events that created the structures that Black people continue to navigate daily. He notes:
“My book seeks to bring the reader into the inner circle conversations that we as Black professionals have amongst ourselves with the intent of showcasing the humanity of our experience. I push the reader to question and reject the premise that has been sold to us our entire lives — the American Dream model of go to school, get a good job, and retire. I believe that we have so much more to offer the world, including the obligation to our community to see beyond what’s been deemed safe.”
Graham in his book also aims to shed light on the hidden norms in corporate spaces and provide a peek into what lies ahead for up-and-coming Historical Black College and University (HBCU) grads along with Black graduates of Historically White Institutions (HWIs). He continues:
“There’s a game being played that most of us aren’t even aware of along with a language that is spoken in corporate America that most aren’t privy to. What I am referring to here are practices and policies that are unspoken and imply that if you aren’t up on your game, you’ll never have a chance at success.
Graham says that the book is in part designed to encourage White executives to ask better questions when approaching DE&I initiatives and really get beyond performative measures and diversity theater in order to foster substantial and sustainable change.
In Plantation, Graham also speaks to the constant duality that Black folks face in today’s workplace environments.
“We have to navigate White spaces which in itself becomes a full-time job for our subconscious. Whether it be our demeanor, our tone, our vernacular, our posture, our appearance, and the ability to reduce threat perceptions and stereotypical assumptions, we have a lot to manage in addition to our jobs.”
Graham says that Black professionals must also wrestle with the desire to be independent, entrepreneurial, and creators of our own destiny both professionally and financially.
“There are things that we bring to the table that make us highly valuable but often, we are not valued. Knowing all this, there’s an internal struggle that goes on when we know that we possess higher qualifications and credentials than those we report to. We know that we have the capability to do and be so much more than we’re allowed to be, but the reality is, we all need to eat. So, this struggle between the freedom of owning our own ventures and controlling our own outcomes, or the security of a consistent paycheck that comes with being an employee weighs heavily on the minds of many Black professionals”.
He is quick to remind readers that this struggle is one that was faced by 4.5 million newly freed Black folks dating back to 1866. A quarter of them died in the first year due to starvation and disease, while a small subset migrated out of the south and established themselves in their newfound freedom. The majority however, returned to plantations where security was offered in the way of sharecropping as the evolved form of slavery.
“This is a plight that I suggest we’re still reckoning with today.”
Recounting the story about his daughter’s question in the early pages of the book, Graham took a moment to explain the often heard and much talked term “Code Switching”.
“Code is language and switching means to go back and forth. Therefore, it’s the adjustment and assimilation of language based on the environment or audience. The ability of Blacks to be able to do this can mean the difference between getting a job opportunity or not, being considered for a promotion or not, even making it home from a routine traffic stop or not. In some cases, our ability to code-switch can be the difference between life or death.”
Graham is quick to point out that everyone code-switches.
“It can be based on class, religion, peer groups or seniority, but Black folks have had to adopt these survival tactics based on the construct of 500 years of colonization and systemic oppression.”
Despite the prevailing challenges Blacks face in the workplace, Graham believe that opportunities for change can gain momentum when business leaders are willing to ask better questions:
“One of the biggest opportunities leaders have is to ask better questions. A first question they should all be asking is ‘Who are the intended beneficiaries of the work we’re doing in DE&I?’ This seemingly simple question is one that is frequently not asked by executive leaders or DE&I practitioners largely because the flow of power is traditionally downward. However, just like the trickle down theory of economics doesn’t work, neither does the trickle down theory of DE&I.”
It’s here where Graham asserts that addressing racism should begin with leaders asking the most marginalized people in the company what change looks like.
“I’m a huge proponent of moving DE&I beyond a compliance centric approach to one that focuses on improving the daily lived experiences of marginalized people. By focusing on the gaps in lived experience we can better measure the outcomes of our efforts and honestly answer the question, ‘is what we’re doing actually working’”?
In terms of his greatest hope for the book, Graham offers this:
“My hope is that this book becomes the required reading in households and business curriculums everywhere. In particular, I hope it gets into the hands of high school kids going off to college and for HBCU/HWI business majors.”
Expanding on this point he concludes:
“We need aspiring Black professionals to understand to the fullest extent possible what they are about to get into once they graduate. The more informed they are, the better prepared they will be to navigate these spaces, or perhaps choose a different path altogether. We also need aspiring white professionals to understand the cultures that they are creating. The hope is that they will consciously decide not to perpetuate Plantation Theory but rather understand the lived experiences of marginalized talent. This will foster more humane business decisions and consciously create inclusive cultures should they find themselves in power positions to do so.”