Black History Month in 2021 (w/ Dr. Mark Anthony Neal)

Zach sits down with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, to chat about Blackness and kick off Living Corporate’s Black History Month content.

Connect with Dr. Neal on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sign up for the premiere broadcast of The Break Room! We’ll be live (every) Thursday at 7PM Central.


Zach (00:10): What’s up you all? This is Zach with Living Corporate and you know what we’re doing every single week, we’re center and amplifying black and brown folks at work. Happy black history month you all. Now, look, I know that we make black history every single day, black history is American history and at the same time, I’m thankful that we have a season, albeit a season in the wintertime and not closer in the summertime, since we’re like the summer people. I wish that we had August off instead, or rather look at me, I’m projecting because I’m saying, I wish we had black history month off in August because I would take August off and you would too, don’t play, you would take August off. Anyway, I have to say, I am so thankful and appreciative of the work of this team, this Thursday we have our first episode of The Break Room, The Break Room is a live web show focused on mental health, wellness and healing for black folks at work.

(01:10): I know, you know, we know that we suffer from racialized trauma, from being in white majority spaces as one of the only’s at work and yet we’ve yet to really, I’ve seen, explore and dive into in a quote unquote official way with black health professionals, the reality of that. So I’m excited about The Break Room because we’re going to be doing that every single Thursday at 7:00 PM central. So make sure you check your show notes and sign up, register, get familiar, get acquainted, we’re going to have a good time. Now, something I really want folks to consider and keep in mind is that black history month is not a time to observe something that is past, but to examine systems that persist and create harm. When we think about folks like Hank Aaron RIP, and we think about Martin Luther King, of course, Malcolm X, Cicely Tyson, rest in peace, they have stories of triumph in spite of white supremacy. That’s what makes their stories incredible because there were systems in place that actively sought to do them in and they prevailed anyway and so we focus on, oftentimes we focus on the individual act of that person, but we don’t talk about what was done to them and so my hope is for aspirational allies and those who call themselves allies, who appoint themselves as allies that you would ask yourself, what are you doing to create less black superheroes? What are doing? What systems are you engaging? How are you using your voice? What are you speaking truth to to help create more equitable and just environments for black folks, for black people?

(03:16): Now look, I’m really excited about our guest, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal. Dr. Mark Anthony Neal is a professor at Duke. He is incredible and I wanted to bring him on to talk about the historicity of blackness in America and the historicity of white supremacy in America and get into what makes American history so unique and how all of these different systems are intertwined and continue to create disparities for black people. I’m really excited about black history month you all, we have a ton of content coming out. You would be remiss if you did not subscribe, share this content with your friends, check out what we got cooking, not just the single podcast. We got The Leadership Range. Like I said, we got The Break Room. We have The Access Point. We have The Group Chat. We have a lot of different stuff going on. So make sure that you’re plugged in and you’re in tune. You don’t want to miss anything. Before we get to our conversation with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, we’re going to tap in with Tristan, see you in a minute.

Tristan (04:35): What’s going on Living Corporate, it’s Tristan and I want to thank you for tapping back in with me as I provide some tips and advice for professionals. This week, I want to have an honest conversation on expanding your view of what options are available to you. I’ve been having conversations with job seekers who tell me that their job is wearing them out and they’re looking for something different. They wanted to change their job so badly that they hop on job boards and start looking for new positions. When I asked them to provide me with some job descriptions that have piqued their interest, they send me postings for the exact role they told me they wanted to leave. Have you ever been in that position? Don’t worry, it’s a common mistake and most of us aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. There are typically three reasons why job seekers fall down this pigeon hole.

(05:21): First, they are comfortable in those types of roles. Second, they think they’ve reached a pinnacle and believe those roles are the best they can do. And third, they aren’t sure what other options are out there that may align with their skillsets. To me, all of those lead to one thing, they have a very narrow view of what they want to do and where it is possible to do it. If you find yourself scrolling through pages and pages of the same position that you said you wanted to get away from work to expand your view, become aware of what other career opportunities may be out there. Otherwise you’re going to be dealing with the same mess in a similar role just at a different company. If you aren’t sure where to start, seek out some help. You may want to start with a mentor or sponsor, but ultimately I’d suggest trying to work with a career coach to help you think outside of the box and identify roles you didn’t know existed, but are perfect for the experience you have. Thanks for tapping in with me today. Don’t forget, I’m now taking submissions from you all on career questions, issues, concerns, or advice you think may be helpful for others. So make sure to submit yours at That’s B I T dot L Y forward slash TA P I N T R I S T A N. This tip was brought to you by Tristan of Layfield Resume Consulting. Check us out on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @layfieldresume or connect with me Tristan Layfield on LinkedIn.

Zach (06:57): Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, how are you doing, sir?

Dr. Mark (07:00): I’m good today. How are you doing?

Zach (07:02): You know what, it’s a loaded question that I asked you and you’re asking it back to me. I think I’m okay. I’m all right. I’m recording this for black history month and I’ve watched you from afar for a while. I’m thankful for the work that you do, and frankly, you’re the first black academic that we’ve had on specifically focused on black culture, especially within the American context. I’d like to just kind of get your perspective on when we talk about the concept of blackness in America. Can you walk us through the historicity of white supremacy in this country?

Dr. Mark (07:39): When you think about this country and even the concept of founding fathers, which links the nation to notions of masculinity and of course the founding fathers were all white in the United States for all intents and purposes was founded on the embodiment of white supremacy. The idea that wherever white is white should represent might and so that even as folks are leaving Europe to settle this place here in North America. Those notions of white supremacy and domination followed those white settlers here, white supremacy is a thing that allows you to not pay attention to the fact that there were in fact, people of color, who had built civilizations and who were really vibrant in those civilizations before you came and white supremacy allows you to assume that you have something to teach them as opposed to them having something to teach you and in many ways 200 years plus into the Republic, white supremacy continues to be the dominant ideology of what we find in this country. There are waves and times in which it’s been articulated in more nuance ways. There were times in which the Republic needed the labor and time ingenius of people of color in particular black people in order to survive. But then you had a moment like the last four years with the 45 in which all of the kind of nuances and symbolism of unity and diversity basically exploded and basically showed the rest of the world that white supremacy is in fact alive and thriving here in the United States and would be willing ultimately to destroy even the idea of the Republic to maintain this visibility of white supremacy.

Zach (09:37): I had a friend of mine tell me that capitalism is white supremacy in action. I’m curious, what’s your thoughts on, on that statement?

Dr. Mark (09:46): Yeah, I think it’s hard, it’s very difficult to separate white supremacy from capitalism, from even masculinity as systems of ideology that function at their best when they function together and when they function at their best, they also obviously function to the detriment of people, of color and women in a range of other folks. But I think there’s no question that if you want to see the various ways that white supremacy is actualized in the world, capitalism would be one example of that.

Zach (10:21): And so you’ve made this mention now twice about masculinity, now is that in your mind interchangeable with patriarchy as a concept and if so, why, and if not, why?

Dr. Mark (10:32): Masculinity is a way that maleness is performed. Patriarchy is a belief that power resides in these male forms. So those are two different days, but they’re definitely part of the same conversation. So masculinity is a way that we walk in the world in our male bodies and not just men who walk in those male bodies, there are examples of female masculinity and masculinity in and of itself is not problematic. It becomes problematic when we see toxic performances of it, which is exactly what Donald Trump was and then when that toxic performativity of masculinity is writ large as a way that the world should function in the context of a patriarchy, that’s where you see those kinds of dynamics.

Zach (11:20): Already, Joe Biden’s inauguration speech is getting pushed back and frustration around the language that he used. There are senators and other politicians speaking out and claiming it, but you know that they’re offended and that it was a thinly veiled critique against the majority of Americans in this country, which is a telling statement on its own. But my question is, why do you believe white people are so triggered by the term white supremacy? You think about the reaction to Nicole Hannah Jones, 1619 project and I’m curious as to your thoughts on what that stems from.

Dr. Mark (12:10): I think there are a few things that are taking place there. I think unconscious bias is real. The way in which many white folks actually don’t perceive the power that they have, they don’t necessarily understand the way that they take up space and so in some ways, a critique of white supremacy that they’re acting out of some sort of animous towards black and brown people, people of color offends them on a personal level, because personally they don’t see themselves as being embodied in that because too often, the symbols of white supremacy have been Donald Trump or a Bull Connor or the KKK and they don’t see that in their everyday lives. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that if they were to look internally at themselves, their everyday lives they would be able to self critically assess the ways in which they do in fact have power, that they do in fact have privilege. White privilege is one of those things that white folks hear and it’s like, what the hell are you talking about? I have to struggle to go to work everyday and pay my bills and all those kinds of things and in many ways they are oblivious to the fact that their whiteness functions in a way that even in the quality of their life now they have more opportunities and chances than their black or brown peers, who in the absence of having whiteness as a privilege, don’t get to do the same kinds of things.

(13:37): This is where when we look broadly in terms of American society, the failure of mainstream corporate press to hold folks accountable around racist language and racist symbolism, you think about how long it took, maybe the major newspapers to actually call some of the things that Donald Trump said as a lie. Three years into his presidency they were still terming it as mistruths and distortions instead of just saying a lie is a lie. We’ve had those same conversations about racism and white supremacy. Most of America seemed to think that racism first occurred when George Floyd was being killed in Minneapolis of June of 2020 as if there hasn’t literally been just in the last 15 years, a continuous stream of examples being placed into the mainstream blacks and other folks about what the reality of police brutality is. So there’s an unwillingness to admit what is happening to the world that we see first on the media level and of course, when we get to the K through 12 experience and so many folks who go through school and not have a fundamental understanding of the history of United States and how race functions in that let alone how just the three divisions of government function, you realize there is failure on all sides.

Zach (15:02): Help me understand something, I exist in the quote unquote corporate space and my ongoing frustration, Dr. Neal continues to be the inability seemingly anyway of white leaders to connect white supremacist behaviors outside of the office, to the structural white supremacists behaviors inside of an office. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Mark (15:33): I think one, one reason why that’s the case is because it’s a reflection and a critique of their leadership. You mentioned corporate spaces. I mean, we’d like to believe still that higher education is some pristine space in which people are committed to living a life of the mind but so many major universities or corporations into themselves and they function that way and there’s always a way to believe that the university, for instance, or your corporation represents a bubble that is separate and distinct from the world that takes place outside of your corporation and we know that’s not the case. I was just on a conversation talking about the lack of advancement opportunities for people of color, women in color, in particular in these kind of corporate spaces and one of the things that comes out is that you hear black women for instance, all the time in these spaces, talk about the fact that their supervisors never have conversations with them, but they’re always talking to their white colleagues, who were similar trained in the same backgrounds, have the same kind of responsibilities and we discount the fact that very often these are relationships that exist, not just in the corporate space, not just in the university, but outside of those spaces simply because they’re white it creates a social condition for them to interact that people of color don’t have access to. It’s the old conversation about why do all the black kids sit at the lunch table? Well, that’s one lunch table with a bunch of black kids and 37 tables was nothing but white kids. What is it about whiteness that reproduces that and I think many often leadership, takes a blind eye to those kinds of critiques, particularly they think that they personally embody a politics that’s more progressive and diverse and open-minded and are unwilling really to wheel the force that they need to wield within the institutions who if they do believe that’s who they are to make sure that those who report to them are also in line with that kind of sensibility.

Zach (17:40): So, I asked you a question earlier in connecting these systems, you think about white supremacy, capitalism, masculinity, patriarchy, I’m curious, as you think about some of the academic debates that have been had over the past four years regarding this concept of white supremacy, and I want you to, because Dr. Neal, you have the sauce, so you’re going to clearly educate me, is my impression and that Cornell West coats debate or the ideological difference seem to be, and I’d like to get your perspective on this. My understanding was that part of West’s critique of Coates was that West kind of like talked only about white supremacy in this limited view without bringing in the scope of imperialism, capitalism and all these other larger pieces at play and how they come together and then like, again, like the history of those things and then Coates, he rebuffed that with some examples of how we did talk about international policies that were imperialistic and problematic and things of that nature. I’m curious just because I don’t know what I’m going to ever talk to you again. So I’m going to shoot my shot and ask here is, I’m curious to get your perspective on that debate and point of, and those different points of view and where you think the dissonance is.

Dr. Mark (19:05): So I know both Dr. West and Ta Nehisi I don’t know them well probably know Dr. West better thanTa Nehisi and I think it’s important to definitely have a robust space for the gate. I think one of the things that we’ve lost in the social media moment, where there’s always a potential to cancel somebody is that we’ve lost the art of debate and that resonates as much as it does in our national politics, as it does in terms of black intellectuals having a conversation and I think part of what Dr. West was responding to regardless of the legitimacy or not of the critique of Ta Nehisi’s work is the ways in which the mainstream white culture can anoint the Negro that matters at this particular point in time. For all the wonderfulness of Ta Nahesi as a writer, as a thinker, he is thinking through a intellectual tradition that has existed well before he has. You can go back and read interviews with Cornell West in the 1990s and he’s saying essentially the same things, 30 years ago just in the context of 30 years ago, as opposed to what’s happening in the contemporary moment and I think in many ways, Cornell West’s critique was a caution to remind folks like Ta Nehisi I would offer the same caution now to say someone like Ibram Kendi that the way that the largest society likes to isolate black thinkers from black intellectual traditions so that they emerge as the thinker of the moment and the expert of the moment as if there isn’t this larger trajectory of folks who have been thinking about this.

(20:59): Again, a lot of this has to do with the way that people were trained and as someone like Ta Nehisi who was in many ways self-trained and a voracious reader, and comes to who he is through his own grit as a thinker, as a reader, as a writer, for many folks who were scholars and academics we went through rigorous training and with so much of our work is about acknowledging, even as we create original ideas, we do so in the context of acknowledging folks who were taught about these things prior to us, that’s exactly what the training and the practice is and in many ways to elevate someone like Ta Nahesi, who has not had that kind of training is to suggest that it legitimacy of the training.

Zach (21:05): That’s profound. I need to pause and absorb that for a second because there’s something; so Dr. Neal, it’s interesting and as I hear all these things I’m connecting the dots. Because you said something about the caution in how these institutions can kind of like handpick and to be clear, I’m a huge Coates fan, I love all of this work, but I’m speaking more now to the culture of it and the patterns of being picked out and like you said, isolated, and kind of like juxtaposed against. I’m curious about your perspective on the concept of community, we talk all about we need to be United, we use a lot of language around here, we have to be united, we have to be on the same page, we have to operate as one. What is your perspective on a Western concept of individualism and its impact on on the black community in America?

Dr. Mark (22:47): One of the, not that there’s ever a beauty to segregation but one of the lasting legacy is really of racial segregation in this country is that it forced black communities to build and invest in their own institutions because it was little opportunity to do otherwise. What that meant really prior to 1954, is that you guaranteed that black teachers would teach black kids. You guaranteed that black people would go to black churches. So that’s still what to say in case, black folks would seek out black legal assistance and black medical assistants, the kinds of fractures that we’ve seen in terms of racism, for instance, in the medical profession and things of that look different doing segregation because you were going to black doctors and there was a way that whether or not you were a black elite or black middle class figure, or the black working class, you tended to live in the same kind of proximity. So there was a shared fate and that shared fate, I think, is something that Western thought and let’s say American thought never fully understood because whiteness allowed folks to have the freedom of individuality. You can be who you are and not necessarily be a reflection of all white people. Black people would never function in that kind of situation, it’s always been the case that the visibility of one black person good or bad, reflects on the totality of the community and we very often had to raise our children and think of our own careers in the context of whether or not we would make black people look bad. I remember this running joke Chris Rock gave when he was doing his HBO series in the 1990s where it’s like a process of steps.

(24:40): Some black person does something and black folks walk up three flights of stairs, then something like OJ Hampton happens and they fall back five flights of steps and to the credit of the black community, we still very much see ourselves within the concept of a linked fate. I think we have to divorce the idea of a linked fate from superficial and symbolic unity. What we have seen historically in terms of the black community is that unity is a myth, but solidarity has been a strategy and I’m much more concerned with the issues on which we can be in solidarity in terms of moving the community forward. Particularly if there’s a rich, robust debate, getting to that solidarity than simply being unified for the sake of being a unified. I mean, this is one of the tensions that we saw during the Obama presidency. We get to hold in many ways Joe Biden accountable around race in ways that we couldn’t have Barack Obama, because we felt that we had to unify with Barack Obama and not add to the critiques that he was getting from folks on both the left and the right who didn’t look like him and I think ultimately, that undermined our ability to really hold him accountable around issues of race. It is no surprise to me that Black Lives Matter emerges not in the context of a George Bush presidency or Bill Clinton presidency or George Bush presidency before that but during Barack Obama’s presidency, because there was a segment of the black community, young folks in particular who were like, we can’t go forward for another four years without holding questions of accountability on the black president, the same way that we would never think twice to hold, you know, his predecessor accountable.

Zach (26:31): You made mention of unity and and solidarity from an intra community perspective, within the larger black diaspora, or at least at least here in America, I’m curious to get your point of view, there continues to be working even, and you saw it in the inauguration. You had, except for Jimmy Carter and Trump, you had Bush, Clinton and Obama all there on screen at the same time, talking about getting back to the business of America. You had them talking about coming together, unifying Biden’s message, a fairly centrist message around. I’m going to bring all these people together, even while he says we’re going to stand up for white supremacy and now there being this subtle demand or expectation that these fairly polar opposite sides, one side that doesn’t really seek or respect the humanity of the other side come together and I’m curious about from your perspective, as we think about just the tradition of black thought and black thinkers and scholarship, what is the perspective of those who look at these situations before? Certainly this is not the first time that marginalized communities have been pressured to give peace a chance and all come together. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this concept of unity in this moment.

Dr. Mark (27:56): The United States, I think, has been most successful in its lifetime when its politics were left of center. Social security is left to center. Aid to dependent children is left to center. The civil rights act, the voting rights act they’re all things that we were defined as kind of left to center. Left to center politics in United States allows, as the saying goes boats to float and I think one of the things that’s happened definitely over the last 12 years, when we talk about political spectrum we spend a lot of time talking about the radical right, the far right. We talk about the ways that the Republican party has moved from a party that was right of center. If you think about someone like the former, the late Senator from Arizona as one example that even someone like Mitt Romney, who is why their center to a party, that’s now being defined by radical voices on the right. And the fact that the mainstream media allowed Barack Obama to be defined as a leftist when in many ways he is in that same centerist mode that that Joe Biden is. It beings that one of the things that has largely been invisible in our political conversations is the fact that there is still a legitimate and vibrant left, and more importantly, a black left and I think what we’ve seen in this moment is focused on wondering how to respond to this question of unity is a black left that has been pretty consistent now for 50 or 60 years about their concerns about this drive towards unity. This was a critique of the Black Panther party in the 1960s. It was the critique of the later stage of Snick when Snick became much more radicalized, it’s not surprising that we’re hearing voices.

(30:01): You hear all throughout Twitter lamenting the number of black folks who shed a tear because we get out first, black woman, vice president, and Donald Trump is out of the office and I think the black left is so important because it’s a reminder to the mainstream, not just a black America, but the mainstream of the American public that the work is not done. The left has been most successful, when I say that American successes have largely been because of policies that are left of center, the pressure came from the left to move those policies to the left of center and we have to maintain a space where the left in this country, the black left in particular is still vigilant and vibrant and can offer critique to hold people accountable. Bernie Sanders, everybody’s laughing at the memes of Bernie Sanders sitting around with his overcoat on, in his mittens at the inauguration and there are lots of critiques that could have been made about Bernie Sanders in his two campaigns around the visibility on certain kind of race politics but he’s someone who represents the American left the role of labor and unions in our country that has largely disappeared particularly in corporate spaces and so I think the fact that we’re hearing these critiques and push-backs against unity is actually a healthy aspect of our politics at this moment.

Zach (31:34): So Dr. Neal, first of all, it’s been a pleasure, I said from the top off mike, it’s an honor to have you here. I’m just thrilled that we were able to make this work. Let me ask you this last question before I let you go, as we think about black history month, but bigger than black history month, just this moment in black history and these continued public statements of solidarity from corporate entities, what advice would you have for them as it pertains to truly creating just an equitable place in their offices and in the larger corporate communities?

Dr. Mark (32:08): Some of these corporations have become really adept at what you know is virtual signaling. We’re going to signal that these are our virtues of value around questions of diversity and black bodies and anti-racism, and those are important things and they’re responding to the kind of pressures that they’re getting from social media and otherwise to hold their corporations accountable. But very often they’ll see corporations that are run on Martin Luther King day commercial or sponsor, a museum exhibition at a major museum, you could go back to those corporations and you look at their corporate seats, you see what the leadership is when they’re making decisions about the corporation, look at the diversity of eyeball to get a chance to look at it, or the lack of diversity of eyeballs. This is this particular moment where it just can’t be about the symbolic articulation of your values. Those values have to run through your actual organizations at this point in time.

(33:10): Do you have a plan to make sure that those folks who are in middle management, who are people of color, who are black Americans have a way to think aspirationally about their opportunities at that particular corporation, or get the kind of training in this one corporation that allows them to pursue those aspirations in other corporations? Do you have mentoring programs and you don’t have to create a mentoring program for black folks, just mentor black folks the same way that you historically been mentoring white folks. If you don’t create mentoring programs for the white folks in the organization, you just simply take them out to lunch or take them out for drinks, or invite them over to the house with their families, all these informal mentoring processes that have a fundamental impact on who you choose to elevate within the institution. Black folks don’t get those opportunities, you want to set up a half hour lunch panel and lecture black folks about how they can do better and act better in order to be mentored within your organization. So there are just fundamental shifts that have to occur within the context of these corporations.

Zach (34:15): Dr. Neal, God bless you, brother. I’m thankful for you and I call you elder with love. Thank you for the work. Thank you for continuing the tradition of black intellectualism and black thought. Thank you for helping us connect the dots a bit as it pertains to the history and legacy of white supremacy, the veracity of it, and other ways that we need to continue if we want to create a more equitable and just world. We will talk to you soon, I can tell you’re a friend to this show, I hope I can have you back.

Dr. Mark (34:44): Yes. Not a problem. Thank you, Zach.

Zach (34:46): All right. God bless peace.

Dr. Mark (34:47): Take care.

Zach (34:51): And we’re back. Look, I appreciate you. If you listen to this, I appreciate you for whatever your motives are in listening to this, wherever you are, I appreciate you. I want to leave you with some words. I’m not even going to add no extra commentary to it, I’m going to read it and then we won’t get up out of here. This is from someone I deeply admire Preston Mitchell, who wrote on the first day of black history month, the first. «I realized that many white people, companies and institutions don’t know what it means to talk about black people outside of trauma. It is rarely centering black people at the center of our joy and celebration, only death, and rarely because to many, that is what blackness is, death. This is situational allyship, and it is harmful as many forms of allyship often are. Don’t perform centering us just to honor us during a prescriptive month, honor us always and not just when we are dying. We are more than death and dying, we are also full of life and there is no world without us». This has been Zach with Living Corporate, I love you all, peace.

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