A Black professional’s guide to overcoming the racist Jon Grudens in your industry

OPINION: Touré writes that the NFL controversy involving Gruden is a reminder that Black people have to learn to navigate spaces where people like Gruden are probable and perhaps inevitable.

Jon Gruden
Head coach Jon Gruden of the Las Vegas Raiders reacts on the sideline during a game against the Chicago Bears at Allegiant Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Good riddance to Jon Gruden who emailed a trifecta of oppressive thoughts, hitting notes that were racist and sexist and homophobic. It’s sad to think of how many people fought their whole lives to get to the NFL only to have their dreams derailed by someone who never thought much of them. But Gruden sent those emails to people who didn’t say, ‘hey man that language — and that thought pattern — is unacceptable around here.’

Saying those things was accepted which reminds us that his mindset isn’t unique, it’s widespread. Gruden isn’t the only power broker in the NFL who feels that way. Do you think Gruden’s email style, and his thoughts about the world, aren’t mirrored by leaders in other industries?

Any Black person wishing to ascend in finance or medicine or media or criminal justice or almost any field could and probably will run into someone in charge who thinks like Jon Gruden and you may never even know it. I could dump more dirt on Gruden’s virtual grave, which is easy, or I could speak to my sisters and brothers about what to do and how to ascend in a world where Grudens are probable and perhaps inevitable.

The answer is not being twice as good — that’s not enough to overcome a leader who thinks you’re only half as capable. No, the answer is multi-faceted.

This Sept. 2002 shows Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson (left) and Buccaneers’ head coach Jon Gruden during a NFL game against the St. Louis Rams at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

One part of the answer is to move into our dream industry with self-confidence that’s bulletproof and unable to be dented by the rejection of white people. When you get dismissed or passed over, when you see lesser white colleagues ascending faster, do not let self-doubt creep in and control you. Resist the impulse to doubt yourself. Make sure that you are excellent at your craft, that you know everything you can about your industry and then never question yourself even if the industry isn’t yet giving you the affirmation you deserve. Keep fighting.

As a Black person your journey may be longer but resilience is your friend. God may not come when you want Him but He’s always on time.

Another part of the answer is to find Black leaders and mentors whenever you can, people who will probably judge you fairly and give you a chance if they can. I look back on the successes in my career and many of them are thanks to Black leaders helping me get in and Black mentors helping me understand the game. The key to creating mentors is this — go to people who are in your dream industry who are 10-20 years older than you, people you find you click with in some natural way, and just begin asking them questions about the industry.

Work handshake
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Don’t use the mentor word. Don’t ask them if you can “pick their brain.” Don’t even make them leave their space to go out for coffee. Make it convenient for them! Just find a way to get a few minutes of their time and start asking relevant questions but don’t ask broad self-serving questions (how can I move up in this company?). Ask more specific things about the field or the craft so you’re accessing their wisdom rather than asking for direct advice. If you ask questions and really listen they’ll feel complimented and welcome your entreaties. Do this several times and you’ll develop an important intergenerational friendship with someone who could give you key advice or who could introduce you to the right person or could tell someone in leadership that you’re someone to take seriously.

I would not have made it in media without plopping myself in the offices of certain successful, older white men and peppering them with questions and getting a class in how to do print journalism or TV while making a friend who’s a lot wiser than me. Experienced people love to have younger people listening to their wisdom and they may know the perfect way to help you slip past a potential Gruden in your way.

The other answer is to be as entrepreneurial as possible. Be your own boss. Shape your own path. Nowadays there’s more ways than ever for someone to create their own company. Starting your own is harder than joining an established institution but it’s far more rewarding.

The end of Jon Gruden means one of thousands has been subtracted from the battlefield. Many others are out there hiding in plain sight. This is just part of a plan of attack that could help you navigate past the monsters who are standing in your way, smiling while thinking little of you. You can get past them and get to your dreams.


Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcasts Toure Show and Democracyish and the podcast docuseries Who Was Prince? He is also the author of six books.

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