Credit: Ismail "Calligrafist" Sayeed

Recently Slack Future Forum surveyed workers and only 3% of Black workers who were currently working remotely wanted to return to the office full-time post-pandemic—compared to 21% of white workers. The Future Forum’s analysis is that for many Black workers, remote work is preferable because it requires less code switching than going into the office physically.

What’s the best way to navigate the dimension of race as we contemplate returning to the workplace? For his thoughts, I reached out to Chad Sanders, the author of a new book called Black Magic, which recounts his own experience working at Google, YouTube, and a tech startup, as well as the experiences of other Black leaders working in predominantly white environments. BrenĂ© Brown describes Black Magic as “required reading.” Sanders, now a screenwriter and director, last June published the New York Times op-ed “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends.”

Here is a transcript from our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:

What do you make of the Future Forum survey data, and what do you think the implications are?

Checks out to me. Who wouldn't want to be somewhere where they get to choose the design of the environment, or at least where someone who resembles them or is similar to them has chosen the design of the environment? Most Fortune 500 companies—and probably most Fortune 5,000 companies—have been built by founders who are white, boards that are mostly white, majority shareholders that are mostly white, c-suite executives that are mostly white. They're basically houses built for white people by white people. I don't know that I have anything profound to say about it other than—I would assume Black kids that go to predominantly white colleges are less excited about going back to Virginia Tech and Duke and Harvard and Stanford than the kids that go to Morehouse and Spelman who are probably dying to go back to school right now, to be around kids that look like them. I do think sometimes these things are profound in their simplicity.

How do you see the racial dynamics of workplaces playing out in the context of remote work and Zoom?

Working on Zoom is also a disaster, which actually gives me more perspective on the statistic you just shared, which is to say it's pretty telling that people would rather be Zoom fatigued, lonely, at home—which is pretty isolating and pretty uncomfortable as we've found in the last year and a half—than to be at work where they feel subject to othering and micro-aggressions, in some instances outright racism.

A counter example is I'm working on a show for HBO right now called 'Rap Shit.' I'm writing in that show, and the room is 12 writers altogether; there are nine Black people, there are nine women. There are zero white men—and obviously it comes with its own sort of conflict of creativity and voice. But by and large, it's more harmonious, more kind, more empathetic, more open, more real, more creative, than any other work experience that I've had, especially in corporate America and technology. Maybe there's something there in that.

Something there in terms of the diversity of the group that you're working with?

What I have seen from working using Zoom, both in that room and otherwise, is there's even more deference to the socially dominant person—whether a white person, a man, the richest person—to that person's voice because it's even easier to go dead behind the eyes and let somebody filibuster. Why I think the 'Rap Shit' room is interesting is because there's very little of that. There are obviously still some forces at play. There's a boss and different tiers of hierarchy, and some people are more experienced. But because it's a show about Black people and the boss is a Black woman, and most of the writers are Black and under 35, there's just a different democracy of voices in that room on Zoom. I don't know how that would play out in person, because we haven't been able to congregate in person, but that's how I've seen it.

Companies that are operating remotely are focusing now on what it's going to be like when they return to the workplace, and in the process of doing that they're touching a lot of their policies—what is their structure, how do they organize work, what are people's schedules, etc. What should they focus on fixing?

My truth is that they need to fix leadership. I've worked on diversity and inclusion initiatives and in those departments the policies are kind of meaningless. The people that matter are at the top of these companies. They're the people who have most of the ownership in the companies, most of the equity, whether those are the c-suite execs or the people who are majority shareholders in those companies. The culture filters down from them. It doesn't really matter what's written in some repository or some ledger on a company website about what their policies are, or in the HR division—these are companies that are made of human beings, and if the people at the top foster a culture that serves only the people who look like them, then that's going to pass down regardless of how they reorganize their company constitutions. For our country, that's been clear. I don't have a tinkering answer to that. If anything, I've become less hopeful in the tinkering and more bullish about the fact that we need a redistribution of ownership and leadership across the tops of these companies.

Do you see a path to get there?

The best solution that I can see is executive hiring quotas. You need 25%, 13%, or some representative number of your chief executives to be Black, Asian, or Latinx; we can run the gamut of identities. We need private investment and also federal investment in companies that are being built and run by people of color. This is an ownership problem. I don't have an answer to racism or micro-aggressions or any of that stuff. But what I can say is that Black people have a median wealth of like $1,400 to $7,000, depending on the year. And white families have a median wealth of maybe around $150,000. [Note: Black families have median wealth of about $24,000, with white families at around $190,000, according to government data.]

That's a damning discrepancy. That is an insurmountable discrepancy for Black entrepreneurs, for Black people who need to pay back student loans, for Black people that are trying to escalate at companies where you have to be in certain country clubs, certain groups that are expensive to join, in order to rub elbows with the right people to get promoted. These answers boil down to Black people needing investment—and we also need free money. Some people call that reparations, but we keep score with money, that's what we need.

Research shows that the quality of their specific manager makes a big difference for employees. What can managers of whatever color do to improve the retention, success, happiness of employees of color?

Your manager plays a very vital role in your experience at a company. A manager who is going to do well by you is someone who, number one, is capable of doing so—they are themselves well-trained and have the intellectual capacity—but also someone who thinks you can do a good job and who wants you to do a good job. However, we can raise the likelihood of those two boxes being checked, the better. Oftentimes what those two boxes come down to are, does that person want you to be at the company? Do they want you to do a good job? Do they see something in you?

A lot of times that boils down to identity—do they see themselves in you? We can be narcissistic that way. Really great companies, in the capitalist sense, meaning the companies that grow rapidly and with strong foundations, they oftentimes have incentives aligned upward within the hierarchy. The manager is well-incentivized to make sure that their pupils do well, or get out of the company. And save for that, if your company is not so well-structured, then it's really important for people to see themselves in their subordinates or in their managers. It all comes back to representation and equity in that way.

Is it fair to say that one of the takeaways from your book is that you encourage Black workers to worry less about code switching?

I wouldn't say it's fair that I'm telling them to worry less about it. But I do want them to be aware of the toll that it takes on them. I think they can feel that. When they read the words, it resonates because they already knew it. I see it now so much because I work in Hollywood. To change your identity over and over and over again throughout a day, throughout a week, throughout a month, throughout a year, throughout 10 years in your career —that's traumatic,. That's going to cost you. And at a certain point, you're going to lose control of it. You're not going to be able to decide when you are each individual. So when you're supposed to be with your family, you might be the person you're supposed to be at work. When you're supposed to be with your friends, you might end up being the person you're supposed to be in a board meeting. And if all those people are someone different—we're not character actors. We don't have that type of capacity to manage all of the emotions that underlie that rapid spirit-changing.

So I don't know if I'm encouraging them to not do that. I just want them to know that there is a cost, and that the costs are grave. I understand that they feel, and that I have felt like I had to do that thing just to keep my job or be promoted or be let into a club. But it's not without significant damages.

Your experience, as related in the book, was that you tried to be more yourself in a work context and found that you were more successful, because you were less burdened by the strain of code switching...

I did personally. At first at Google, I had a different velocity and I found that I attracted people who valued who I actually was. Then I left Google and technology altogether and dug deeper into that, as a creative person now. That is a very particular and specific journey and career path that came at some risk, but I'm really glad that I took it. Ultimately, I feel better connected to myself and to people that I want to be around. I would encourage other people to do the same thing, but I would also want them to know that they're going to feel alone along the path. They're probably going to get scared at different moments, because that's not normal programming. That's not what everybody else is doing; they're going to feel that 'fish swimming away from the school' thing at different times. But as I got into the interviews in this book, and I got into the stories of people climbing to the top of whatever their own mountain was—everybody felt alone. Everybody felt isolated, everybody felt different and distanced. So if you're going to feel that anyway, it's worth it to do it while being yourself.

Companies made a lot of statements about race nine months ago following the killing of George Floyd. How optimistic are you that they'll amount to something meaningful in the end?

Meaningful is so subjective. If some Black person got a promotion, a raise, or an exciting new project at work because of what happened there, it doesn't reset all the ills of our time and of our country's history. But it's real and meaningful to that person. I don't want to take that away at a macro scale. I live in Queens—if I wanted something great to happen in Brooklyn or in Massachusetts or in DC, the way to help make that happen would be to enlist someone from one of those places who understands what they are like to be the catalyst of that moment and to invest in them and to have their back. To me, if these companies want to enact and propel real change and momentum and impact, call some Black people and give them an opportunity to do it. Share the wealth, share the leadership, share the decision-making. That's the only thing, in my opinion. A lot of the other stuff is PR or wheel-spinning.

There's been increased focus over the last year on bias and representation in workplaces. But a part of that focus is a drumbeat of statistics about the ways in which people of color are underrepresented. Is there a risk that reinforces a deficit narrative?

Ultimately it doesn't seem to matter what the narrative is. The numbers don't change year over year, very much. If I go look at like the Facebook diversity report from 10 years ago, I bet it's within five-tenths of a percentage point of where it is today. It doesn't matter what people say about it. It's like how the prison industrial complex hasn't changed significantly over the last 60 years. It doesn't matter what people say about it. It doesn't matter who is the trending Black genius of the time or the president, or the next thing—at the end of the day we know that these companies remain run by the same people who look the same, who hang out together, who share all the same policies and who share much of the same politics.

It doesn't really matter what narrative is spun out about the abilities of Black people. They still don't want to hire us for whatever reason. I don't want to over-intellectualize it, because it does seem to boil very simply down to—do you guys want to work with Black people, yes or no? And it feels like the answer is no.

It is striking that the tech industry statistics about Black representation in their workforce—despite efforts for years—haven't actually changed that much. And the tech industry is one of the big sources of economic growth and wealth in recent times. Why isn't there more progress?

So many tech companies that became major players in the industry, like the Googles and the Twitters and the Ubers and the Facebooks, they start off as something else. Somebody tries to make one thing and they fail. Now in the nomenclature, we call it a pivot. It just means that somebody didn't get the thing right that they were trying to do, but they had enough cash to lean on. They were able to raise some more, to keep trying and make an entirely different thing. It's like if you made a show and, instead of getting canceled, they just let you keep your budget to make an entirely different TV show and to get somebody to keep pouring cash into something that is not returning on their investment.

They need to trust and believe in you in a long-game sense. They need to believe that if you don't get it right this year, or next year or five years from now, you'll get it right seven years from now, or 10 years from now, or 17 years from now. And belief often comes down to choice. With venture capital, I'm talking about companies that pour money into these products—if the guy walks in there and he looks like a 20-25 year old version of the manager of the hedge fund or the venture capital firm, he's more likely to get the investment. He's more likely to continue to get the investment until he figures it out.

It's not like some stroke of genius hits Mark Zuckerberg and he wakes up and makes Facebook the way that it happens in the movie. He screws it up year over year, over year. And people that look like him, keep giving him more and more money to keep screwing it up until he figures it out. If you give any meaningfully talented and trained person an infinitely long rope, they will eventually be able to create something that works. That's what I saw when I worked in that industry.

Your book relates the practice of your mother, who was a Verizon executive, of talking about her work over dinner most nights, and actually going into real detail about the challenges of her work. It seems like a pretty powerful thing to have actually had over a period of years full exposure to your mom's professional experience...

Yeah, that was unusual. And my dad as well—he was a lawyer at the SEC when I was little, and helped 'third world countries' build stock markets. That was our dinner table. Conversation was about stock indexes and underlying assets and chief executive swaps. Plus The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, my parents would go in the office and print off investor committee reports and stuff like that and bring them back to the dinner table. And we would go through them. We still did all the regular family stuff, we still talked about Cub Scouts and cartoons and movies and politics and pop culture, all those things. But a big part of what we learned in our household was about industry.

I was taught very young that wealth creation is an important part of civil rights. Having agency over your own business, your own industry, your enterprise, was a value that was taught in my house. I'm 33 now; I have seen the world that way since I was three. Even when I was in college, in high school, in middle school, my life wasn't about trying to get A's and making your teachers feel good and being SGA president, because those are just things to do for a pat on the butt. It was trying to figure out how all these pieces are interconnected and to understand the disadvantage that you're at because of your skin color, but recognizing also the advantages that you have because of your intellect and because of your resourcefulness and your ingenuity. That all came from having two parents who were professionals, who had postgraduate degrees, but also who just cared to talk about that stuff to two kids. When I have kids, I'll try to expose them to some of the same stuff.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive our briefings by email.