June 5, 2020
By The/Studio CEO & Founder, Joseph Heller
I’m writing this article in solidarity with all peaceful protestors — and with the African Americans that have experienced oppression and discrimination since the country was founded. The ultimate hope is that the events of the last week are the catalysts to, once and for all, address the nation’s original sin: black people being brought to the country as slaves. There’s never been a real effort at correcting the generational discrepancy between the way blacks and other citizens live in the country, but perhaps that will soon change.
I’m conservative-leaning. I believe in personal responsibility and accountability, and I do believe that America is much more of a meritocracy than when my father was born in 1953. But the reality is that black Americans face far more racism than any other ethnic group in the US.
White supremacy was woven into the founding of our nation; whiteness was held up as a symbol of virtue and blackness a symbol of everything that was undesirable. Understand: I don’t view racism against blacks in terms of Republicans good, Democrats bad, nor whites bad, non-whites good. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor, he was vocal about the fact that his police force deliberately targeted black men — and the Central Park incident recently proved that you don’t need to be a Republican to be overtly racist. Furthermore, new immigrants to the US quickly adopt this country’s historically negative view towards black people. Racism towards black people, I’d argue, is actually probably a great unifier across parties, socioeconomic and racial lines in the US.
By the way, I’m half-black and half-Jewish, and although most people suspect that I have African blood, I am relatively racially ambiguous. My family was middle class. I went to UC Berkeley. I founded a tech startup that employs over 200 folks around the world, of all sorts of races and creeds.
When I was a kid, the US was a lot less diverse, so people assumed I was black because at that time the US was largely just white and black. As the US has become more racially diverse, I think that I’m sometimes perceived as black, but not as frequently as before. This context is important, because as someone that looks “kind of black” and comes from a relatively privileged background, I’ve experienced significant racism. But I’ll note that It’s amplified much more for African-Americans with darker skin and more African features, and further amplified for blacks that are socioeconomically underprivileged in addition.
My first memory of racism was when I was four years old. My “best” friend in my summer science program told me his parents forbade us to be friends because I was black. There are very few memories I have as a four year-old, but I remember that.
My childhood was filled with small little incidents or feelings like this: moments that made it clear that as someone with black blood, I was inferior. Other memories include being confronted with my brother by the neighborhood patrol when I was ten years old, playing in front of our Jewish grandmother’s yard. We were asked why we were there. I remember when I was thirteen, on a cruise ship playing with my newly-made friends. It was a group of all white friends — one of the kids said that they looked like a “nigger” because they were in the sun all day. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to lose my new friends, so I didn’t.
Later that day, a white couple that was sitting next to all of us apparently told the cruise ship security that we were cursing and being loud. I was a very nerdy thirteen year-old, and I was actually the only one in the group that wasn’t cursing — I was hardly talking. But the security singled me out and reprimanded me nonetheless. At the time I didn’t understand why. Today, it’s pretty obvious why that happened to me.
My first real consciousness around race was in high school, when I really started to realize the discrepancy between the way many white people lived versus how blacks lived. I went to a mostly white private school in an affluent neighborhood, but on weekends, I would go to my black grandparent’s small business and work for them part time. Their business was in a mostly black neighborhood. I realized the extent to which blacks lived in extreme poverty compared to whites.
I will always remember when I got my drivers license — my father had a talk with me about the police. He told me it was inevitable that I would be pulled over by them, and that when I was to make sure that I complied with everything they said, and to always have my hands on the steering wheel so that they wouldn’t be intimidated by my movements.
To be honest, I thought my Dad was exaggerating and I thought there was no way I was going to have any encounters with law enforcement. Sure enough — within several weeks, I dropped my Dad off to work so that I could borrow his car for the day. I was sixteen years old, and I was pulled over by two cops at gunpoint.
They handcuffed me, slammed my face into a metal fence, and accused me of stealing my Dad’s car. They finally let me go, told me that they thought I was a gang member and left, with no apology.
I came to school late that day and my teacher asked me why. I told him what happened. His response was: “Yeah, right, cops don’t do that to people that don’t do anything. You must have done something for that to happen.”
I never drank in high school because my father put constant fear in me that I always had to study harder than white people to be successful, be more disciplined and better-behaved. In retrospect, he was right. Every opportunity I ever got was from working far harder than my white peers … not being a model citizen would expose me to much more negative attention than it would them.
Within a few weeks of the start of my first semester at UC Berkeley, the campus police handcuffed me and my black friends in the dorm, in front of all of my classmates, because we “fit the description of robbery suspects.” When we asked them what the description was, they said “four black males” — that was it. We brought to their attention that we were students at Cal and that the description of “four black males” didn’t even feature basic details like light-skinned, dark-skinned, overweight, skinny… but “four black males” was enough for them to humiliate us in front of all of our classmates.
I even spent eight hours in jail because I fit the description of an armed robbery suspect once — again, “a black male.” It didn’t matter that I had receipts in my car proving that I was a six-hour drive away that night of the robbery and that I had my Berkeley ID on me.
This sort of incident with the police continued well into my early twenties… it only largely stopped because I moved to Asia and when I came back to the US I quit driving (not related to being pulled over — I just don’t like driving).
When my company was raising our Series A from Silicon Valley investors, eighty percent of the people we pitched to were white men. I suspect that we would have raised money much faster if I were a white guy. In fact, I roughly had 150 meetings with VCs and approximately 120 were with white men, 30 were with immigrants. I got to some sort of term sheet with 0 out of 120 of the white men, and got to term sheets with 5 out of 30 of the VCs with immigrant backgrounds. It’s unlikely that race was not a factor.
As I said, my politics lean more conservative and I actually feel uncomfortable painting white people as the enemy. In fact, I’ve probably had just as many racist encounters with non-whites. My Chinese-American friend in high school told me that his mother didn’t want me at their house again because I was black. In college, me and a black friend were walking through a store and the Armenian-American owner was so obviously following us with suspicion. Her explanation? She was making sure we didn’t steal anything. We were both Berkeley students! Even in my personal dating life, women of other ethnicities admitted that they won’t know how their parents will react when they find out I’m black.
I think most Americans have the reaction that my high school teacher has — which is that feelings of discrimination against blacks are imagined or exaggerated. But it’s the reality. My Dad is very dark-skinned, and he told me that throughout his entire life, he feels that people don’t want to be around him because of it. That he is judged almost in every encounter by his skin color rather than by the content of his character.
Living in Asia for ten years, I saw that even there white people are treated far better than any other race in Asia. Ironically, when I heard people complain about racism in Asia, it was almost always white people, and I always found that peculiar — because everyone knows whites are actually treated very well and respected in Asia. I felt that there was some discrimination in Asia, but itwas far more subdued in Asia than it was in the US. Finally realized that white people were just not used to being treated differently because of their race.
And that’s the point. Nobody wants to be treated differently because of their race, and for blacks, you are almost always treated differently — more poorly — because of your race.
It’s been interesting that recently literally almost every black person in our culture has come out and made a comment about the murder of George Floyd and other incidents. Michael Jordan, famous for his political agnosticism (“Republicans buy sneakers too”) has come out and denounced the racism in our society. Oprah, Obama, all of the black VCs and CEOs that I’m connected with on LinkedIn have said something. No matter how successful you become (Jordan … or the President of the US) you still have to deal with constant racist attitudes enough that this event has made you come out and publicly speak against it.
Racism is not exaggerated. It’s real. Every black person will tell you anecdotal stories of racism, and the data is very clear that African Americans suffer the most in this country. Everything I’ve told you is as a middle class, educated, start-up entrepreneur — the American dream. African Americans of darker skin get far worse treatment than I do.
After having graduated almost twenty years ago, I’ve seen the careers of many of my African American friends compared to my white friends and the difference is staggering. My white friends have been more successful than my black friends. I know these guys intimately and it has nothing to do with intellect. They’re of generally equal intelligence and charisma. But everyday as a white man, you get the benefit of the doubt; as a black man, you start with a deficit where you have to prove your worth. If you take the compounding advantages of being a white man versus the compounding “negative interest” of being a black man, you end up with a far different result.
I had a white coworker whose son got busted twice in high school with the distribution of hard narcotics. He ended up not spending any time in juvenile hall — and he now runs a successful startup. He’s a great guy and deserves the success. But I guarantee his outcome would have been far different if he were a black teenager.
I’m the hardest-working person that I know and I’ve been successful in life because of that work ethic. In fact the constant discrimination that I experienced probably has made me work harder and led me to see the world in different ways — which has certainly helped make me a successful entrepreneur. I also acknowledge that the level of success that I’ve had would probably not have even been possible if I were born even ten years earlier.
I believe in personal accountability and I acknowledge that there are many problems in black communities, such as high crime and broken families that need to be addressed. But they need to be addressed in the context of very deliberate racial oppression that was designed to create those situations. Solutions must acknowledge that many of our insitutitions help maintain this caste system.
I lived in China, Hong Kong and the Philippines and have travelled extensively — and I am convinced the US is still the best country on Earth and African Americans have the best opportunities in the world in this country. So there is definitely hope! But white Americans and non-white Americans need to acknowledge that the black’s condition within our country can be directly attributed to institutional racism. That black people in general aren’t exaggerating when they say that discrimination exists today — and that once and for all we should right this wrong.
I’ve said there’s hope, and I feel that even now. I’m extremely encouraged, just from looking at my LinkedIn, that for the first time, colleagues of mine, VCs, and other business leaders are finally publicly acknowledging that this is a real problem.
The good news is that small improvements from businesses, government and nonprofits should make a big difference when taken altogether. Starting with hiring — make sure that you are making hiring decisions based on the merit of the person’s experience rather than their race. I regrettably admit that I’ve given white males the benefit of the doubt more times than I would like to admit because they looked the role, they spoke confidently — and often times they ended up being incompetent. If I’ve made this mistake, then I’m certain you have, too!
What’s my company going to do about it? Within the next 12 months, I’m going to make sure that we put a program together where we have at least one African-American intern working for the company at all times —with the goal of making them a better CEO than me.
Secondly, we are going to donate $10,000 worth of inventory to help businesses with owners that have come from difficult backgrounds, with a focus on African-American entrepreneurs. We’ll be rolling out more information about that soon.
This is an experience coming full circle for me. When I was in high school, I promised myself that I would do something to solve the condition experienced by myself and other blacks. That I would one day create a large company and platform that could solve — or help solve — this issue. These recent events have been a reminder to me that I still have this obligation — and I need to dedicate more of myself and my company to solving this problem.
A final note on a question that I don’t fault colleagues for asking — why should you care about solving this problem if you aren’t black? Especially if you’re a member of another minority, or simply struggling in already difficult economic times.
Admittedly, it’s a huge sacrifice to want to solve another group’s problems. Especially now. But we should nonetheless acknowledge that the US was founded on discriminating against black people specifically — and its consequences are still with us today, and harming everyone. If the US was founded on racism, but we can honestly solve the problem of the group most disadvantaged by that foundational sin, it will be a powerful statement that the US really is the most egalitarian state ever created — because it can become even more egalitarian. That it’s a true democracy meant to empower and uplift everyone — and that we can come together in unprecedented ways even after 250 years of nationhood.
That benefits every American.