I spent 25 years without realizing that the world is different for my best friend even though this was happening right in front of my eyes.
America is burning, and in their mission to stay neutral many companies are re-posting BLM content to stay safely relevant. We don’t know what to do here, but we do not want to offer you a canned response because that seems like “performative activism”.
There is always a fear of saying the wrong thing, in the wrong way. Especially now. As a very new CEO of a very new company, I feel a tremendous responsibility to manage the risk of upsetting people—but the urgency to speak up in a broken world against racism is much stronger.
This week we listened.
This is the story of how I refused to engage in the privilege conversation, until now.
I am half Persian—I’ve never felt white. I grew up with ghormeh sabzi, not macaroni & cheese. My three older siblings were raised in Iran before my family immigrated to the United States during the revolution. While my father’s side of the family was dark skinned, my mother was fair-skinned & English.
My siblings tell stories of being too white to be accepted by classmates in Iran. They also tell stories of what a hostile place America was for them growing up in the 70s as immigrants at a time when all people knew of “Iranians” was the hostage crisis.
I mention these things because as you can imagine, the four of us never really found ourselves belonging to any particular group, especially in white suburbia. And somehow I have let that give me an excuse to be "Middle Eastern" in order to opt out of the white privilege conversation.
And before this post becomes one of those “I have a black best friend” posts, I’ll already correct you: my best friend Becky is half Black. Since we were 11 she has been the rock to my roll; the Dionne to my Cher; the tahdig to my rice.
The biggest difference between us is: I can opt-in to being white when it serves me, whereas she is always considered black because of her skin color.
I didn’t consider what that really meant—especially for her. But 25 years of best-friendship, and last Sunday was the first time she and I have talked more deeply about race. I am quite frankly embarrassed. It's as if I spent this whole time not truly listening to her.
Because the privilege conversation is so heated, political, and I often felt like my experience was so much more difficult than Becky's growing up, I never was really open to it. That's on me. I always thought a conversation about “white privilege” undermined my own obstacles and diminished the hard work I have had to put in. When you grow up disadvantaged in ways other than skin color, someone saying “check your privilege” cuts hard. It feels dehumanizing.
It took me a while to see that those two feelings are not even close to being related. In fact, they are absolutely two completely separate conversations. The worst part is: my reluctance to engage has been dehumanizing to my best friend. When I ask her why she didn’t make a bigger deal about it she said “it’s because she has been told to be quiet about these things”.
That means she has been holding in real pain that she never felt she could express with me; and when she has, I was not open to it.
I have this privilege of being a chameleon—and it makes me cringe to think of all of the times Becky and I have been together and she has been treated as less than, or completely invisible, or given the speeding ticket even though she was infinitely more polite than the police were to her, or followed with suspicious eyes around a store, and most recently had someone ask if she was the nanny to my children—something that has never happened to my white friends.
This is what she has been trying to explain to me. This is white privilege.
My name is Katayoon, but I go by Kate. I disguise my Persian heritage in a world where “Kate” gets the job and “Katayoon” gets snickers and her resume discarded. Becky’s name gets her in the door but her skin color can often hold her back. From stepping back and listening to stories this week, I heard how common it was for Black women to get passed over for job promotions and have to train a less qualified white candidate.
That is white privilege.
When I started NOAP with Millie our goal was to make our plastic free hair products genuinely inclusive and work for Becky’s mixed hair as well as mine as well as Millie's. Of course they always tell you not to make a product for "everyone" but that didn't matter, during development I wanted to make sure it was something my best friend could use.
I noticed that so often we are divided into colors and types in beauty marketing and it was especially important to me that Becky was not only represented, but didn’t feel included in some bogus-forced-marketing type of way.
Part of our marketing plan was to pitch to hotels--and if NOAP was offered in a hotel room as an amenity, I wanted Black women to feel like it wasn’t for a different “type” of guest. That was a big part of the ethos of the company we built. I saw from traveling with her that her mixed hair type is underserved and underrepresented literally everywhere--and that tiny plastic hotel bottle of conditioner was just another reminder of how she wasn’t included. Becky’s hair requires 5x the conditioner mine does to moisturize her hair so we tried to make the best conditioner bar possible to solve that problem for her—and relieve that awkwardness & shame of asking for 4 more tiny plastic bottles at the front desk.
This week I thought about what type of brand I wanted NOAP to be. In real life I am not quiet when I see something wrong or unjust, so why wouldn’t I speak up when I see injustice in the world behind the veil of my brand?
A big part of that is recognizing & sharing that I know when I am able to benefit from being “Kate” in a white world while Becky always remains Black.
It’s certainly not malicious, but I benefit from a racist system where if your skin is fair enough, it doesn’t really matter what your heritage is.
The same Becky that gets pulled over and always gets the ticket from police is the same Becky who is by my side through every milestone in my life, including holding her hand when my mother’s life slipped away, an act of love that unless you have lost a parent, the gravity of this might be lost on you.
Is it fair that she is viewed as a threat by some people who view her through the very shallow lens of her skin color?
And is it fair that I have never been open to the conversation because I was close-minded about what white privilege actually was? This isn’t politics people, and this is NOT a conversation about your own struggles outside of race, this is humanity.
Innocent Black lives are needlessly being stolen from our world. Racism is real. Black Lives Matter. Do not minimize the cause by mentioning “all lives.”
I incorrectly thought that there was an indignity to referring to the entire community as “Black” because my mother was an anthropologist. From a very young age she taught me that Haitian, Bajan, Nigerian, African Americans, Jamaicans, Ethiopians — were not the same. They were all culturally very different and that lumping them together removed the beauty that made each culture special.
In the case of what is happening here in America, “Black” unifies a population that has been suffering injustices also regardless of heritage. The collective pain is something I will never truly understand, ever—but I will never make the mistake of standing by idly because I am scared of backlash.
Silence doesn’t change the world. Choosing to speak when it makes you uncomfortable & vulnerable is the first step to dismantling racism.
If you are the “Kate” in this story: please open up. Listen to your friends. It doesn’t matter that you’re educated or that you “don’t see color”. What matters is that your Black friends are carrying pain with them and your attitude might be an invisible fog between your friendships.
If you are the “Becky”, we will always have your back. We are always looking for Black male & female marathoners, triathletes, surfers, trail runners, cyclists, environmentalists and general lovers of the outdoors to rep our brand. We know your community is underrepresented in the eco-friendly space too.
Please email us if you think we are speaking to you: firstname.lastname@example.org
We are here, we are listening, we are learning.
And we mean it.
Written with love & humility,