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Digital Marketing Unlimited Program for Non-Profits

 Founder - Undi Ladd

Black Business Development Group

Rasheedah "Undi" Ladd

Coming from the Western United States in a middle class family, I grew up somewhat ignorant to the residual impact of the deep rooted prejudices that existed in America until I went to college. This is in part due to the fact that the recent societal wounds of the terrors of slavery are not as deep in Las Vegas, NV as they are in the southern cities.

 

As a child, I connected with and had friends from all walks of life, but my school friends were mostly Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic. We did everything together. We knew we were all different, yet took pride in the fact that we were so close yet so different. I was very proud of the fact that my friends were a diverse bunch. 

 

I didn’t have many black friends, and many black kids I encountered when I was in school bullied me for being different. I didn't care about not having many black friends. I couldn't understand why being white or black mattered anyway. All that mattered was that I was a nice person and the friends I kept were nice people too. I felt a responsibility to myself to be successful. I felt like all people had to do was take responsibility for their own actions, just like I did, whether they are black, white, or otherwise.

This all changed when I attended college at Vanderbilt University and learned that I was Black.

 

It may sound a bit ironic that my blackness came to light when I attended a majority white school in the south. After observing the subtle white supremacist undertones embedded in my interactions with white students, I felt no choice but to come to the conclusion that I was Black. Being black meant I now had a new "us" and "them" awareness. This is an attitude that I was so adamantly against prior to attending Vanderbilt, but it quickly became key to my survival at Vanderbilt University and beyond.

 

My blackness came to light on Freshman move-in day when I met my assigned dormitory roommate, a wealthy white southern belle from Texas. Upon meeting her, she made it very clear that our relationship would be limited to the minimum interaction required in order to live in the same space. All my invitations to her to hang out, grab lunch, study together, etc. were declined in the most gracious manner. She was friendly, but clearly had no intentions to get to know me or to talk with me much. I noticed that the longer we were roommates, the less time she spent in the room when I was there. After only a short time, she approached me with a friendly proposition which was already coincidentally worked out and discussed with the dormitory administration and suggested I move out and become roommates with another student I recently started hanging out with. With a smile, she said she thought "I would enjoy it." She even helped me move out of the goodness of her heart.

 

My Blackness came to light while attending classes where I was often the only or one of a few Black Students. I was often called out as the token person to speak on behalf of black people on black issues. I can say now I was not well equipped to speak on behalf of Black people or Black History especially since my own blackness had just come to light. I listened as the white students spoke on black issues as though they were experts - never referencing significant historical events such as slavery or the civil rights era but rather movies and lyrics to rap songs they had heard on MTV. They always made it clear too, that they were not racist because they had black friends.

 

My Blackness came to light during my walk though campus and my first days of classes. It was rare to have a white student greet me or initiate a conversation. It seemed like they did this with such ease amongst themselves. Many white students were friendly but appeared fearful to engage in conversation with me. Other Black students, on the other hand, were drawn to me. They approached me as though we had always known each other, and quickly helped me navigate on campus, orienting me to the safe spaces that were on campus for black students like myself such as the Black Student Center which we simply called "The House." The Black Students, many of which were from the South, taught me about the implications of attending a school of majority privileged white students.

 

My blackness came to light as I continued on with my coursework which often involved working in teams. I realized very quickly that my individual contributions to group activities would be constantly challenged and doubted by my white classmates. Sometimes, without my knowledge, my contributions would be left out of the final drafts of projects. Yet in a friendly way, I would be told my contribution was great, but the project had to be condensed or that another team member reviewed it and made some changes.

 

My blackness came to light when white students I thought I had connected to because we were "friendly" with each other consistently neglected to acknowledge me in passing, in the dining hall, library, or anywhere else outside of the classroom group work.

 

While my blackness came to light, another significant part of who I am started to surface. I was also a lesbian.

 

I came out when I was 16, but remained semi-closeted my Freshman year at 18. This is in part due to fear of losing my connections to the Black student community that had become my safe space on campus. Many of the students were children of Ministers throughout the south. I was not at all religious, but in a short period I was drawn to the positive energy and fellowship of the black students. I became “saved,” and eventually succumbed to the belief that being gay was wrong.

 

It took me a while to realize that my gayness was not something that could be prayed away. I re-emerged as a proud lesbian after attempting to be an ex-gay. Once I did, my friends in the Black Student community and religious community started to drop like flies. Friends I had spoken with daily just stopped talking to me.

 

In response to this backlash, I attempted to navigate myself into the LGBTQI Student Community. My blackness came to light when I attended my first meeting at the LGBTQI Center.

 

 

My first experience, which I had hoped would be an open, comforting space that could help me reconcile my religious beliefs with my sexuality was nothing of the sort.

 

In a small room of 5 or 6, no one spoke to me or even made eye contact for over an hour at my first LGBTQI meeting. It was as though I was invisible. I quickly realized that I did not have the same struggle as white wealthy LGBTQI students. They would not be able to help me with the biggest personal challenges facing LGBTQ people of Color - how to be gay and religious.

 

Gays comforted me as long as I checked my blackness at the door. Blacks comforted me as long as I checked my gayness at the door. I felt an overwhelming obligation to make people feel comfortable with me. I tried to act less gay around blacks, and less Black around whites....all while yearning for a space where I can just be me. My final resting safe space at Vanderbilt was a small group LGBT and LGBT-friendly friends of color that I had acquired over the years. Years after leaving Vanderbilt, I became an Honorary founder of Alpha Lambda Zeta Fraternity, Inc., an organization rooted in many of the causes important to me as a Black, Gay, masculine presenting woman. Having a safe space where I can be black and gay was like coming home.

 

I personally did not witness institutionalized oppression at Vanderbilt or amongst the Black Student community. I felt like Vanderbilt sought to continually make strides to make sure all students felt included. Rather, I witnessed and experienced, an oppression that is very personalized and occurs through manipulation of facts, inherent distrust, emotional untruths, and other forms that often happens indirectly through actions and words. This psychological manipulation is often disguised by a friendly smile and sometimes even in good intentions. It comes with an understanding that a diverse person is okay as long as they fit in a certain box. No matter how nice of a person I was, there were levels of distrust towards me simply because I was black or gay. This distrust meant there were certain meetings, social events, and opportunities for networking that I was not invited to because these elements of me made others feel uncomfortable. An element of white (and straight) privilege is not having these barriers.

 

This distrust results in the psychological oppression that has often showed its face since graduating from Vanderbilt in my corporate career and professional relationships. I'd like to say that my experience at Vanderbilt prepared me to navigate through corporate America because it was much of the same.

 

I knew that I would have to strategically create opportunities for myself because of the inherent distrust that comes with looking different from everyone else in the room.

 

Within 1 week of working my first engineering job out of school, there were racist jokes spread about me throughout the office. My energy was focused on learning the job and carrying the job out under the standard of excellence that I had set out for myself. I wanted to exceed the expectations of my Manager. Now, under no fault of my own, my time was being diverted by a white co-worker with positive intentions who spent hours in my office wanting to make sure I knew there were racist jokes being made about me by various co-workers. She wanted me to speak out; to start a revolution in the office. When time is the most precious resource for professionals, it didn't seem fair that my time would have to be wrapped up in starting a revolution to teach white people not to be racist toward me. It seemed like a waste of time at a point in my life where my goal was to put all of my energy into being the best young engineer I could be. An element of white privilege is not having to waste time to start mini revolutions in order to be treated equally, fair, and with respect.

 

My experience at Vanderbilt taught me that I could not compartmentalize my fight against oppression. I can't be just black or just gay. I have to be both in order to effect change.

 

Although I studied engineering, the lessons I learned extended beyond engineering equations and design concepts. I learned how to see people for who they are.

 

Today, I am a black lesbian entrepreneur who seeks to change the way the world responds to diversity. My hope is to provide a space to have discussions to bring awareness to forms of inequities that exist out of ignorance and simply lack of understanding of each other.

 

At the core, all people want the same thing - to be happy and live a good life. This common intent is what inherently makes us all the same. People fear what they don't understand. This fear fuels the underlying subtle discriminatory biases that impact the ability for diverse people to get equal treatment. 

My blackness coming to light wasn’t by accident. It was a pivotal but necessary part of my evolution. It prepared me for the realization that the only difference between us all is what matters to each of us. But when it comes down to the basics, most of us want the same things... health, wealth, and happiness.  We work hard every day for these things and beyond the surface, we are more alike than we are different.

 

I've always felt a responsibility to myself to be successful. I still believe people must take responsibility for their own actions whether they are black, white, or otherwise. For some, this must start by taking responsibility for our own biases and understanding why we treat people certain ways based on their diversities. Through this understanding, we can start to see people for who they are and peel away the inequities that are subtly deteriorating our society and the hopes of our young, brilliant, and diverse leaders of tomorrow. 

 

Through these actions, we may find that we are part of the problem, but most importantly I think that we will find out that we can also be part of the solution.

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