Being Unapologetically Yourself: Race, Identity, & Appearance

GT: Kwaku is a colleague and a bud of mine. I have an inkling that we gravitate towards each other because we’re both quirky, passionate, intelligent, and have dreams we’re following outside of our day jobs. Not to mention we’re both dashingly fashionable. He also is a really funny guy and always has a jovial energy to him. One time he said as a passing comment: “I think I’m far enough up the corporate ladder to get a gold grill” (gold front teeth). He was half kidding, but also half-not. This is the same person who has “grow” tattooed under his knee (read: knee-grow... negro).

The sentiment of being far enough up the corporate ladder to make a dramatic shift to his appearance stuck with me. I know he and I are alike in that we wear what we feel suits our personalities and values and don’t compromise that in the workplace. Kwaku will wear a button up shirt with a backwards hat and is also not a fan of jeans. But, beyond eclectic personal style choices, I wanted to explore the concept of race and being unabashedly himself in a very white and respectable workplace. To do that, I asked him in the interview to tell me about himself and his background to paint the context for the wonderful unapologetic individual he is today.

Opinions expressed in this article are personal and should not be taken as reflecting those of our company, Toast.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Kwaku Piasa Abankroh. I’m 25 years old. I’m from Worcester, MA and my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana 30 years ago. My name means “born on a Wednesday” because that was the day I was born. Traditional Ghanaian names are based on the day of the week you’re born.

I went to Babson college in Wellesley and studied business with a concentration in marketing. Babson is an entrepreneurship school; a high percentage of students leave that school and are doing some sort of business of their own.

How was growing up in Worcester with your parents?

Worcester has a big Ghanaian community. I’m from a little neighborhood called Lincoln Village which has a mixed hispanic population and lots of Africans (Liberians, Ghanaians, Nigerians and obviously white people because they’re everywhere). I love my parents; I’m a mama’s boy.

I went to private school for a lot of my life. My parent's idea was that it’d keep me on the straight and narrow. We didn’t have a lot of money, but they placed a high importance on education, appearance, and safety. When I was young I was very clean cut - always getting a haircut and wearing decent outfits with nice sweaters and collars (not preppy, but close). My dad and mom were worried about my appearance, so they raised me in a cautious way.

They watched really sensationalized American TV and dramatic news headlines and thought that it was what the country was like. My dad in particular didn’t trust anything. He’d always say “Kwaku no you can’t do that,” even to simple things like wanting to go outside.  He’d make me watch America’s Most Wanted and would say “How old was that man and he and he got kidnapped and killed?” He raised me with fear tactics. They were trying to protect me, but I ended up being very risk-averse to an extreme. I didn’t even ride bikes because there was risk.

There were benefits, though. My parents would buy me video games to keep me in the house and prevent me from doing dumb shit like being on the streets or making poor friend choices. I played a ton of Madden; my friends were always over playing games. They’d have me invite all my friends over the house so they could keep an eye on us and know I was safe.

I was a really smart kid who was regularly ahead of the curve in school. When I was seven I remember asking my dad if I could go outside to play because I had already done my homework. He wouldn’t let me and instead he’d run to Staples and get me more homework. I’d be in second grade and he’d buy me third grade practice homework, so it really boosted me. I’d  kill it in classes. I’d get my work done while the teacher was talking, so I’d have no homework.

Since I was ahead of my classmates in elementary and middle school, by the time high school rolled around, I went to Worcester Academy. There was a paradigm shift because in my old school there was a lot of diversity, then at the academy I walked into a room and there was 80 white kids and 1 other black kid in the corner. I walked over to him and said what’s up... and that’s my best friend to this day. There may have been a couple other black kids, but really few.

What was being a minority in your school like?

My existence was defined by the fact that there was always going to be a white person in the situation, but there won’t always be a black person. For starters, I played on a football team where I was the only black kid. It'd be the only black kid in class and the topic would be slavery, so the class would look to me to understand the black experience. Going to parties, the newest dance craze that came out, it was upon me to know about that shit.

As I’ve gotten older it’s been an advantage of me. I understand both sides of the coin: I know how to function in a black community and a white one. The knowledge and experience allows me to float between both circles. I’m a respectable professional and I’m the same guy that goes back to the hood. I still go to Worcester and can speak my friends’ language, but I also tell them I’d help them out if they needed it. In ways, fitting in both worlds is also isolating because I’m “too black” for the white kids and “too white” for the black kids, whatever that means.

I was always involved in diversity groups in high school and college. At Babson, I was part of a group that was inclusive, but a bit of a frat. It developed as the years passed and became inclusive to women. We learned about gender roles, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and the different aspects that encapsulate identity. That really helped me to develop my sense of self and understand others.

How have you developed your sense of self?

Even my name has played a huge role in my identity. My name is Kwaku, not Michael or James. It used to bug me because when I was younger I couldn’t even pronounce my name properly. I pronounced it like quack-koo instead of kway-koo, so my friends nicknamed me quacks. I even considered changing my name at some point because I thought it’d be easier. But, as I’ve grown in comfort about who I am, I’ve established myself and I’m clear. I say “This is what I’d like to be called. This is the right way to say my name.” Except at Starbucks, I say James there because it’s funny. 

There’s a lot of frustration around names though. People don’t take the time to learn my name; it’s too “exotic.” I’ve had the experience of people calling me Q to make it easier on themselves, but I think it’s a bullshit way of people softening their experience of me. Just call me my name. It’s a respect factor to give a proper effort to address me by my name.

There’s even been studies done with job and housing applications; Joe vs. Jose with the same exact qualifications and Jose will get less callbacks than Joe. Reason being that Joe is a more traditional American name. There are stereotypes with ethnically diverse names. Take Shaniqua for example. That name is put in a box as ratchet or crazy, when it’s really just more traditionally a black name.

What does juggling race, identity, and how you dress look like at work?

I’m 100% aware of my appearance everyday. Now that I’m at our company, I understand my purpose and role as a black male that’s very articulate who breaks stereotypes. Like, I’m not a gangster. I come to work every day generally wearing what I want, though, and pulling it off. Although I can and do sometimes dress in business casual, I usually choose not to because my workplace is accepting of me as I am.

I like my hair to be natural even though my mom HATES it grown out. She always says to me “You look like a robber or a ruffian.” It’s hard, because it’s how my hair naturally grows and I like it that way. My mom is concerned about my image and the way people perceive me. She’s worried the way I dress will mean I’ll have thug-like stereotypes attached to me. As much as I do my own thing and come off as jovial, I do always have those thoughts in the back of my mind.

But, this is where it’s so important that I wear what I wear. Even with those worries and fears, I can simultaneously disrupt and represent images of the rappers and thugs people see. When I’m wearing a hoodie, I can’t help but think of Trayvon Martin. I normalize the appearance of an urban black kid for people like him who are thrown away from society because they’re a "thug.” I show the real normal, not the "normal" that’s stuck in people’s heads, which is disrespect and aggression. We’re not all television stereotypes and media propaganda.

When I first started at the company I had a black boss and I was so grateful because I had all white bosses up to that point. Him being black came with good and bad I suppose. He understood and he’d look out for me. He’d say “Yo, make sure your image is on point.” He was thinking about the same things and I’m pretty sure he has a son, so he was likely telling him similar things. That’s good, but it’s also bad because he’s putting me in those boxes to look a certain way that’s seen as acceptable.

It’s not that I’m opposed to dressing professional, but if that’s what it’s about, it should be purely clothes and should have nothing to do with my hair. I’ve proven that I’m capable of the job, regardless of how I look. Society tries to put people in boxes, but I just kick down boxes and fuck ‘em up - and say “hey let’s not be in boxes anymore.” I’m more willing than your average person to be disruptive because I believe in myself and my ability. I believe in finding circles and spaces that will be accepting of me, which I've found at our work. 

You’ve been super successful at Toast. Can you talk about that?

I know it’s no small feat that I was promoted from support to sales. The reality is that I’m one of very few black people on the sales side. Services and support seem to be where the most ethnic diversity lies. Nonetheless, I know how lucky I am to be at Toast. It’s a great company.

I’ve positioned myself in that I’m someone who knows the product in and out. I told the VP of sales the first few months I was working that I was going to be in support for a year to learn the product from top to bottom, then I was going to kill it in sales. Almost 2 years later, I’m a Sales Engineer who is a clear resource for colleagues to go to. There are few people who know the product as well as me- perhaps product managers, but not many others.

I learned to make myself useful in as many ways as possible because then I can’t be fired and I can demand more respect and pay. It’s easy to get pigeonholed into one job, but I didn’t want that. My father was in tech and I learned a lotfrom him.

Toast is just your “day job.” What else do you do outside of being a sales engineer?

It’s important for me to have more layers than just being a sales engineer. I’m creative in the sense of creating experiences and joy. I manage artists, throw hip hop shows, host a radio show, and do voice overs. I love hip hop music. I’m interested in someday being in the industry in some capacity. I’ve been booking underground hip hop shows. I run a show called Fresh out the Mint, all we play is Boston hip hop. I manage a rapper and a singer (Maka).

Music is amazing because just like sports and food… it eliminates race sometimes. It’s magical that it dissolves race a lot of the time. I’m just very passionate about music. I love finding music that can fit my emotions in a lot of ways. The scene is burgeoning in Boston.

I used to do standup comedy and open mics. It was terrible, it was very painful, but I did it to push myself to take risks. When I first moved to Boston and out of the house I was trying to find a creative expression. I don’t draw or sing, so I gave it a shot. I’m still a goofball, though I don’t do standup anymore.

I also do freelance voice overs. I want to be a cartoon character one day. I did basic training videos at Toast and a friend asked me to come in and tryout for voiceovers. Now I’m in their database as someone they can book. A lot of the voices they get are cookie-cutter and similar. Different inflections are important. I have a different voice, I don’t know if it’s because I’m black.

I was risk-averse for a long time, but I've learned to take risks when it comes to things that matter to me. 

Note that we conducted this interview prior to the election results (and the subsequent Babson students harassing Wellesley students stint), so he & I may do a part 2 interview.