Forget the Rat Race, It's All About the Hustle

Celina De Leon
December 19, 2005

Ever wonder what corporate America is really like? Well, besides how it looks in the boardroom of "The Apprentice," or when Martha Stewart is not writing you a letter to take home. Hadji J.S. Williams gives an insider's look into the walls of Chicago's marketing and advertising firms in, "Knock the Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America," that reveals the harsh realities "reality TV" doesn't even come close to bringing to the screen.

Williams, a 13-year veteran, gives candid accounts with an urban, hip-hop edge, of his experiences as a Black man working in corporate America. You'll either nod with all too knowing agreement, or find yourself screeching "What?!" as you flip through page after page of real-life examples of insidious discrimination, and manipulation and corruption that are all too similar to the hustling he witnessed first-hand on the streets of the south side of Chicago. And the examples occur in every part of the office, from the water cooler to the boardroom; by fellow co-workers to high honcho executives.

But rather than leave you in debilitating despair or in a cynical funk, Williams actually provides concrete solutions to what he describes as being the wrong way to do business. Williams says there is hope, and encourages the reader, along with his students at the Columbia College of Chicago, to change corporate America from the inside out. AlterNet.org got a chance to speak with Williams on his book and "the hustle."

Can you break down what you mean by "the hustle"? Is it another phrase similar to "the rat race"?

The rat race is a part of it. But I guess the technical phrase for it would be just constructs -- putting people in boxes. Telling people you have to be a certain way, behave a certain way. It's kind of just mind games, really. Ethnic constructs, behavioral constructs -- if you don't behave in this type of way, don't look a certain way, don't carry yourself in a certain way, you don't count. It's really about manipulating people in the name of control and marginalization.

Do you think the motives behind taking part in "the hustle," or falling into the hustle of corporate America, are similar or different to the motives of hustles often associated with lower-income and/or urban settings?

I think part of it is the need to make money. But overall, the need we all have as human beings to want to fit in and be part of something bigger than ourselves. When someone tells you that you have to do this in order to fit in, it's your natural instinct or human nature, to want to fit in -- to want to belong to a group.

Your observation that the hustlers you met and witnessed on the streets of Chicago weren't very different from the hustlers you met in boardrooms in Chicago seems to be the backbone of the book. To quote you, "I saw pimps and hustlers in the streets just about every day. Once I began working with Fortune 500 clients and blue-chip brands, it was more of the same -- only at work the rules and the players were a little more sophisticated."

Yeah, that was something I found really amazing. My neighborhood, Chicago is really segregated. Most people tend to keep to themselves. I grew up on the south side. Young people never left. You know the phrase - 'They never left the block.' So everything I saw, I had to guess that something similar happened somewhere else. I had no other community or experience to compare it to.

It took me a while to figure it out when I entered the business world and saw people playing mind games. I was like, 'Wait a minute, that kind of looks familiar. The way this guy is trying to make this person work really late. You know what, you're kind of like a pimp.' They get a woman to think it's just you and her against everybody else.

And in the workplace, the only way you can get somebody to pledge allegiance to you is by getting that person to believe that everyone in that company is out to get you, but somehow your supervisor or boss is going to protect you. And that some day, when they climb the ladder, they're going to take you right along with them.

After a while, I would see that and think, the only difference between you and the guy on the street is, the guy on the street is a little darker. But I knew even from the street that the higher up you got on the food chain, the distributors -- they weren't black, Latino, Asian -- the higher up you went, the paler the skin color. Once I started seeing the parallels, I was like OK, now I can start figuring this out.

One of the bad things that I learned in college is that you really do learn how to be a follower. I mean really good schools, really good programs, teach you how to think for yourself. The problem with far too many schools is that they promote -- whether it's a conservative group mentality or liberal group mentality -- they promote following the herd. They don't question anything. No matter what side of the political aisle, or in business, everything is just meant to be followed -- just kind of follow the pattern. They just learn how to work for somebody else. And that just makes them easy pickings. They end up working for some company for 10 to 15 years or whatever and they end up bitter.

You mention in your book that one of the main reasons you decided to write the book is because for years you heard colleagues from CEOs to people working in the mailroom to consumers complain "non-stop about all sorts of business-related issues including the fact that they had no clue how to fix any of them." Bottom line, what is your blueprint for change?

I think the first thing you have to ask yourself is what do you really want to do with your life? Everybody has a different calling. Everyone has a different gift. For me, it's my writing. Everyone is not going to be a terrific writer. Some people it's painting. Whatever it is, figure it out. I'm not anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, or anti-business. I really believe there is a right way and a wrong way to do business.

First figure out what you want to do. Then find out if there are companies that are doing it that way. Either go work for those companies, or don't be afraid to start your own. And then get educated about how to do that.

You describe in "Knock the Hustle" the effects of whiteness in corporate America. Do you think the foundation of these constructs is based on whiteness, or capitalism, or both?

Primarily capitalism, and whiteness is part of it. There's a lot of self-hate involved.

I think god invented skin color, but human beings invented race. In my opinion, white skin color privilege is basically how white people hustle themselves by saying that whatever my ethnic background is, it doesn't matter. What matters most is the homogenized ideal of humanity, and the most important thing is this bland idealized version of perfection. You know, blonde hair, blue eyes, that Jennifer Aniston thing. Like Cameron Diaz is Latina, but not like you would ever know it. And not that she would ever say anything about it. This idea that when you come here, whatever European country you're from, somehow you're supposed to forget all that.

I've always said the biggest hate crime in the world is self-hate. And that's something that I thought growing up in the inner city. The most dangerous kid on the block -- that kid that would lash out at anybody -- pick a fight with anybody. That kid is usually the kid that hates himself. That's the most dangerous.

So, what you do as a marketer, and this is really sad, it's a trick -- white people teach each other that "we're almost there." It's this twisted game we play -- that we're almost there, that we're almost perfect. If you just buy this one more product, you're almost there. Just spike your hair and you're perfect. If we homogenize ourselves just a little bit more, we'll be perfect. And that's kind of what white skin privilege is. Or, part of it.

This idea that if we just bland ourselves enough, we're going to be perfect. You have to forget your ethnicity. If you're Jewish, don't go to synagogue. Don't be too Jewish. If you're Irish, don't be too Irish. Whatever accent you got, get rid of it. So which leaves many white people lashing out against anybody who's different.

In much of the book, you give direct examples of how whiteness affects corporate America's treatment of minorities, particularly Black Americans. The examples of degrading stereotypes you have had to endure working in the field of advertising will leave many readers speechless. But what do you have to say to readers of your book who are either skeptical of your book, or view these experiences as isolated or extreme?

Part of that is denial, because that's another part of white skin privilege. I didn't do anything wrong. That's another reason why it's able to go on for so long -- he didn't know what he was talking about. I mean the funny thing is, from people who have read the book, or who have read excerpts -- the mail falls into two categories. It falls into people of color and white people.

Whether people are Black, or Chinese, or Cuban, or Puerto Rican… I get mail from not just ad people, I get mail from people in business, people who love hip-hop, or people who just picked up the book. They say, "Yeah, I went through that. Yeah, I'm going through that at my accounting firm. My mom went through that when she worked at so and so…" And then I get mail from other people saying, "It's not that bad. You don't know what you're talking about."

By and large, the email or mail I get breaks down like that. It's pretty sad. People of color dig it, and everybody else is pretty much, "Shut up."

How do you think whiteness affects consumers? Especially, minorities and young kids of color?

I can speak for Black folks, especially those I grew up around -- younger Black folks. What we associate with blackness is something that we buy. I think that's probably the big difference between being black in America as opposed to other ethnic roots or cultures is that so much of our culture has been just stuff that you can buy. It's the way that you dress.

Is that because marketers are doing such a good job?

Not just marketers. It's just part of our history, something that we've had to struggle with. I think that's one of the big differences between Black Americans and just about any other ethnic group.

We're the only ethnic group that came to America specifically as property. Every other ethnic group came here by choice. Or came because they were running from war or famine. Black Americans, by and large, are the only ones who were specifically brought here as property -- as free labor. We have just never broke away from the idea that we are in one way or another, always for sale. I think because of that, there's just this sense that whatever we do, that some part of us, is up for sale. And so, that's just something you kind of struggle with. We've never really addressed that, or if we have, we never did a good enough job of dealing with that.

It has been cited that even if companies do hire people of color or minorities to their ranks, it's for lower-level positions, rather than middle-, upper-management or board positions. Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc, pointed out that this reality has to change due to the fact that "More and more of these companies are having to build relationships with suppliers and vendors in other parts of the world. And let's face it, 80 percent of the world is not white." What do you think?

It's going to be a little more complex than that. America has always been isolationist. We were the last country to get involved in both [world wars]. We were the last country to really get involved in the war against terrorism. We've always been the last country, unless there's something really in it for us. I think it's the same thing when it comes to diversity. It's been centuries since the world has been 50 percent white.

Do you think diversity officers are important for corporate America?

I'm not sure that diversity officers help or hurt much. I think if companies are really committed to diversity, they can do it without having a special person in charge of it. Sometimes the diversity officer is a company's diversity program.

Do you think the government should regulate corporate America more? Why and How?

You're not going to regulate somebody you borrow money from.

But does the government borrow money from companies like Nike?

Not Nike, but when you look at companies like Arthur Andersen, World.com and Enron, you're talking about companies who also lobbied our nation's most important policy makers. Enron helped determine U.S. energy policy. World.com helped determine our telecommunications policy. They, along with the other telecomm companies had a lot of pull with the FCC in the 1990s. They're the reason your cable bills are so high and there's no competition and you have literally two telecomm companies owning everything. Michael Powell (former FCC chair) let those guys deregulate and combine like Voltron to do whatever they wanted.

Is diversity good for business at all? And why don't many people buy into the importance of it being part of a social agenda?

Business is about revenue and getting paid. Some people want to be fair, but not at the expense of getting paid. So I think your best hope long-term is to go for "diversity as good business." But sometimes diversity has nothing to do with profit. Sometimes anybody can do a job and it just doesn't matter who you hire. Sometimes a multi-ethnic workforce is no more productive or creative than a homogenous one. In those cases companies probably won't be as inclusive or diverse as they should be in hiring. It's just a fact of life. In the end, it'll just come down to people doing what's in their hearts. That's where the hustle is won and lost.

What advice do you have for members of overly underrepresented populations -- Native Americans, transgenders, and persons with disabilities -- who are either trying to enter corporate America, or simply survive if they have been allowed in?

Overall, everybody has a story to tell. One of the things I've learned is, if you don't tell your own story, somebody else will and will do it wrong. I got a lot of mail from people from different ethnic groups. I know everybody's struggle is different or completely different. For the few Black men there are in corporate America, there are even fewer Black women. The struggles they face I have never faced. For example, being told to go home and change because the clothes you are wearing are "inappropriate" for the office.

I would hope "Knock the Hustle" encourages other groups to be vocal about their stories. I don't want to tell everybody's story. I don't want to try to speak for everybody.

You wrote "Knock the Hustle" in a very urban and hip-hop themed tone. Did you do this to reach a particular audience, or was it more of a personal style choice for you?

When you're where I'm from, business people and mainstream America tell you that "urban people" have no value or insights outside of entertainment or sports. Unless you're talking about music or dancing or sex or something, you can't possibly have anything to offer which is what urban vernacular represents to so many of them. So they don't take you seriously unless you learn "their language." Speak "the King's English" is how older people used to put it to me. So I grew up learning almost two languages in a sense -- street slang, or urban slang, or whatever you want to call it, and this more mainstream accepted way of talking.

When I wrote KTH, I wanted to show everyone that you can be smart and be street. Being educated doesn't mean you have to use fancy words that only eight people understand and everyone else needs a dictionary to look up. I wanted to write something that showed businesspeople that intelligence had as much to do with thought, as it had to do with your traditional choice of words. I wanted something that felt more like a discussion and less like a lecture.

I also wanted to show that a lot of hip-hop guys are not stupid so much as they've made stupid choices, like we all do. Remember: Donald Trump's dad gave him two million bucks to get started. And Martha Stewart lied to the feds and only got five months [in prison]. If we all had those kinds of safety nets, we could all overcome our stupidity.


Celina R. De Leon is a social justice journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.


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