My name is Charles West and I’m currently a Senior Director with Symphony Health. I lead a team of consultants that executes advanced analytics, supporting a range of pharmaceutical stakeholders. For those reading this, thank you!
My story is about my identity and learning to not let other people define it. Being an African American male that grew up in predominately white environments, I feel like my story is unique but not at all rare. Have you ever been in a crowded room and been the only one of your race in it? That was pretty much my experience every day, both growing up and in the workplace. This created a constant feeling of needing to “fit in.”
Ultimately, I learned that I’m the only one that can define me.
Innocence is bliss
My parents are from North Carolina. My dad grew up on a tobacco farm and my mother grew up in upper-middle class suburbs. My parents were both successful professionally and worked hard to offer me and my two older sisters comfort, safety, and happiness.
My father’s job had us moving every three to four years. I was (and still am) used to being the new kid. We moved to Des Moines, Iowa and I remember being the only African American kid in most (if not all) of my classes.
Outside of school, I played traveling baseball and soccer. Again, I remember being the only black kid on the team. My friends called me “Black Stallion” and other nicknames rooted in my race. I thought nothing of it at the time. My parents heard the comments, noticed I wasn’t always invited to the after game play dates or socials. They tried making me aware of race and racism at a young age. I remember telling them I thought they were racist because, in my innocence, I didn’t see what they saw. I share this to give you an example of how “innocent” I was, and how unusual it was for me to be around people that looked like me.
Every year we would travel to North Carolina for an annual West Family reunion. I remember asking my parents, “Do all the black people live in NC?” It’s the only time I would see larger populations of African Americans. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true—I was uncomfortable around my own race.
A whole new world
At age 13, we moved to Naperville, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. We literally drove the night before my first day of 8th grade. On the first day of school, I remember walking into the school and seeing all the black kids (more than I had EVER seen in a school) standing in one section of the atrium. It was a lot to take in. As I interacted with the other kids, white students would often tell me that I didn’t dress black or talk black. Their version of black was what they saw on television (clothes, slang, etc). I also remember several black students telling me I acted white because of how I dressed and spoke. All I was doing was being myself.
By my sophomore year, I started to gain confidence in myself. I was operating successfully in both circles (white kids and black kids). My mother got me involved in two groups that helped shape who I am personally and professionally. INROADS was an internship program for minority students. As part of this program, I was going to classes on Saturday mornings to learn about resume writing, interview skills, case studies, etc. The other program was Top Teens of America—a social club for minority teens focused on community service and professional development. Participation in these groups gave me a sense of belonging, and I established meaningful relationships with kids that looked like me and had shared experiences.
When I turned 16, I was eager to get my driver's license. This is the year I truly started to experience everyday challenges of being a black man in America. I got pulled over a lot—and no, it wasn’t for speeding. One time I got pulled over less than five miles from my home. I was immediately surrounded by four police cars with guns drawn. I was told my car was used in a drive-by the night before. I was 17, and to this day, it’s the most scared I have ever been. Also to this day, I’m terrified of the police from that experience and others.
Finding my way
I went to Florida A&M University (FAMU), a historically black college/university (HBCU). Both my parents went to HBCUs, as did both of my sisters. In my younger years, I had no desire to attend an HBCU, but my high school experiences solidified my desire to be a part of the majority for once. What was eye opening to me going to FAMU was the diversity within my own race. What it meant to be black was totally reshaped for me. It wasn’t how you dressed, it wasn’t how you talked, or the music you listened to.
I was pursuing my MBA and was required to complete three internships in order to graduate. Two of my internships were with Pfizer—putting me on my path in this industry. My first Pfizer internship was in Sales where I managed a territory in South Philadelphia, a predominately Italian neighborhood. I found myself uncomfortable again, feeling that I stood out from everyone else. My second Pfizer internship was with the Zyrtec Marketing team at its headquarters in New York. NYC is indeed a melting pot. I did not feel that I stood out and I loved it.
Back to reality
After graduating in 2003, I secured a job in Tampa, Florida as a healthcare litigation consultant. Once again, I found myself the only black person in my professional setting. Granted, the workplace was “diverse,” but I was the only one of my race—far different than my prior five years at FAMU. I remember going out of my way to hide all signs that I enjoyed hip hop music, or wore a backwards baseball cap outside of the office. I was fearful that if they saw me like that, I would be judged. After all those years, I still found myself going out of my way to hide who I was instead of embracing it. This continued for many years. I needed to stop being concerned with other people’s version of me.
In my 18 years of professional experience, this is the first time I’ve been asked to share my story. I’m proud to be part of an organization that embraces and celebrates diversity. Now, I have a family of my own. My amazing wife Shelley and I have two beautiful children, Cole (10) and Camryn (6). Their schools are more diverse, their neighborhood friends and their teams and activities are as well. Despite this, and our best attempts, we will not be able to shield our children from racial insensitivity. One day, my son came home and told us that he couldn’t have any candy because he was black.
They see the news and all the social topics dominating the headlines. They ask questions and we give honest answers. From my experiences, I want them both to grow up being whoever and whatever they want to be. Unfortunately, and inevitably, they’ll face challenges with how others view and perceive them. How they manage through those situations is unknown. I’m an optimist at heart, but reality, and history, have shown that the challenges that I faced are not going away any time soon.
“We may have different religions, different languages, different color skin, but we all belong to the human race” – Kofi Annan.
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