Q&A: We talked with Tara Dowdell about race and business on MLK Day (and her answers may surprise you)

Tara Dowdell is the founder and president of Tara Dowdell Group, a marketing and strategic communications firm, and TDG Speakers. She also is a sought-after television commentator, frequently appearing on local and national programs to discuss politics, government and business topics.

(For more on her firm, click here.)

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Dowdell has served in a number of public and private positions in her career.

ROI-NJ reached out to her on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to discuss the impact and role race plays in New Jersey and the nation — with an emphasis on the business community.

Here are her thoughts:

ROI-NJ: Describe the state of race relations in New Jersey — and in this country — today?

Tara Dowdell: I think the fact that we’re still asking this question says it all. With respect to the nation, I think it’s clear that we’re still very divided, and we obviously have a lot of work to do. However, there are signs of promise.

We’ve seen a lot of viral videos of public displays of racist or xenophobic behavior or harassment, but the pushback is almost always swift from those who oppose it. We’ve seen companies fire employees for engaging in racist or xenophobic behavior.

These are positive signs, especially when you consider that this has not always been the case. However, we know from the data that there’s been an increase in hate crimes in this country and a resurgence of hate groups, so we still have a lot of work to do.

With respect to New Jersey, we’re a diverse state, but we still have our own racial fault lines. When I was 2, we were the first black family to move on our street in Hillside, and we had a cross burned on our house. It was literally nailed to our house in order to burn it down. The teenagers that did it are still alive. I can recount several other incidents like that, and, again, the perpetrators are still alive.

ROI: You are the owner of a successful marketing agency as well as a well-sought-out thought leader on a variety of subjects. Do you feel the fact that you are African-American helps, hurts or has no impact on your business or your brand?

TD: I believe being black and a woman has created an additional set of challenges for me in business. Don’t get me wrong, I fight as hard as I can to overcome those challenges. The biggest challenge has been financial.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve discovered that my firm was being paid less despite delivering more than a white male counterpart. I know some people will say that maybe we did not ask for as much as he did. Well, we did. We’ve also been the last vendor standing on projects where other vendors have been getting paid more and let go for performance issues.

I think a lot of it has to do with implicit bias, which is why I strongly believe that the programs and efforts aimed at addressing these issues are still very much needed.

ROI: I just referred to you as African-American. Last month, ROI-NJ had you on our People of Color influencers. Some still refer to people as being black. How do you categorize your race/ethnicity — and is it still important to do so?

TD: I want to stipulate that I do not speak for all black people. This question is somewhat complicated, because the black community is not monolithic. I personally refer to myself as black because it is part of my identity and my experiences, which have shaped me.

ROI: Tell me one thing people from minority and ethnic groups wish people who are not part of such a group would understand.

TD: Certainly, there are several things, but if I am to name one issue that I think is less explored, it is the notion that people of color, and in particular black people, call out racism as means of gaining some kind of advantage or benefit. This could not be farther from the truth.

I wish I did not have to call out racism. I wish there was no racism for me to call out. It’s not easy and it’s definitely not advantageous or beneficial to call out bias. It’s exhausting and painful and often makes those raising the issue targets or deemed a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘whiner,’ which is harmful in business.

I would also add that, in my experience, by the time most black people or people of color speak out on racism, they’ve actually already endured a lot of discrimination that they did not speak out on.

ROI: How do you think the actions and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. impact society and the business world today, more than 50 years since his death?

TD: I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but we clearly have a long way to go. Despite the data showing that diverse companies perform better, we still see people of color woefully underrepresented in corporate leadership and on boards. Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, but still struggle to raise capital. And, based on the data, it has nothing to do with results or viability of the business.

ROI: How comfortable were you answering these questions?

TD: Candidly, it was not very comfortable for me — it never is — but, hopefully, I’ve offered a perspective that can help to build greater understanding with fair-minded people.

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