A Black Salesman Tries to Bring Down Corporate Racism from the Inside
Mateo Askaripour satirizes white start-up culture in his debut novel "Black Buck"
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It’s no secret that the tech world has a troubling track record with diversity in the workplace, especially with the dearth of Black and Latinx employees in key roles. Author Mateo Askaripour confronts the lack of diversity within the workplace with satire in his debut novel Black Buck. Some critics have been describing Black Buck as Sorry to Bother You meets The Wolf of Wall Street, but if you ask Askaripour he doesn’t see his novel as similar to Sorry to Bother You but has compared some elements of it to Death of a Salesman.
Black Buck follows an almost two-year journey in the life of Darren Vender, a young Black man from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The valedictorian of his high school who is now working at a Park Avenue Starbucks, Darren is smart and full of potential but isn’t realizing it until a life-changing opportunity manifests in the form of a coffee order for Rhett Daniels, the white CEO of Sumwun, a powerful sales start-up. On his way up and after a tragic incident, Darren begins to realize he was simply a pawn in Sumwun’s affirmative action game and sets out to lift up his own people. But of course, challenging the racial politics of Sumwun and bucking against the system leads to consequences.
Askaripour and I, two Black men from different parts of Brooklyn, conversed about what’s really going on with race in the workforce as presented through Black Buck.
Kadeem Lundy: Black Buck follows the idea that in order to succeed in business a Black man must change his identity, in a sense. So can you talk a little bit about why you feel like that might be the case where a Black man has to potentially change his identity in order to succeed in business?
Mateo Askaripour: So I don’t believe that a Black man has to change in order to succeed in business. That’s a personal belief that I don’t hold. However, when it comes to the book, I believe that Darren, that specific Black man, had to change in that specific business, being someone at that startup in order to survive and then thrive there. Darren didn’t have to change if Darren went in there and he was like “yo, I don’t like how this is white guys talking to me. I don’t like how these white people are looking at me. I don’t like them calling me every, you know, popular Black person from MLK to Dave Chappelle.” You know, he could have stuck to his guns. But what would have happened in an environment like Sumwun is Darren would have experienced probably even more hell and then either left or just been fired.
A place, a company or an organization like Sumwun is predicated on a certain amount of assimilation. Not all startups, not all companies, but that’s how many companies thrive. They believe that there is a culture that they need to establish: a culture that binds all of the employees together, typically with a common mission or goal in mind for them to achieve, whether that is going public, getting more funding, beating out the competition, creating something truly innovative. The goal is constantly changing, but within that culture that they established, there are norms. There are even sometimes ways of speaking, dressing, and so forth.
So, Darren, being the only Black person in the entire company, if he went in and said you know what, I’m not going to switch it up—and he wanted to remain as true to at least the beginning iteration of himself when we started in the book—I don’t think it would have worked out. But that doesn’t mean that he could have gone to another business with white people or Black people or non-Black people and remained who he was and thrived. He definitely could have done that.
KL: Yeah, I definitely get that, I understand that. When you think about that and when you talk about his transformation as well, he gets the nickname of Buck. So when you talk about the nickname of Buck itself, it kind of serves as a symbol beyond just the obvious of working at Starbucks. But it seems like it also has a deeper symbolic meaning. And so when you think of the nickname specifically and you think about how maybe the historical connotations of what buck meant for a Black man. Can you speak a little bit about that idea?
MA: I’d say there are three or four meanings to Buck. There’s the fact that right, he’s a dude who gets the name Buck and he’s Black. That he worked at Starbucks is number two. Number three, it’s a representation of Black wealth, Black bucks, you know, obviously talking about cash and bread and the idea that what Darren does and how he changes the game, even if only for a moment in time, will help more Black and Brown people make money and hopefully uplift their families and their communities. And this is obviously bold, but maybe beyond the way to be attaining some real wealth. And then the fourth way is the historical meaning of Black buck, right? What it means to be a Black buck. As you know, they were the unruly, big, wild, enslaved people who these white masters, these enslavers, believed were going to burn down the plantation, steal their wives, kill the animals, kill them.
And when I thought about that and I meditated on it deeply, I said, you know what, that’s the energy that I’m bringing to this book as the writer and the energy that Buck is bringing to the world of Black Buck himself and especially the world of these startups, which are overwhelmingly white now. Buck’s not going in and burning them down, but he’s changing them from the inside out in a very, I’m not going to say aggressive, but in a very intelligent way that these people at the top—I don’t want to call them enslavers. I don’t want to call them masters. That sounds like way, way too dramatic, even though shit, some people would call them that—but even without the people at the top, who are typically white, knowing what was going on right before their eyes. So I’m happy that you asked that question, Kadeem, because it’s at the core of this book. And sorry, the last thing I’ll say is we see that Buck pays for it, for bucking against the system. And we see how that plays out.
KL: But there’s also kind of a situation that arises that where it ends up being, you know, there’s a saying that when you help your own people, sometimes it’s your own people that actually go against you. So if you could talk about how you dealt with that and is it really to be expected that it can always be your own people who will be the ones that can be your downfall?
MA: Wow, this is a type of question that I live for, a question that only the interviewer can ask me, and I haven’t heard this one before from anyone else. So thank you. And you’re asking me about my personal beliefs, so I can’t hide behind the fiction. And I wouldn’t even want to.
Personally, I’m not one of these people that are of the mind that when you give back to your own community, they will end up being your downfall or it’ll be detrimental to you. I don’t believe that. I don’t want to believe that. And I don’t believe it at all, you know, on a molecular level or a spiritual level.
I wrote this book for many reasons, but the second reason specifically was so that any Black and Brown people—and obviously Black people, first and foremost—who read this book and have been in these situations will know that they haven’t been alone, will know that they don’t deserve to be made to feel less. They will know that they have the same rights just as much as anyone else to chase their dreams, that’s what I wanted. And this is to serve people who look like me now.
Right now, I’m wearing a hoodie from The Marathon Clothing (Nipsy Hussle’s brand) and Nipsy could be evidence of what you’re saying. Nipsy stayed basically in his hood. He did a lot for his community. He promoted a lot of Black entrepreneurship. And then he gets shot and killed right outside of his own store by another Black man. Right. And this is conjecture, I didn’t know the man, Nipsy. I know what he means to me, but I feel like if someone were to say a couple of years ago, Nipsy, this is going to be your life and then you’re going to get killed, would you still help out your people? Would you still stay in your neighborhood in terms of giving back and doing all of these things? I feel like he still would have done it. So that’s my personal belief.
KL: A big theme in the book is about sales and the idea of sales. And I noticed in the book, it is noted that sales isn’t about talent, it’s about overcoming obstacles, beginning with yourself. And so to go a little bit further about overcoming obstacles, how can you say a person can work through those obstacles if they can’t seem to fully understand what the internal obstacles actually are?
MA: If someone’s walking through the forest and they have bad eyesight and then all of a sudden they miraculously find a pair of glasses, they will then realize how much they couldn’t see before. It’s the same type of thing. It’s like I’m bringing up a bunch of analogies, just that people who are close to me and who inspire me, right. When Malcolm X was in jail, then he gets put on to the Nation of Islam and he changes course. You oftentimes need help. Almost always. You need help from somewhere, another person, a book, another form of art, just hearing a conversation in order to have your eyes opened or to be “awoken,” which is the term that a lot of people use today. Just years ago, it was conscious. Now it’s woke. So I think that someone is set on the path of liberation from the help of someone else usually. Self-liberation. I don’t know if liberation happens in a vacuum. We all need help. No one just all of a sudden wakes up and says, oh, I need to be free if they don’t know what freedom actually looks like. You need to realize those internal obstacles with the help of something or someone else to then surmount them. I think that so many of us who wake up to certain shackles in our own lives do it with the help of others.
KL: You just mentioned what you were embedded in the world of start-ups. Can you speak a little bit about how your experiences influenced the direction of the book?
MA: I was able to write the book because of my experience, Darren and I actually had pretty different experiences within the workplace. I noticed things related to race, of course. Did I experience paranoia and anxiety, and sometimes think I may be overly sensitive about things dealing with race? Of course. I know how these startups function from the inside out, extremely intimately, even after I quit my job in 2016. I was traveling and I was writing, but then I began consulting with startups across North America, you know, again, very intimately. So I got to see how many startups work. So I was drawing from everything from personal experience, from the things that I felt. Every single character in the book, I feel as though I’ve felt every emotion that they felt, like I needed to feel these emotions in order to imbue them.
But in terms of the wild racism that Darren experiences within the workplace, I didn’t experience it like that, because I was on a different trajectory than Darren coming in as an entry-level salesperson. I started out in a startup for around four years, I came in as an intern then I did social media community management, then started a sales team, and then very quickly right within like a year or two, I was one of the top leaders within the sales organization. So that power incculated me from a lot of things that I could have experienced because I was one of the people at the top. Now at the same time, a lot of what Darren experiences within the workplace, the wild racism as I called it, I’ve experienced outside of the workplace. I’ve experienced it in high school, I experienced it in middle school, I experienced it on sports teams, I experienced it in social groups. So I translated a lot of those experiences while they’re not one for one and the same things aren’t happening, I translated the severity of those experiences and how I felt about them and how I felt during them into what happens in the workplace with Darren.
KL: And so my last question to you is actually going to be with your experience in sales, where do you see the future of sales going, specifically for people of color and Black people in positions of key roles of executives?
MA: Well, I’m not sure where anything is going, to be honest. I think about this specific moment that we’re living in even though it’s connected to a string of other moments. Related to the past few decades and hundreds of years and not just in America but around the world. And I think that this specific moment, especially after the murder of George Floyd, in the wake of these protests about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain, that there’s hope that real change is going to happen. I’d like it to happen no matter what but I don’t know if it’s actually going to happen because a lot of people who post these black squares are really fairweather friends. It’s easy to post a black square. It’s harder to speak up. It’s harder to actually enact change, that change I was talking about before the changing of heart and then the changing of law, the changing of systems.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen. And it’s the same in the world of sales. I’d like to say that more Black and Brown people will become sales-people especially in tech startups and that they will rise up and hire more people of color and Black and Brown people, and educate them. But it’s really important to note that—at least in the world of this book—the end goal isn’t just for these Black and Brown people to work for white people. Like that’s not it. I would hope that many of you Black and Brown people who work for these white companies, excuse me, white-owned companies and white majority companies, change them from the inside out, put other people on to get their paper, and then maybe start their own things if they want or find other ways to create spaces by Black and Brown people for Black and Brown people. I think that will be the true definition. At least one definition of freedom and liberation.