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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: May 2024

Reckoning with Bias

Christine Dauchez and Stephen M Graham


  • Mr. Graham discusses why he wrote the book Invisible Ink: Navigating Racism in Corporate America.
  • He reflects on being the only Black lawyer in the room for most of his career, what kept him going, and what gives him hope for the future. 
  • Take away a few insights on staying engaged in retirement.
Reckoning with Bias

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I had the pleasure of hearing Stephen Michael Graham speak last month at a fireside chat at Fenwick & West, celebrating Black History Month. He graciously agreed to an interview with Voice of Experience.

To prepare for the interview, I read Mr. Graham’s book Invisible Ink: Navigating Racism in Corporate America from cover to cover in a single sitting. An eternal optimist, I have been conditioned to expect a climactic scene of confrontation followed by a kumbaya and happily ever after. Instead, even as a passive bystander, I felt the crushing weight of the “unending stream of slights” Mr. Graham had to endure.

In this wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Graham reflects on growing up in an all-Black and then an all-white community, being the only Black lawyer in the room for most of his career, what kept him going, what keeps him active in retirement, and what gives him hope for the future.

Voice of Experience (VOE): Let’s start at the beginning. What was it like growing up in Ames, Iowa?

Stephen Graham (SG): Growing up in all-white Ames, Iowa, was interesting due to the contrast between it and where I started growing up, Prairie View, Texas. The only reason for Prairie View’s existence was as a place for a college established there for Black people after the Civil War.

My father was a civil engineer. He fought in World War II. After the war, he went back to college and got his Master’s degree. He was a pretty smart guy, some would say brilliant, did pretty well in school, and served his country, but no one in corporate America would give him a job. This was in the late 40s. He ended up taking a job in 1950 at what is now Prairie View A&M University. The town wasn’t incorporated until 1969.

So that's how I started, living in this little all-Black town. It was just us. There was no reason for white people to be there, and that was fine. I had no idea as a kid growing up what a luxury it was to be surrounded by people who looked like me. We all took it for granted that everyone was pretty much equal and operating on the same plane. In short, no one was judged by the color of their skin.

In the late 1950s, my father again tried to enter corporate America but was turned away.  He decided to go for his PhD, so we moved to Ames, Iowa, so he could attend Iowa State University. I was in third grade. That is when my town went from all Black to all-white. It was an odd situation, not a scary situation. My world gently turned upside down. There were no Black people anywhere. Everyone seemed to think that was normal.

When we first moved to Ames, there were no more than four or five Black families. Over the years, the Black population slowly grew, but it never ceased to be an “all-white” town when I was growing up. I was called the N-word from time to time. Sometimes the use of the word was tinged with hate, but for the most part, it was simply part of the vocabulary. The racism, such as it was, didn't really bother me. I never felt like I was in a hostile environment because, while everyone who decided that they needed to treat me poorly was white, everyone who treated me well was white. I had no reason to judge anyone based on the color of their skin. People were just people. Some are good, and some are not so good. The experience served me well in life. I've always accepted people for who they are.

VOE: Were there any defining moments that shaped who you would become or what path you would take?

SG: No single moment. Broadly speaking, my parents gifted me with a value system that served as the foundation for my career. Living with a college professor, you come by a lot of things naturally. Without trying, you learn how to speak. You learn how to write. You learn to define goals and work hard.

VOE: How did you go into the law?

SG: It was important to me to have a position respected by the community that enabled me to take care of my family. It, of course, had to be something that tapped into my skill set. I liked to debate, to write, bring people together. I have always been drawn to helping others. All this naturally led to my becoming a lawyer.

When I got to college, my advisor took career planning to the next level. He put me on a trajectory for exceptional success. He said, “Do what I tell you to do, and I'll get you into Yale Law School.” I can say with some confidence that I wouldn't have gone to an Ivy League school and certainly wouldn't have gone to Yale without the guidance of that advisor. No one before or after encouraged me in that direction.

VOE: Let's talk about your retirement. Many of our readers are transitioning to retirement. What advice can you share as they prepare for that chapter?

SG: A few things come to mind:

First, stop worrying about the word “retire.” You are just moving in a different direction, doing other things you want to do. If you change direction when you are 40, it’s not called retirement.  Why should it be any different if you change direction at 60 or 70?  The term “retirement” has such sedentary connotations, so don’t use it. 

Second, understand that there are more things that you will want to do than you will ever have time to do in your lifetime. You started working because you needed to eat. When you get to the point where you don't have to work to live, stop punching the clock.

Third, and this is tough after decades of building, I think too many people are of the view that they have to keep working because that's how they value themselves. No paycheck, no self-worth. That’s twisted. 

Fourth, when you step away from the office, it will be important to maintain different circles of friends and colleagues, do what it takes to keep your mind stimulated, put yourself in situations where you're still offering advice and counsel, making things happen, and engage socially. This requires planning. If you don't plan to be involved in your community, then you're not going to be involved, and that may lead to depression, anxiety, and all the rest.

VOE: Are there hobbies you’ve been pursuing?

SG: I play a lot of golf. I've got several sets of golfing buddies. It's just another opportunity to exercise and interact with people. I also collect stamps and study Italian. I like to write, and I have rewritten Invisible Ink.

VOE: I love it. I was going to ask you about that. If you’re allowed to disclose, what kind of changes are you envisioning?

SG: Looking back at the book, there's so much I left to the reader to figure out and I thought it might be useful if I was more direct in terms of making recommendations on how to deal with different situations. To make it clearer, I’ve broken it down, starting with what I was trying to accomplish with the book and the way racism continues to manifest itself in our society, then giving examples of aggressions, micro and more significant, that I have dealt with, and sharing ideas that individuals directly affected might follow to deal with racism in their midst and advice for white executives who want to help address the issues.

VOE: I think this will be very welcome. Can you share your writing process with us?

SG: My process is to write stories, think about what it is I’m trying to say, rough out the outlines, and then polish and polish. It's also important to have a purpose when you write. I wrote Invisible Ink primarily because I was tired of people not understanding or appreciating the reality of racism in corporate America. I remember many years ago, the wife of one of my colleagues told my wife (who is white), “Sure, racism is out there, but Steve doesn’t have to deal with that.” Where have you been? Open your eyes! People ask, “Is this a manifesto?” No, I'm not mad at anybody. It’s just that I'm tired of people pretending that these issues don't exist. I was able to be successful, but others are coming along behind me who haven’t had the breaks I’ve had, and they will fail to achieve their objectives solely due to racism. If I can move people in a positive way one inch, that could make a difference in someone's life. 

VOE: What were some of the reactions you got to Invisible Ink?

SG: Some people said, “This is a great book. You're telling my story. I'm glad that you wrote it. I feel supported.” One reader said it was so gut-wrenching they had to put it down before picking it back up. Many said they couldn’t put it down once they picked it up.  One person said, “I had no idea that this is the kind of crap that you had to put up with every day.”, “I’m not sure if I can rightly claim to be your friend because of the way I have failed to support you over the years, but I didn’t know.” All part of that game of let’s not notice race, then everything will be all right. Racism and its impact are something we just don't talk enough about. The bargain is I won't notice you're Black if you promise not to notice that you're Black.”

VOE: Do you think we're making some progress?

SG: That's a good question. The show is still being run by white men. We cannot look at the numbers and claim real progress anywhere. There were virtually no Black equity partners in major law firms when I graduated from law school over 40 years ago. That is still the case. It’s the same everywhere: investment banking, commercial banking, venture capital, accounting. Major League umpires, NFL head coaches, and boards of directors of major corporations. Black representation tends to be borderline nonexistent. Yet when one wins an Academy Award or achieves some other significant milestone, we are supposed to celebrate as if this is a victory. This is where 400 years has gotten us. Isn’t it wonderful!

VOE: What was it like for you being the only one?

SG: It was pretty dismal, actually, being judged 24/7, not getting your share of opportunities, trying to get work from executives who knew they weren’t going to hire you the moment you walked in the door. Knowing that not everyone harbored racist tendencies, but not knowing who, always having to wonder. But I always thought that relative to my forefathers, I had it pretty easy. I tied my success to my father. I wanted to be successful for him. It was devastating when he died. 

One partner more than once told my wife that I was never going to make a partner, so I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to make a partner. In many ways, it didn’t matter. I was going to take advantage of any opportunities offered until I was asked to leave. But that didn't happen because one of the most powerful partners in the firm swooped in.

VOE: Both your college advisor and this mentor were critical in shaping your career. How do we build more of these types of relationships?

SG: Well, first, you need to find a person who is secure, self-confident, influential, and willing to “risk” supporting a Black person. My college advisor was first in his class at Yale and went to fight in World War II. He was part of the D-Day landing. Everyone older than him in his troop was killed. He was only 18 years old, leading a group in Normandy. He eventually fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He suffered no fools.

The same was true of the partner who got me over the hump as an associate. He was brilliant in his own right. He ended up leaving the firm and becoming a very successful entrepreneur but was probably one of the strongest leaders in the firm at the time. As a result, he wasn't afraid to help me. He wasn't afraid of anybody. You need those kinds of people, and they're rare. Too many people lead from behind.

VOE: Looking back, what is one of the things that you're most proud of?

SG: Raising three strong kids, who are wonderful people, with wonderful spouses, well on their way to raising five fine grandkids. Everyone is smart and caring. They embody what is important in life.

I've always been somebody who has helped people. There are a number of people over the years who have come to me to thank me for advice I'd given them years ago that I don't remember because I was just doing the right thing.

Years ago, when I was an associate, I had the chance to help a cook at Weyerhaeuser who was trying to get her nieces out of Paraguay. They were dirt poor. The cook’s brother had nine kids, with the two little girls bringing up the rear. This woman had already gone through several immigration lawyers with no success. She told her story to one of the higher-ups at Weyerhaeuser, who called a partner at our firm, and the next thing I know, this partner was in my office saying, “Here’s the problem. Go fix it.” At that point, I was a budding securities lawyer, not an immigration lawyer. Nonetheless, I figured out what needed to be done, coordinated with the authorities in Seattle, Washington, DC, and Asunción, and a few months later, I got those kids out of Paraguay. Soon after, their aunt brought them to my office. I can't imagine what it must have felt like for the little girls, plucked off of a farm in Paraguay one day and landing in a tall building in Seattle the next. They were in shock and awe. Then I pulled out some of my eighth-grade Spanish, and they just lit up. I have no idea what happened to those girls after they left my office. That was a long time ago. 

VOE: Stories like these give us hope. That was going to be my last question for you - what gives you hope for the next generation?

SG: I see hope for the generation after next. We seem to be going backward in terms of race relations. We have fundamental issues that we have allowed to fester for centuries. We kidded ourselves into thinking that we have made far more progress than we have. We know where we are, but we are not supposed to know how we got here, because that may make someone feel bad. I have confidence that my grandchildren’s generation will fix things, assuming we don’t burn the whole house down before they have a chance to bring fundamental positive change to our society.

Progress has been slow and not steady. A lot of progress is still needed, but there's no reason to just give up. When I first went to law school, I kept running into people who had given up. A typical conversation with a person of this group would be, “You're going to Yale. I could have gone, but racism held me back, so I’m not doing much of anything now.” That’s giving up. That’s not going to get anybody anywhere. You just understand your environment and you deal with it. It would be nice if things were perfect, but they aren’t. Deal with it.

This interview is part of a program sponsored by the Senior Lawyers Division Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee to enhance our understanding of implicit biases and learn how to promote a more inclusive environment. Please consider registering for the upcoming webinar Lifting the Veil... Understanding Implicit Bias, June 14 at 1 pm ET.