The Existential Problem of Coonery

The Existential Problem of Coonery

Let’s start by defining what a “coon” is. A “coon” is a black person who values what white people think of them more than they care to honor their culture and the suffrage of the racial group they identify with. A “coon” seeks to be accepted and praised by white people while seemingly enjoying any and all humiliation, marginalization, bias, prejudice or mistreatment expressed towards them by white people.

“Coons” are the bud of innumerable jokes within the black community and at the same time equally loathed by others in the community. For the purpose of providing an example, Omarosa Manigault is widely known as a “coon”. She is a black woman who despite what everyone else sees as an ego-maniacal racist in our current president (who I will not name) decided to join his cabinet as Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison for the White House. To some, it just looks like she had a previous relationship with 45 and as a result of their friendship – she took a job she was offered. Sounds simple? Except, there is a little more to it if we dig deeper. I cannot say with any certainty what her specific motivations were for taking a job with the devil himself. However, if I am to use the data that I have available, I will wager that she took the position to further her waning notoriety and influence. The fact that she did that knowing many of the disgusting views her former boss held is why she gets labeled a “coon”. Like a good “coon” she also thought as many of them do – that it would be different for her because she has presented herself as a supportive, non-threatening black woman. She was willing to sacrifice her own self-worth and maybe even some of her natural self-serving ways of being to be associated with a white supremacist. This is seen as self-hatred in the black community and while it has often been reduced to the derogatory nomenclature of “coon” this is the existential problem we are dealing with as it pertains to individuals who follow this pedigree.

In communities of color, individuals are never standing for themselves alone. As a person of color, you represent yourself and your community. It is a heavy burden to bear, but still, it is a fact-of-life we all assume and understand from an early age. There is a myriad of reasons why black people become “coons” a few examples are:

1) You grew up around white people your entire life and were taught that they are vehicles to progress your social status making your mere association with them a positive catalyst for your existence.

2) You grew up being taught “white is right” and that black people are in a constant state of striving towards learning and knowing more, but never achieve mastery when juxtaposed against white people.

3) You were taught that “white people” are trustworthy over people of color in every situation and always have your best interest at heart. Note: This is synonymous with the messaging and positioning of slavery times that Massa was beating you for your own good in an effort to refine your heathen and innate ways.

4) They secretly or unknowingly hate everything about being black or (more generally a person of color) because their conditioning tells them that everything from their religion to cultural norms lies well outside of what white people think is normal, so they choose to manufacture a representative of themselves that they think is more socially-appealing.

Being deemed a “coon” is the extreme of self-hatred black people harbor towards themselves stemming back to slavery times. However, I would wager that all of us whether we are deemed a “coon” or not sacrifice a little of our existence every day in ways that make us cry ourselves to sleep or pray for a “better” way of living. My entire career has included opportunities, trade-offs, and circumstances in which I had to assess whether being loyal to my culture and people was more important than a paycheck. Personally, I have always chosen the people over the perceived losses I may incur. I’m not ignorant to the fear that is attached to walking that road of choosing values, ethics, and community over livelihood and prestige.

Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and get to a certain place before you can exude the bravery. It takes a lot more self-exploration and integrity to honor yourself above self-serving activities that serve to forward a white agenda shrouded as an opportunity for progression for your career, life etc. Trust me, I get it.

Thankfully, I have the courage and license to confidently decline opportunities especially when they are in gross misalignment with who I am and what I stand for. That means if you ask me to take lesser roles on a project or in curating an event where white people who are less qualified than me have the spotlight, the answer will be “no”. If I have to sign-on to do any work that will adversely impact my community in any way, the answer is: “no”. Unfortunately, money and influence are everything to some so much so that they have absolutely nothing without it. That is an existential crisis of epic proportions. Money and influence are great, but at what cost? In Omarosa’s case, she thought she was making a power move and ending up coming up short in the end. How you start is how you end.

When we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity in the HR world, do not stop short of understanding whether your policies, rules, and culture create cultural pitfalls designed to make people of various marginalized groups choose “white” over choosing themselves. It is a dangerous pitfall and one that breeds resentment. There aren’t enough town halls, focus groups, culture days or employment branding to save your retention efforts if you continue to make people of color choose your agendas over what is important to them. A word of caution.


  1. Brittany says

    Hi Janine, I just wanted to say this article is EVERYTHING! I worked for an HR firm and I experienced exactly what your last paragraph referenced. Choosing their agenda over feeling free to be me – black. I stuck out like a sore thumb and everything about the place proved I didn’t belong. I’m surprised I was hired – #1. #2 – I was let go, unfortunately (and fortunately), but not for the reasons they claimed – that’s another story for another day. #3 – I tried so hard to fit in, but I never felt so excluded in my entire life. Not because people weren’t being nice, but because I was nothing like them at all. My interests outside of work were light years away from theirs. References they made to certain TV shows, or things they like to do, my answer was “no, I don’t know what that is” pretty much 99.9% of the time. Company events except for movie days were events that I had no desire to participate in.

    Except for 2 other women (a receptionist and a client support manager), I felt like I was the only black person there. No diversity whatsoever. No matter how “white” my voice sounded, no matter how qualified I was (degrees and experience), it didn’t matter. I was never going to fit in because I wasn’t white and I wasn’t interested in conforming to their ideals.

    And to think, this was my dream job, but as soon as I started, I knew it was a mistake. I believe they felt the same and so anything I did or said that didn’t conform to their standards ended up getting me booted out the door. I’m thankful for the experience because it taught me to always be true to myself, not take things personal, and always fight for my voice to be heard. #BlackEmployeesMatter #DiversityInTheWorkplaceMatters

    • says

      Hi Brittany,

      Thank you very much for reading and sharing your story. Your story mirrors my own career travels in a lot of ways. I have felt the same way. Unfortunately, it is more often than not expected that we will sacrifice what is comfortable for us to make white people comfortable in their skin. For example, I worked for an organization that was big on the reality show Jersey Shore. The team I joined all had Jersey Shore nicknames. When I arrived I was asked what I wanted my Jersey Shore nickname to be. I politely told them that I would prefer to be called by my name Janine. The day I didn’t play along with the Jersey Shore nickname I was the villain and “not a team player”. No one considered the fact that my wishes were warranted and that perhaps it is was too soon to be giving one another nicknames without the presence of rapport between us. It is hard to be fully engaged in your work when you aren’t assimilated into the team. Another thing that gets held against us is not attending company events. What they don’t assess is: Why would someone attend an after-work event if they barely feel comfortable around teammates during the work day?
      I hope you have moved on to greener pastures. Kudos to you for fighting to have your voice heard.

      Much love to you,


  2. Kristine S. says

    Very interesting and blunt article. Omarosa was a good example, though I might have used different words to describe her, I understood exactly what you were saying.

    I felt the article suggested all HR efforts ultimately create cultural pitfalls designed to make people of various marginalized groups choose “white” over choosing themselves. I’m not sure if that’s what you intended or not. Assuming not, can you provide some examples that would be considered positive efforts?

    Sincerely, Kristine S.

    • says

      Hi Kristine,

      I appreciate your comment and question. I wrote what I meant. I don’t know that dancing around these topics as we have done has helped to bring about a better outcome. The article is intended to awaken organizations and HR professionals to some of the misguided ways in which they choose to operate. Fortune reported in an article last year that 72% of corporate leadership at 16 Fortune 500 companies are comprised of white men. At that percentage, you are bound to see policies and cultures that favor white employees over other groups whether it is intentional or not. To answer your question, positive efforts focus on cultural sensitivity ensuring that the organization is not only recruiting people from different demographics but that they are sufficiently assimilated into the company ecosystem and provided with the same opportunities (equity) to learn and progress their career. Where good intent, budget, and actual action intersect there is the probability of a good faith effort. We have narrowly made a dent with diversity and inclusion practices (with few players who have worked diligently to get it right) because we assume there is a one-size-fits-all approach; not realizing that culture, upbringing, socio-economic factors and more have an impact on your efforts and are worth the extra time and resources to explore. “Positive” is subjective when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I’m barely impressed with companies that make it to lists for “Best employers for (insert appropriate demographic). Conversely, you may see those very same companies as taking steps in the right direction or not.
      HR isn’t self-governed, but we could use more practitioners that were willing to question the status quo and create policies that encourage people to come as they are and not as some representative the “majority” would rather see.

      I appreciate your reading.

      Best Regards,


  3. KM says

    Typical article from one of us exploiting the rest of us! “Cooning” has expanded to include the behavior of anyone in a “mixed” social setting. Some stereotypes that used to point specifically to our community have been “co-opted”, for lack of a better term, to point to a particular, but not un-normal, “american” behavior. And cooning is one of these stereotypes. Thank you.

    • says


      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. “Exploit” by definition means to “make full use of or derive benefit from”. How one paragraph used as an example amounts to “full use of” is beyond me. I would expound on my “why”, but it isn’t necessary when it is clear you would prefer to apply a myopic lens to the commentary I provided. Your comment suggests that you think I am unaware of the evolution of the word “coon” and its meaning. Just because a word is seen as derogatory or makes a person uncomfortable doesn’t mean it is unworthy of discussion.

      All the best to you,