I Was A Minority White: Working at BET

Jon Tesser
4 min readJun 2, 2020


For three years of my life, I worked in a company where I was white, and I was a minority.

Black Entertainment Television, which creates television for black audiences around the world, unsurprisingly has a majority black staff. This is particularly true of the creative staff: Black people know how to create content for other black people.

In many ways, it was the best work environment of my career. A lot of the staff were native New Yorkers like myself; this identity tends to supersede race, as we are a very particular breed of individuals — brash, honest, open, a bit crazy, and surprisingly caring.

But I think the appeal went way beyond this. I’ve always considered myself a weirdo and an outcast, someone who never quite fit in with majority opinion or culture. And I was literally surrounded by people who’ve been considered outcasts their entire lives, cast away and uncared for by society. Us outcasts tend to have an innate sensitivity for others, an empathy for the plight of the underdog.

Despite the color of my skin, I’ve never felt more welcomed and appreciated by a group of people. We were a family, both for good and bad. But I have never been freer to be my real self, and I’m grateful for the people that I met there.

I also experienced what it was like to really “not get it.” Black cultural references are so far removed from my own experience. Many times, an old pop culture reference would be made and I’d fake laugh along like I got it, but I really didn’t. On the other hand, I had the chance to introduce my colleagues to majority culture, teaching them about the musical gems of my world such as Radiohead. Our cultural touchpoints were so different, but our openness and willingness to learn from each other was never questioned.

My job at BET was to learn about African Americans of all stripes so that we could create better online content. And so, I became an expert on the incredibly rich tapestry of different experiences and group cultures. I was afforded the privilege of learning about all of the different black cultures, and I found them fascinating. There were the Instagram queens, the Black Lives Matters, the Basketball Fans, the Gospel Lovers. There were others that are more pejorative and I can’t mention, and there were the rifts between the African Americans who’ve been here for a long time and the newly arrived Caribbean and Africans.

There was the obvious skepticism from my colleagues that this white guy could understand black culture, but I eventually won most of them over when they saw that I “got it.” That might be one the greatest feats of my career: convincing black people that I understood other black people.

One of the things that angers me about most white people (particularly liberals) is that they only look at African Americans as people to virtue signal about rather than really seeing them and their culture for who they are. It’s sad to me that you rarely hear about these aforementioned sociological differences when the Black American experience is discussed. People like to take the easy way out, and in doing so miss out on learning about people different than themselves. It’s a shame, really, and I wish this would change.

Of course, there were the issues I discussed with my colleagues, which were a further breeding ground for learning and awareness. For instance, I became fully aware of my white privilege to the point where I shrug about this issue: of course my life is easier because of the color of my skin and my gender. And I discussed this openly with a group of African Americans who have had to struggle, and their openness and tolerance for me once again made me feel safe.

Not surprisingly, Black issues became my own and in many cases I became angered by the white liberal culture I was supposed to be aligned with. Why do whites who claim solidarity with Blacks in New York City work so hard to keep these blacks out of their schools? Why are they so scared of black people, afraid to look at them at human beings? Why don’t white people just plain work harder to understand this different culture? Clearly I’m not black, but the black experience became one that I had great empathy and admiration for.

My time at BET was a life lesson that I’ll never forget. I’m thankful for my time there, and I’m thankful for having the privilege to learn and work alongside an incredible group of mostly black coworkers. Black issues have become my own, and my solidarity is unwavering. I wish others could learn through experience like I have; perhaps if this was the case all of the issues that we are facing today wouldn’t be so prominent. Empathy, acceptance and tolerance for humanity are our best weapons for battle against hatred and ignorance, and today more than ever we need more people to exhibit these qualities in support of the African American community.



Jon Tesser

I use data to understand people. I also help early career professionals find career happiness.