I’ve lost count of the amount of times my dress code decisions, hairstyle choices and general demeanour in the workplace have been questioned and/or escalated. Colleagues and friends have shared their own stories about how aspects of their identity or culture – and the expression thereof – have been questioned or deemed “inappropriate” in the workplace.
How, in an African country, did we get to a point where being a Black African is considered a hindrance to your professional aspirations? The mighty works of colonialism that still run rampant in our careers and our access to healthcare, the economy and justice.
What is accepted as “professional” in corporate is largely European. White and privileged. From dress code to accents to hairstyles to “values”. At some point, as a Black professional, you begin to realise that what is deemed acceptable and professional in the workplace moves you further and further away from embracing and boldly “wearing” your Blackness. And I say “wearing” because Blackness in corporate South Africa is really only openly acceptable on Africa Day and Heritage Day when communications are sent out to remind us that we’re different and that we should, in theory, be respecting and learning from those cultural differences.
Nuances tell us that behaving like a Black person is threatening because it’s unpredictable. It’s unpredictable for two main reasons; Blackness is not monolithic, despite pop culture caricatures that make it more palatable. It is also unpredictable because corporate South Africa hasn’t actually done any work to educate themselves about Black people and their cultures or transform their organisations meaningfully.
Because in corporate South Africa, white people seemingly only feel comfortable around Black people who act like white people, many Black professionals assimilate by shunning their Blackness during office hours because they seek job security and career advancement.
The fact that Black professionals know and feel that they cannot show up as they are when they enter corporate South Africa is one of the greatest injustices that is often glossed over in HR policies and inclusion programmes, if covered at all.
Aside from the internal conflict that is a result of this code switching and the peer conflict that arises when Black professionals feel betrayed by other Black professionals who “act white”, the reality is that this assimilation to whiteness doesn’t even guarantee career advancement. What it does do, unfailingly, is continue to perpetuate faux transformation when in actual fact, corporate South Africa has a very low tolerance for Blackness, Black faces and Black voices.
Just think about it. When businesses began strategizing about entering Asian markets via China, what happened? Corporates rushed to make sure their teams learned Mandarin and Chinese culture and treat Chinese people with unfaltering respect. In South Africa, white people won’t even make the effort to learn how to pronounce or spell Black people’s names correctly.
This is a major reason why Diversity and Inclusion programmes in organisations cannot work where there is an absence of transformation. It is grossly irresponsible for organisations to recruit diverse individuals/marginalised groups without doing the work of ensuring that their organisations will be safe, rewarding and advancing spaces for marginalised professionals, spaces that offer equality in remuneration, representation and policy development.