The realities of Working While Black

As a young girl, all I knew was that one day I would work in an office, at some successful company, and I would be the best at whatever line of work I did. I knew that I would be the best because there are certain things I knew for sure:

• I’m smart as hell
• I have an impeccable work ethic
• I’m very conscientious and pay attention to details
• I pursue excellence and am always looking to learn new things/ways of doing things.
• I’m ethical

When I started working, I realised that there was one teeny, tiny flaw with my plan: It didn’t include a contingency plan to prepare me for the ruthlessness and “flexible ethics” in the organisations I worked for. There were grey areas everywhere. There were mountains of dirt swept under rugs. There was pain hidden behind brave smiles because human emotion is suddenly a weakness.

This presented a very heavy internal conflict for me because what I was seeing accepted as the norm at all the various companies I worked for went against everything I believed was good and fair and ethical and equal. The big question then became: Do I assimilate to these systemic cultures or do I buck the system and try to be an agent of change? I didn’t even know what being an agent of change meant or required. All I knew was that being a Black person in corporate South Africa was a sickening and exhausting experience, constantly dealing with;

• The exclusion from access to influential people and decision-makers
• The muting of our opinions, recommendations
• The theft of our ideas
• The underpayment
• Being overlooked for promotions
• Having the goal posts continually moved when it comes to our progression
• Being forced to fake smiles so that we aren’t labelled aggressive or angry or unapproachable
• Being burdened with daily code-switching
• Being convinced that other Black professionals are our competition, and so we must seek to be better Blacks than them
• Having our voices muted by our bosses, HR processes, organisational culture and held hostage by the desperation to remain in a position to be able to provide for our families.

And these are just some of the challenges. When you’re a Black woman in corporate, the list of challenges, barriers, hurdles and traps is far longer and far more treacherous.

So, where did it all go wrong? How did we get to the point where Black professionals have to fight battles alone? Where we don’t come together and amplify each other’s voices and experiences? Where we don’t prioritise each other’s wellbeing? Where we no longer believe that justice for every Black person is worth risking everything?

One of my favourite videos that pops up every now and then on social media is of mam Winnie Mandela, talking about oppressors not getting comfortable because, “Singayi susa, nanini.” We all snap our fingers and yasssssss on social media, but in real life? Where did we lose that spirit as Black people, where we just accept injustices and allow them to tear away at our peace, our joy, our strength, our confidence, our communities?

Our strength and our victories have always been owed to us fighting battles in our numbers. It’s both heart-breaking and infuriating that this is what we’ve come to. This is who we’ve become. Stuck in a culture of “every man for himself” because we refuse to sacrifice anything to achieve equality that will benefit our children and those who come after them.

Since having my book published, I have travelled to different places and had conversations with countless people and the cries are the same. We’re bullied, denied leave with no reasonable explanations, we’re paid half (sometimes a third) of what white counterparts earn, we’re punished for speaking out against injustices, we’re dismissed unfairly because employers bank on us not being able to afford legal representation, we’re dealing with constructive dismissal, our cries are not echoed or validated, so we feel alone and then there’s the isolation or exclusion so that we don’t taint other “well-behaved” Blacks.

There is a Benjamin Burombo quote that I recently came across that reads: “Each time I want to fight for African rights, I use only one hand because the other hand is busy trying to keep away Africans who are fighting me.”

We cannot have a conversation about transformation without discussing Black complicity in the face of injustices in the workplace. Black executives, Black leaders, Black line managers, Black organisations that are compromised because their funders are the very people who abuse Black professionals, and because the rules of engagement with sponsors don’t prioritise the protection and wellbeing of Black professionals, they grow inefficient and toothless over time.

We have hurdles in the form of legislative implementation. We have floods of complaints about HR departments and their complicity. We have trouble supporting each other and unifying for a common purpose. We’re not investing financially in organisations and platforms that will pursue our interests and fight for our rights collectively. And so, we’re stuck.

Fellow Black professionals reach out to us for support and we ignore their calls, don’t respond to their texts. When they bump into us, all we muster up is: “Oh wow, that’s hectic”. And in their isolation, they sink in their anxiety or depression, develop heart conditions or suffer strokes or, they take their own lives. And still, the cycle continues. But we can begin to create positive change by starting with the seemingly small things like regularly asking ourselves: What am I consistently doing to show up meaningfully for other Black professionals?

If you aren’t asking yourself that question or if you don’t have an answer to that question right now, you are part of the problem.

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