“What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
When I wake up most mornings, I take an extra few minutes to lie quietly and just allow my body to wake up. Often, I will say a little word of thanks to God while I wait. At other times I will simply think. My first thought today was a realisation. The realisation that living in South Africa has made me acutely aware of my blackness in many good and bad ways. South Africa’s past has left deep scars on the psyche of its people and it is impossible to live among them and not get caught in the crossfire. Sometimes you get hit by rubber bullets, but at other times, the bullets feel like steel.
Pre-baby I was an avid hockey player and it’s common knowledge that more white than black people play hockey in South Africa. Often, and rather unnecessarily, people will have something to say about that. My manicurist, on working out that the reason why I break my nails so often is because of the sport chuckled and said, “black people are silly. You make a little money and you think you can run around doing the things white people do. Playing golf like your friend’s husband and this hockey thing. Why don’t you leave hockey and golf to the white people who know about it.” May the record show that my-manicurist-no-longer was black herself.
On an entirely different day, I was having what we call a stormer of a hockey game. I am a defensive player. It was one of those days when no one could get past me no matter what they tried. Every gamble I made paid off. It was a good game until I tackled the other team’s attacking wing player for the umpteenth time and for the umpteenth time, I got the ball and she muttered “you stupid kaffir bitch.” I hadn’t even noticed that I was the only black player on the field. It didn’t put me off my game in the moment but I did not let it go afterward either. I even got the Hockey Association involved until I got an apology.
Social situations are so much simpler to handle. The same issues in the workplace are nothing short of a minefield of complexity.
Courtesy of the schools my mother sent me to, I have a fairly neutral accent (especially when I turn on my “phone voice”). As a result, clients or business associates that I have phone consultations with prior to meeting in person are often a little surprised to find that I am black. At first meetings, I often hear things like “you sound very different for the way you look” or “I pictured you a little different.” The ones who are not afraid to flirt with the line will say “you are not a South African black person are you?” or “Did you study abroad?” The ones who do not even realise that they are afflicted with prejudice or racism or both with express their delighted surprise at my ability or intelligence. A portfolio managed by the loveliest colleague who happened to be white was transferred to me because it required a turnaround and that could only be achieved with a more hands-on exec. Consequently, the said colleague started reporting to me. Let’s name the colleague, Colleague shall we? The colleague was uncomfortable and told anyone who would listen that s/he had been “cast out” but I am used to that. We had a series of meetings in which Colleague briefed me on what s/he had been up to. Then I started walking her/him through the issues and the proposed resolutions. I also discussed her /his personality type and how it was affecting his/her performance. When we were done, his/her whole paradigm had shifted. As s/he opened the door to leave my office on the last day or breifing, s/he hesitated, turned and looked me in the eye. S/he had a look on her/his face of realisation and surprise. I waited. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this and you are not offended by it…but I am pleasantly surprised by how intelligent you are. Not to say I didn’t think you were smart. I am just amazed.”
I generally try to keep myself in check when dealing with such situations but sometimes I get knocked for a loop. One incident that caught me completely off guard was an elderly English gentleman who was so shocked by my blackness that his internal filter broke. “Are you Chio,” he said as soon as I walked in. “Yes, It’s very nice to finally meet you John*,” I said as I sat down. “But you are black!” He stuttered. The man literally stuttered out the statement. He was incredulous. “I am. Shall we start?” I responded in as neutral a tone as I could master but I could see he was extremely agitated. My colleague, who had met with him just before my meeting could see as well as I could that the simmering pot was about to boil over and chose not to leave. I am grateful he didn’t because the little pot did boil over and what followed was the worst racist tirade I have ever been subjected to and someone other than me witnessed it. If there had been no witness, everyone would have thought I was exaggerating. I remember every word that came out of that man’s mouth but a few phrases stand out. Phrases like “black people are not nearly as educated as white people and I don’t understand how they think they can do the same job.” An even better one was “You people should be paid on a graded scale because even if you study the same thing, you don’t have the same knowledge so it’s unfair to pay you the same.” He was particularly aggrieved about the fact that his daughter, “a really educated teacher,” is getting paid the same as “these people.” The winner was “My son is lucky he is away from all this. He is in Australia. It’s a country that is an island. Did you know that Chio?” I almost laughed out loud but that would have been rude, wouldn’t it?
It’s sad that I could give you many more examples of this kind of behaviour that I have been subjected to. I could tell you about the specialist seminar for trusts I attended where the arrogant presenter was full of racists and homophobic jokes and references. I remember him saying “KFC is for black people and Nandos is for white people.” Everyone around me started shifting uncomfortably in their seats and looked at me while they laughed uneasily. Again, I realised I was the only black person in the room.
Or I could tell you about the tea lady at my previous job who, on my first day on her floor, told me to make my own tea because she doesn’t make tea for support staff. The statement was unsolicited and I had not asked for tea. I just happened to be in the kitchen trying to make my own tea. I smiled and made my own tea. It took her about a month to work out that I was, in fact, a manager. She came to apologise and asked how I take my tea. She explained that it’s not her fault because “most of the black girls here are not managers so I didn’t know you were one.” Interesting, I thought. It is even more interesting now that 10 years or so later, I generally have the same experience in new places.
It does not escape my notice when my colleagues subtly stand up for me when we meet a new team of people and there is an underlying assumption of my limited ability. For the first couple of years in my current job my boss would not hesitate to interrupt a person who had disregarded my question or input to say “I am here in support of Chio so please address her.” More than a few times, he has listed my qualifications to particularly difficult audiences. I wish it wasn’t necessary but…
I also wish it didn’t hurt, offend or sometimes tire me completely but it does. Perhaps the most realistic and helpful advice I have received about this sort of thing came from my former boss. She was and is a driven woman who many people do not understand. But she is also the reason I push myself everyday to take one more step up the ladder. During one of my performance appraisals she told me “You have incredible potential and I know you will rise very high in the corporate world if you make the decision to do so. I have done it and you can do it too… But I battled every step of the way. Don’t be fooled by the Constitution. The corporate world is a cutthroat boys club. They smile at you and indulge you while they secretly doubt your skill. You have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. That was the road I walked. Yours will be tougher because, in addition to being a woman, you are black. Be prepared to push back but also remember to pick your battles. Don’t exhaust yourself completely with people whose opinions do not matter.”
Last week, I met Mteto Nyati for the first time and I asked him how he dealt with that assumption of incapacity before he became the brand that he is today. He said rather than focus on the negative side of it, he used it as fuel/motivation/inspiration to excel and surprise. In some instances it is better to be viewed as the underdog, he said, because then your success makes a deeper impression. He also emphasized the need to build a portfolio of excellence so that one person at a time, we demonstrate and not just tell the people who don’t know, that black people, black women and/or people of colour are more than capable. He also gently pointed out that even today, with his sparkling track record, when his move to do what he does best at Altron from MTN was announced, the share price didn’t move either way…