To be black means to be doubted

June 18, 2013 § 22 Comments

One of my biggest gripes in South Africa today are white people who say that we should not talk about the past. Yet the past lives with us everywhere and everyday. The ever present past.

In what I consider to be Barack Obama’s greatest speech, “A More Perfect Union” then presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed the issue of race in America. He misquoted William Faulkner, but I thought the misquote was perfect. I misquote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

Most of my life, I have been the only black, the only black this or that. I was the only black person in my class after white schools were opened to black people after Mandela’s release. One of the things that I began to notice was that if I got the highest mark for anything, the teacher would be very surprised. You could tell by her tone as she handed out the marks and would congratulate me in an equally surprised and patronizing tone, “Very well done Kha’lethu (she couldn’t say Khayalethu apparently), very, very well done”. There was an expectation that the black child shouldn’t do very well. At best, he should be average. Understandable for that era because people of her time had not been exposed to black people who acted as equals. The only black people they had dealt with were their maids and “garden boys”.

This mentality has been transported to the boardroom in corporate South Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to meetings where I’d be the only black person. The person presenting looks at everyone in the room but the black person. And lo and behold, watch their surprise when they see that the person they have been ignoring all along is the decision-maker. It’s not just white people who do that. Black people default to this too. The black person in the room cannot be that important – unless they are a government official.

In corporate South Africa, as a black person, before your presence is acknowledged, you have to prove that you are good enough. Black people are presumed inept until proven otherwise. White people on the other hand are presumed capable before performing any given task. Black people have to prove they are up to the task before they get given the task. And no one does this consciously.

When I worked at an advertising agency in Cape Town, a black man who was about eight years older than I was started working in the same advertising agency. He had been there for about a year when my boss told me to mentor him. Something interesting started to happen. My mentee would deliberately avoid coming to me to show me what he was working on. He would dismiss my views if I went to him to help him. He treated me with the greatest disdain I had ever experience from a colleague. Had he been white, I bet I would have thought that he was being racist.

I got tired of his attitude, so I invited him to lunch, (on me obviously) so that we could thrash his issue out. I asked him what his issue was. I asked him if he had actually considered why I was asked. He said it’s because I was black and so was he. Then I said to him, “You do know that this has been the most awarded agency in Cape Town over the last year?” And he said yes. I asked him if he had also stopped to think about the fact that I had been the most highly awarded person in the agency the previous year. For the first time, the penny dropped. I still had to prove to him that I was good enough before he could accept me, yet he never required that from my white colleagues. He never doubted nor questioned their competency. Black people doubt other black people. And that is very sad.

To be black means to be doubted. And South Africans of all races do it. We need to grow up and stop it now.

§ 22 Responses to To be black means to be doubted

  • Lebogang Bogatsu says:

    Great piece. This same attitude is alive even in lecture rooms in universities, where we the educated generation should know better. Sadly, I have also doubted black people, my classmates. I can’t even count how many times I’ve doubted working on projects or studying with an all black group. Ironically, I’m also black. Perhaps the issue lies in self-doubt, and then projecting it on to other human beings. We all just have to grow up. I have to grow up. Once again, great piece.

  • Speak for yourself Khaya. I doubt everybody I don’t know until they prove their worth, irrespective of race or gender.

  • maki says:

    It was being the only black person. My work was scrutinised to the last letter. It was returned because I didn’t dot the i or cross the t. It was hell I tell u. Everything I did was double check only to realise that while they are concentrating on me my white colleagues got away with murder. Being black means u are always doubted

  • magebatheone says:

    Quite an interesting topic, we see it happening, we see the people who look at us in shock because we said something intelligent in meetings.

  • Terence says:

    This article is so true, I work for an audit firm in Pretoria as a article clerk for traineeship as a CA. I have seen this for 3 years now. My black colleagues are forced to prove they can do a job, and are left behind on audits on a regular basis, however white clerks are awarded every opportunity and have to really mess it up before being left without work. I plan on naming and shaming this firm and its practices once my articles are finished.

    Brilliant article.

  • Thanks for writing this, Khaya. I think lasting change will occur when people start seeing the intrinsic value of all others, and of themselves.

    • magebatheone says:

      I like ur perspective Chris, definitely. We tend to look at the wrong things, when we should really be looking each others characters, and more importantly our own character. The softer things.

  • lerato says:

    This is so true,we need to take each other serious as black people first in order for us to move foward.When it comes to white people,my heart trully gets sad.Corporate SA is still full of apartheid.

  • Miss Lynn says:

    I think we as black people doubt each other its not just the white people who doubt our abilities. I accompanied a friend to buy an ipad recently and when we got to the shop nobody rushed to assist us and then a white lady walked in, she was literally welcomed at the door and the worker who happens to be black asked her how he could help. We on the other hand had to actually look for our own help, they probably thought we cannot afford.
    White people will doubt our capabilities as long as we as a race doubt each other. If your own people do not believe you then the neighbors will never believe you. Start by not looking down on your own and then even the white man will stop looking and doubting your capabilities.

  • Well, good piece but can we do anything about it (the problem of being doubted)? Yes, the answer is in your piece; we have to demostrate our worth at all times. The seed of looking down upon those with a surplus of melanin was planted centuries ago. Simply put, toe the line. There is no alternative.

  • yanga says:

    Fully agree with you Khayalethu, most of us (blacks) do this without even intending to do it sadly. We really need to grow up

  • […] To Be Black Means To Be Doubted […]

  • Reblogged this on The 19th Letter and commented:
    Brother man has a point here. This needs to be changed, but at the same time, maybe I need to be more realistic and realise that it won’t be changed overnight. Good read nonetheless…

  • Sibo says:

    I know, and sadly its even worse in JHB. I moved to JHB from Cape Town as JHB poised itself as the Mecca of black empowerment. Shooooooo the reality! So different. There is just a rampant disregard for everything black in Gauteng and it’s black on black, tribe on tribe, black on white. At least in Cape Town people are sheepish about their behavior!

  • Tumi Mogodi says:

    I agree with this piece,this is the reality for most of us .In fact its worse in corporate where you spend most of your time proving yourself,its sad and dissapointing when its a fellow black person doubting you. You get to a point where you start wondering if maybe there is something wrong with you. I left my previous employer after months of being bitter because of how blacks are treated.despite our hardwork,qualifications and experience our best was never good enough.Our white colleagues on the other hand couldn’t do anything wrong and were the “competent” one’s. The lesson I’ve learnt from this is never to treat anybody like that ever whether black or white.

  • Zinhle Fikile Mtshali says:

    Very interesting article. We can’t forget our past it’s part who we are, still very sad though that we need to constitantly prove ourselfs due to our skin colour. From school to varsity to the office we still seen black, so yes lets be Black and Proud.

  • xola tofile says:

    shit a brick GAWD Damnit,thank you.

  • Eagerbrad says:

    It was legitimate to be surprised back then, though. Black people generally hadn’t had good education due to Apartheid, and the Apartheid regime taught people that black people were unintelligent.

    Nowadays there’s less of an excuse. Though even then a lot of under-qualified people hold high positions in businesses due to their colour. Only some, though. Being surprised nowadays is just daft.

  • katiba says:

    it was pure apartheid then, n we black ppl have seen it n now we live it! whoever gave power back to da so called natives, has his game well planned! black ppl we complain about apartheid so much we forget that we have lives to live!
    all da way khaya, I salute u man! o mohale oa marumo

  • Thulas says:

    What an awsome article, we really need to grow and change our mentality, thanks for sharing this Khaya.

  • Slindi says:

    I think black ppl are also so used to being doubted that they end up performing below their own average coz they think in a typical black community its okay,a typical example would b my experience in dating black,I myself ended up doubting them to the extent that I preferred white men over black men,coz they have doubted themselves coz they were doubt nevertheless awesome piece man

  • karabzy says:

    Great peice

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