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.