The Alter Ego – Corporate South Africa

Imagine, being the only black person in a  boardroom and then suddenly hearing an Afrikaans lady say to you,  in front of everyone, “Oh my husband speaks Fanakalo, I’m sure you would like that.” Only to then force yourself to abruptly get rid of that blank look of confusion on your face that says, “But I don’t know your husband, nor do I speak Fanakalo, so wtf are you saying?” So you, instead, cautiously force the “corporate laugh,” making sure it sounds as real as possible and quickly find something enthusiastically cute to say like, “Ooh wow, that’s very interesting!! Where did he learn it?“

Or better yet, imagine arriving at your company’s client and the CFO unapologetically says “Sorry we only speak Afrikaans here.”, Look, when you are acting in the capacity of your company where majority of the clients are Afrikaans, all you can do is force a smile and patiently wait for him to tell you he’s joking, when you can clearly see, based on the environment, that it’s probably not a joke. Or having your Caucasian boss look at your weave and, while rolling her eyes, say to you, “It looks like they are getting better and better at this.” And yet again… force yourself to smile, simply because you’re unsure of whether she’s actually expecting you to respond to that. For some, it goes as far as sitting at a table where the “outrageous” fees must fall protests are being discussed and having to decide whether it’s a good idea to disclose that you participated in it, or rather not risk the chances of your growth in the company being capped by being labelled as “rowdy” and just pretend you agree with the narrative.

That said, I’ve noticed three types of black females in corporate. Firstly, the relatively quiet ones who don’t care too much about their environment but sort of just quietly do their work and go with the flow, aka Hope. Who prefers to be called by her second name rather than her first (vernacular) name because it’s too difficult on the tongue… Passive about social issues, although she is bothered by them. Oh, but she can complain, but in a very safe environment where nobody else can hear her thus making absolutely sure it won’t come back to “bite” her afterwards.  Females like Hope are often people very intimidated by the perspicacious and opulent environment they very gratefully find themselves in and never want to be seen as the “trouble makers” their well-meaning mothers actively warned them not to be.

Secondly you get those who couldn’t care less about social issues and are more concerned about getting ahead, aka Fifi. Chilling with the right crowd, even if it means neglecting her “own”. Fifi dances to sokkie music on weekends and doesn’t mind being flagged as a coconut. She twangs here and there and doesn’t understand why “black people don’t swim”. Neither does she interject when her friends say “those people”. However, the mind does often wonder if females like her don’t find themselves in the blurred lines of acceptance, because it may appear as if they have been included but are they really in the inner circle? Enough to access the land?

Then you get the ones who consistently voice their concerns, aka Buhle. She is the “woke” black person who passionately complains about “the white people speaking Afrikaans instead of English” at staff meetings, or constantly raises her concerns about black people not getting good ratings from white managers. She will remind you of the achievements of her consciousness movement in varsity but will begin to sound like bells ringing in your ear simply because her existence and oppression as a black female appears to be the bread and butter to her every conversation.

The one thing all three of these women have in common is that they didn’t join corporate to stay at the bottom.

The reason I have raised this issue is because as black females, when we walk into corporate, we don’t know how to behave in order to be accepted. I don’t mean this in a crude way – I mean we genuinely have no idea.  This is simply because we don’t feel comfortable, you almost feel out of place and need to find what people call an “alter ego” to fill the role of being you in a gravely intimidating environment. In fact, when people say “just be yourself”, I almost feel like punching them in the face in the name of self-defence. I don’t talk about share price fluctuations in my spare time, and my conversations about “the farm” are “Yoh, they have so much land” and not “I shot a kudu in my yard last week, I’ll bring you some biltong” and most importantly, when I’m being myself, I tend to roll my eyes at comments that annoy me, not smile at them.

Hence, I can’t just be myself because I’m in an environment that requires me to alter my entire way of thinking, my everyday conversations and my perspectives on many issues and my responses to several encounters. It’s not entirely a bad thing because it challenges me, but it’s still a process I need to grow through. When people say Caucasians have boardroom conversations over dinner tables, well that’s how they are in corporate too. And in a space where they dominate, those conversations and interactions become your conversations and interactions, except you haven’t had 20 years of experience so you sound awkward, even to yourself.

So, the question then is who must I be to get to the top?

I recently wrote about Perception management and how walking around the office like a mouse won’t serve your corporate career. Where then do you find the balance? After speaking to a friend of mine and her experience being in corporate, I asked her which bracket she falls under and she said, I quote, “I interrogate white people”. Meaning, she challenges the uncalled for remarks and questions their ability to disregard black movements and concerns.

Which makes sense because we have been mysteriously sold the idea, by some unknown force, that the fierce black woman who takes no bullshit is the one who climbs corporate ranks. However, we need to evaluate the truth behind this analysis., because the next question I asked my colleague is, “I know that there is only one black female partner in your company, she obviously came through a time where things were different, do you think she justifiably complained about social issues during her time (A time which was much worse than today) and further more do you think that an ability to be vocal is what eventually led her to the top?”

Realistically speaking, identity politics make Caucasians tired and uncomfortable and if you are relying on them to promote you to the ranks you need to be at, you probably won’t be their first choice. You could be unknowingly committing corporate suicide simply because they don’t want to work with someone who makes them uncomfortable.  So as a black female who isn’t about forcing herself into Afrikaans social circles that may or may not accept me, what do I do?

After a long and meaningful conversation, we concluded that you work hard and find the balance. Honestly speaking, subtle racial comments and unfair work designation happen all too often in corporate that if you are going to complain about them every time they happen, you will physically burn out and exhaust yourself whilst making very little difference. We need to learn to be strategic about it, keep the peace and raise your concerns in spaces that actually matter, where people capable of making a difference are actually present. You can’t afford to be quiet about it because it’s your responsibility to make it better for the next generation of blacks coming after you, as have those who came before you. Also making it clear that we are inevitably here to stay.

Attend the awkward social functions and engage in the conversations about share price fluctuations, politely respond to the subtle racial remarks they seem to be “unaware” of and if it appears that this person is willing to listen be as honest and informative as possible. But don’t break a sweat doing it. I know we are tired of having to defend and explain ourselves but don’t make the mistake of balancing your silence, just be strategic about your “noise”.

Writer: Irene Chikobvu