Uncomfortable Truth About Being Black in Corporate

The day I began to realize something was disastrously wrong is when I told my counselling manager that, “Maybe I am a quiet person and that’s why I don’t talk much during audits” and my manager looked at me, clearly shocked by my response and said, “I know you’re not a quiet person.”

The reason I raise this issue is because if I take a second, sit back and reflect on what I said, I realise an uncomfortable truth. Anybody who knows of my existence will call you insane for even suggesting the notion that I’m quiet.

I had to come to terms with the power I had given to this world. I allowed corporate to silence me to such an extent that my experience of this cutthroat environment now defines me. The worst part had to be the fact that I didn’t even realise it was happening. Outside of the simple fact that black people in corporate prefer to refrain from addressing or even discussing everyday social issues they face (in fear of being labelled a complainer, a trouble maker or unnecessary), there is more to the type of mind forged silence imposed upon us.

Which brings me to finally try and honestly answer the question, why am I quiet?

I’m most probably intimidated by the environment to a point where I’m not sure whether my opinion is relevant.

Imagine, you and your fellow Caucasian colleague a.k.a Anja, being introduced to a client for the first time, an Afrikaans CFO. Whenever the CFO needs information or assistance with an accounting problem for instance, that CFO will walk into a boardroom and look directly at Anja while stating his case. Making it clear (maybe subconsciously) that he’s not really talking to you, count yourself lucky if he’s not speaking in Afrikaans. In fact, it’s such an accepted norm that people don’t actually realise or vocalise the fact that it’s a problem. It insinuates that your opinion as a black person is not actually relevant in that environment. The Afrikaans client will politely listen to you if you decide to forcefully give your opinion (which you should) but you still feel that you first need to prove that your knowledge before you become a first point of reference.

More so, we cannot forget the importance of building client relationships in corporate because this affects your rating as a CA. Now explain to me, how on earth am I expected to compete with Anja when it comes to building a relationship with an Afrikaans CFO. We have already discovered that she’s his first point of reference, and on top of that, Anja eloquently speak to him in Afrikaans, his preferred language. Then we discover that she also conveniently attended Stellenbosch University and grew up on the Southern Farms of some small town where his favourite “tannie” stays. Anja’s dad is also the CFO of an insurance company, a potential networking opportunity for him. And let’s also just be honest, they just trust her more because she’s Caucasian.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to build relationships with clients, it has happened, it just happens to be a lot harder for the BEE candidates, including the fact that it affects your confidence in actively pursuing these relationships. This is why it is absolutely imperative that more and more big black businesses are developed and supported, so we can own companies and grow client relationships. Where a Xhosa joke about #Wakanda substitutes awkward silences for inviting conversations.

Then you also walk into the stereotypes; lazy, inarticulate, dumb, angry, slow, quiet, so much so that sometimes when you walk into team settings, you notice the manager paying “extra attention” to you and your work, you realise that she has already decided that you are the weakest link in the team. You get so tired of trying to prove that you understand what you’re doing, whilst you actually first have to overcome the stereotypical idea that you have no idea what you’re doing. Your mistakes are magnified by 10 in comparison to Anja, which inevitably takes a knock at your self-esteem. Yet again proving that, as a black person in corporate, you need to work twice as hard to avoid slip ups because you won’t get away with it as easily. One mistake is enough to re-affirm the countless stereotypes they have of you.

Outside of client settings, your partners/bosses are often Caucasians that relate more to Caucasian employees, understandably because they have more in common, creating yet another dynamic where you have to constantly be proactive in making sure that you speak to them in order to put yourself out there, which isn’t easy, but worth pursuing.

It is important that we find a way to climb out of our experiences and remember that we are a loud, excited and very opinionated group of people. This is an advantage, not a set-back. No experience should be able to dim our lights or shrink our personalities into boxes that make us vulnerable. Wake up and unlearn that which isn’t truly you.

Writer: Mary Jane                Photographer: Antonio Francisco