We Leave Because We Can No Longer Breathe. At Our Year-End Party, My Boss Kissed Me.

At our year-end party, my boss kissed me.

I left the dance floor and went to the bathroom, and he followed me into the bathroom.

There were people on the dance floor and in the bathroom but I suppose no witnesses:

there is a difference

When I confronted him, he said that the firm was about relationships and friendships, and “I look after my friends”.

Things at work became even more uncomfortable, after that. They became more uncomfortable than the loneliness of being the only black woman, who is not a tea lady. They became more uncomfortable than the despondency in working at a place, in looking to climb the ladder at a place, where you are not represented, where nobody at the top or even the middle looks like you. They became more uncomfortable than my boss constantly telling whoever would listen that I didn’t like him; whatever that actually meant. They were even more uncomfortable than the team lunch where he said that I should colour my hair blonde because he likes blondes, adding that I shouldn’t forget to dye the eyebrows too. My pre-existing embarrassment, constant mortification and perpetual violation were further compounded, further heightened.

And naturally, I tried to endure, I tried to overcome, I tried to remain positive and I tried to rise above. I tried to be all these things which I am supposed to be as a black woman; all the things which are supposed to earn me the privilege of being called a strong black woman, and eventually, society wiling, a successful black woman. I tried until I was so broken, so bowed, that I just no longer could.  So, I eventually surrendered to the squeezing out, and I left.

The new organisation wasn’t particularly better.

The more I excelled at my job, the more strained my relationship with my boss became.

Suddenly, my work was substandard… but not so substandard that my boss was not passing it off as her own.

Suddenly my ideas were presented in meetings which I was excluded from.

“Oh! Where were you I looked for you? Was it not in your calendar? I just don’t understand how.”

Suddenly all my instructions were urgent and due yesterday.

Suddenly my tone was “abrasive and unfriendly”, and I needed my boss’s coaching to write friendlier formal messages.

Suddenly there were unnamed, unidentified, complaints about me “not being approachable”.

Suddenly I had an “attitude problem”; no real explanation as to what this “attitude problem” actually means, just the headline.

But I pretended it all didn’t faze me. I kept my head down; I did the work, to let the work speak for itself. I did the things that you are supposed to do, that you are constantly being told to do, when you are being abused in the workplace; when you are being systematically choked by racial and gender violation. I reminded myself that I was privileged to have a job, to have a good job. When you are a black woman in corporate, you are constantly being told how privileged you are to have the job that you have. You are always privileged, and really this ‘privileged’ means that you are just lucky. You are lucky, you don’t deserve it; you have not worked hard for it; you have not earned it; you are simply privileged, simply lucky.

You are reminded of this privilege when you are asking for further exposure. You are reminded of it when you are being overloaded with scut work, the work that you exclusively do so that the rest of the team is free to do more meaningful work, to do the right seat in the right boardroom work.

“But you are so good at it.”

You are reminded of this privilege when you are the only one who is never able to take lunch breaks; when you are the only one who is always leaving the office at 10. You are reminded when the white man on your team regurgitates your suggestion and receives astounding praise for it. You are reminded of the privilege when the white woman on the team creates an unnecessary, undue spreadsheet and is applauded for “showing initiative”. You are particularly reminded of this privilege when you are negotiating a salary increase. It is said so much and so often that you start to believe it, that you internalise it, that you own it; that you break yourself owning this privilege.

I broke myself, owning this privilege, this luck. I absorbed abuse, invalidation, erasure, because I was privileged, and because that is the thing that you are supposed to be when you are a black woman, looking to be a strong black woman, on your way to being a successful black woman.

These are just highlights of two of my corporate South Africa experiences. There is more. There is worse. I have endured worse. And unfortunately I am not unique. My experiences are not uncommon. Ask any black woman in corporate South Africa, and she will have a similar story. She may even tell you about the time that she took two months to have her baby and came back side-lined, and to jokes about her having been on holiday. She may even tell you about the time that her child was ill and she was made to feel uncommitted and ‘not cut out for this’, for asking to work from home on that day; a week after her white counterpart took the afternoon off to go to her child’s swimming gala.

If you engage her long enough, she may even show you all the white people and black men who joined the organisation after her, were trained by her, and then promoted above her. In fact, her immediate supervisor is the white woman that she was welcoming to the organisation and training just two years ago. She is younger and her qualifications aren’t really spoken about very much but she has been promoted, because white women in corporate South Africa are always “showing initiative” and “going the extra mile”. So they deserve to be promoted. Black women however are not team players and they have “an attitude” and really, are they “cut out for this?”

She was telling her boyfriend all this the other day, and his response was that it’s hard for everyone and complaining doesn’t help. He has recently been promoted because he “shows potential”. Everyone says so. Everyone generally does say so about black men, next to the: white men are born leaders and white women show initiative. The black woman is either excluded from that conversation or just simply has an attitude. Feeling that Vusi wasn’t listening, she told Kirsten at lunch, and Kirsten just couldn’t believe how “negative” her friend was being, and really she is “starting to lose all respect for her”. When did she become this negative complainer?

Our hair isn’t growing. Our menstrual cycles are hysterical. Our babies are rejecting our wombs. The workplace is a hostile place for a black woman. It is a place where she is invalidated. It is a place where she is constantly being told that she isn’t good enough, that she doesn’t belong; that she is just lucky to be there. The workplace is a place where our hard work is erased; where our qualifications, capabilities are spat on. It is a place where we are squeezed and strangled and twisted and broken. But we are great. The black woman is brilliant; her work is excellent; even under circumstances of systematic exclusion and underexposure her work shines. Her ideas improve structures and run organisations.

The black woman wants to contribute to the economy of her country. She wants to participate in the building of her nation. She wants to know the pride which comes with acknowledgment and accomplishment. And she wants to leave a great legacy for her children.

She wants to live. She wants to breathe.

Where does she go to breathe?

Photographer: Lexon Photograph