Monday, 11 December 2017

Of Glass Cliffs and women


This story has made look around and have a good think about life. A friend of mine from when I was at University visited me this weekend. I have not been well and she is relocating to Ghana, so we had a lot of catching up to do. It was lovely to see her, as it had been a while. It was not what she said that shocked me but what she experienced.  What started as girl talk ended up giving me the chance to look at her experiences from my perspective support by research done by others and wonders what goes on in organisations. My friend who will be unnamed, like me did her Masters at Oxford Brookes University. I finished in 2007 and my friend in 2008. However her story is one faced by many BME women in the workplace. The unfortunate thing is, sometimes it’s difficult to prove and anywhere further other than leave the organisation. Most forms of discrimination now are so subtle that recipients don’t always know what to do and some people do take advantage of that.

It was 1984 when the ‘glass ceiling’ was first coined as a metaphor to describe gender inequality in upper management (Ryan, 2009). The phrase captures a phenomenon whereby women aspiring a top management position find themselves blocked from these positions by seemingly invisible(hence the glass), yet very real barriers(hence the ceiling) that serve to keep the upper echelons of leadership a predominantly white male domain.   One thing that people might forget is the role of race in all this. Let’s face it, BME and white women will never have the same privilege in the workplace, yes you heard me- no good pretending we all start at the same point. Some definitely start far ahead because of their ethnicity, class and even where they studied.  So on finishing our Master’s degree my friend and I were not only facing a glass ceiling but a concrete ceiling instead. You might be wondering where I am going with this but just wait.

"Concrete ceiling" not only restricts access to top-level positions but middle management positions. It is denser and not as easily shattered and research shows that while glass ceiling is about women in general, concrete ceilings seem to affect women of colour more as they have to deal with race discrimination on top of gender.

This story is about glass cliffs and BME women. My friend’s story got even more shocking because of her experience.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that individuals who are seen as atypical in a given context attract more attention and are more easily singled out for criticism. My friend definitely faced a higher scrutiny and criticism in her organisation than her white colleagues.

On finishing her degree my friend found a job with an accounting firm.  She was ecstatic. While some of us were still looking for work in our areas of expertise, she was done and we were all happy for her.  However, she happened to be the only black woman there and all seemed OK to start with until a pattern developed.  With the laws and everything, there didn’t seem to be a problem and why would she even think about that except people kept on saying,’ we never had a black person before’’.   Things got worse. Whenever there were any complicated projects or tough tasks/clients, they were given to her. To make it worse some of the stuff was not of a junior member like her but for a more experienced person. She would struggle with the projects on her own without support and many times with mixed results. New people joined the organisation and would be given what seemed to her the type of work in line with her qualifications, knowledge and skills. These people would go on to do well and move on to more senior positions.  Let’s face it, seniority means more money and power, we all can do with a bit of that from time to time. And who wouldn’t be troubled to see others being promoted while they are stuck. Like many BME women who may have experienced the 'glass cliff' and didn’t think anything of it, she didn’t realise that she was being set up for failure by management.  Yes, being given precarious projects and often found herself being called in for a chat on her performance by the very top members of the organisation. Whenever anything less challenging came about, it went on to other members of the team who then went on to being promoted.
So all they were doing was making my friend feel like a failure and also finding an excuse for not promoting her. This went on for the eight years she was with this organisation.

When my friend finally decided to ask her manager why she was always given tough projects and not getting help and support, she was told she needed to work harder and produce results.

One senior member of the management said to her, ‘for a black woman you are doing well. Some people like you are still out there looking for work and here you are complaining.’
That was it for my dear friend.  She resigned and is now going back to Ghana.
I was so angry I needed to write this short story but this happens to many people and to me as well before I knew that research has been done on ‘glass cliffs’.  Remember ‘glass cliffs’ also happens with women in general who can be put in a similar situation in a male dominated environment.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Get Over it , that's life!


Imagine being on the ground, surrounded by people who are constantly kicking you. Every time you try to stand, POW! Another kick sends you back to the ground. Now, after constantly being kicked for a good while, imagine that a whole new group surrounds you, and starts slapping you. You see some people who look like you, but they are slapping you too, because they don’t want to be on the ground with you, so they join in hurting you as well.

You haven’t fully recovered from being kicked, so you moan in pain, and try to tell them to “Stop!” One “Slapper” says to you, “Oh my goodness, I barely touched you. I’m not kicking you like those before me. Stop complaining and being a victim”, then continues slapping you. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how I would describe the way black people, specifically black, are treated.

“Black people need to get over it, other races were slaves too you know!”….this sentence, along with “I am not my ancestors, don’t blame me!” reminds me that society dismisses anything black people say, or do, as either: 1) complaining, and/or 2) somehow offensive to them. This in turn allows them to downplay the importance of what’s being said or ignore it entirely. As if we are crying out for nothing. When it comes to “black issues”, it seems society confuses being a “victim” with speaking/standing up for yourself, culture, workplace people, etc.

The “victim” concept makes me shudder with disgust; it’s just another way to discourage anyone from saying anything because they don’t want to be considered a “victim” of anything. Not once have I ever used my ancestors past as a reason for how I couldn’t do anything in the present, however that doesn’t mean I “forgot” and decided not to educate myself on what they, my grandparents, my parents, and black people in my generation, faced/facing now.

I find it especially disheartening when I hear black people, and other minority groups use the “victim” concept. If it weren’t for black people throughout history, in your words, “complaining” and “being a victim”, you wouldn’t have the rights you have now as a minority, or it would’ve taken you longer to obtain those rights.

No one ever said that black people are the only group that were slaves and oppressed. What IS being said is that black people are still struggling not only physically, but mentally as well. The negative ways we were made to view ourselves during slave trade, colonialism and imperialism is still strongly present in our communities, and society. Black people were enslaved, oppressed, and treated unequally longer than we have been “free. Slavery may have been 150+ years ago but colonialism and imperialism is not that far off.

Instead of learning why these things are offensive to our culture, some of you remain unempathetic, not willing to understand, and/or act as if black people are somehow at fault, the problems we speak of don’t exist, and that you and this current generation plays no part in trying to solve the problems created in the past.

In the end, it’s as if society is saying, “Let us discriminate against you in peace! And if you speak up, you (black people) are keeping racism alive, not us!” To all the black people who aren’t afraid to let their voice be heard, don’t let anyone try to shut you up, and call you a “victim”, because when you don’t educate yourself on the past and how it affects the present, and you don’t educate those who speak negatively of black people (even if they are black themselves), that’s when you are a true “victim.
You don’t fight fire with fire (racism with racism, discrimination with discrimination, prejudice with prejudice, etc.) because the fire will only burn hotter, and you also don’t cover it with a blanket “of ignorance” (not talk about it, act like everything is settled, etc) because it will only catch fire as well. The only way to extinguish a fire is with water (education, empathy, and respect).

Monday, 4 December 2017

Racism is for real


“You’ve become darker”

‘’Don’t stay too long in the sun otherwise you will get darker’’

‘’Dingy lips’’

Those are some statements I have heard so many times. Apart from these undertones, I, and every other black child had been conditioned from birth to feel inferior about our features.
Every supermarket carried bleaching brands: from covert ‘toning’ creams to straight up ‘get rid of your blackness because it’s ugly’ creams. Every black celebrity was unbelievably light skinned, with slim noses and small lips.
The most painful memory I have of the effects of colourism I remember was when my nephew asked me, ‘’ what is actually wrong with this black skin?” This is a question that I suspect majority of black kids have asked. It is a testament of the destructiveness of the colourism that takes place in the society, so much so that the word ‘light skinned’ is synonymous to attractive.
Blackness is regarded as an affliction that should be corrected if possible. And corrected it is from the thousands of women who apply bleaching creams (although they are aware that it may potentially destroy their skin. To them there is nothing worse than being black), to the thousands who relax their hair (I’m guilty of this as I used to do this but I understand some do it for easy maintenance, but….), from the makeup tutorials that show blacks how to slim their noses, to the filters that lighten pictures
ON THE BRIGHTSIDE, this is not the time to dwell on negativity. Instead I wrote it to exalt at the new found love and acceptance that I and many other black women have discovered. The eschewal of self-hate and skin negativity is the direct result of knowledge and awareness: The knowledge of why colourism, which is concomitant to racism, exists. It has been a journey for me, especially coming from Africa where I didn’t need to think about my skin colour in the same way I am doing in Europe.

No skin colour is better than the other. No physical feature of one race is more attractive than those of another, there are only standards, put in place by the white man. But why were they created, why was so much effort put in depressing all coloured races. To stroke their egos perhaps, or just because of their spiteful nature, but it is neither. Money and power are the strongest incentives for the most of the despicable acts committed by humans. The case is the same for racism.
Through the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries blacks were taken to America to work without pay, with little food and water. They worked for ungodly hours and were whipped at any sign of fatigue. Back in Africa the whites stole our resources and exploited our labour. The perpetrators of slavery and colonialism knew that blacks were equal to them in every way; they were logical, intelligent beings and would eventually revolt against their oppressors.
Any human put in such intolerable conditions would before long seek freedom. In order to prevent this for as long as possible, these individuals inducted racism. Make the black man feel like an animal, make him hate himself, hate his colour, and detest his heritage, and he will become submissive like a dog to his master. Make the average white man feel superior to blacks, give him the mentality that blacks are merely monkeys, and he will whip and oppress them with no mercy or compunction. After all they whip their horses.
So it is: centuries of oppression, vituperation, and self-hate all for fiscal gain. Discovering this truth, realizing that there is truly nothing wrong or unsavoury about you, that all your insecurities were just a result of human greed and callousness , is just…… Well everyone deserves to feel it. It is the first and most important step in dismantling racism. Of course there are other challenges: Wage gaps, exclusion of BME men and women in taking positions of power, racist police officer who do stop search on young BME men and neo-colonialism to the killing of black youth through police brutality- the list is endless, but the first step to being equal is feeling equal.

The second step for me after accepting myself was the normalization of black features, and other features considered as exotic. Another strategy adopted by the whites to further disenchant us with our features was the normalization of Eurocentric ones. Apart from emphasizing the beauty of white men and women and their lookalikes by featuring them on TV, they also sought to standardize these features, putting them on screen so often that anything contrary seemed unnatural. And we all know that unnatural or odd to humans means bad or in this case ugly. Thus, the blue black skin, the wide nose the full lips, the voluptuous body became anathemas.

The process of demolishing this particular vein of racism is pretty straightforward. Appreciate blackness! Normalize extra dark skin, 4-c hair, wide noses, full lips and they will lose their anchor weights of racism.

 It is ironic how resilient, yet fragile racism is. It has thrived for so long enduring, and permeating every aspect of life around the globe, yet with the slightest consciousness of it and its workings, it falls disintegrated and wingless to the earth. It simply takes a few twitter/Instagram pictures and some reflection on history to its annihilation.

Food for thought

 

 

 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Policing of Black Women’s Bodies

 
Last Friday I was on the bus on my way home when I sat next to a lovely, lovely elderly white lady and we started chatting. We ended up talking about shoes- winter boots to be specific. She had bought two pairs and had actually changed into one of the pairs. They were very nice and I told her I always struggle with getting a perfect fit as my legs are a bit thin.
Quickly she said, ‘Oh black women have thin legs’. I was left speechless and froze. There are times when saying nothing helps but I am still laughing at the level of ignorance around.
Now I am sure you have all heard or are familiar with the phrases, ‘She doesn’t have a body like a normal black girl’, ‘why don’t you have a big bum?’ or even, ‘where is your bum?!’ These are just a few examples of typical everyday comments and questions that are casually thrown into the mix when addressing and policing what is perceived to be the average body of a black woman.

Now before I begin, I am in no way discrediting any one type of body, and this entire article hopes to shed light on the fact that the way we look does not articulate who we are in any way, shape or form. There is a common association with what I like to coin, ‘the African physique’, and the way many view that black women’s bodies should be built.
Like many things of African origin, favourable parts of this physique have been borrowed and merged into popular Western culture for the purposes of exploitation and reinvention. But before I draw off track, allow me to elaborate on what this has to do with the way that we police black women’s bodies.
In addition, with the integration of hip hop culture into popular culture, all of a sudden we are seeing the African physique along with its appraisal being thrust into the lime light, and hurled into our faces, and on to our screens at a thousand miles per hour , what with the Kim Kardashian etc!  All of a sudden the whole world has once again gone absolutely mad for women with large derrieres!

Now where does this leave my argument? Well being constantly bombarded with images in the media of what a certain type of black woman looks like, only propels the notion that there is a standardized look that all black women should aspire to measure up to. If we are viewing this from a purely biological standpoint, the African physique no longer encapsulates the frame of black women on a larger scale.
Considering the variation of the Diaspora, centuries of multi-culturalism, migration, slavery and colonization, the genetic make-up of black women’s bodies has changed. In other terms, the women that we perceive to be black women, are not necessarily restricted to women of African origin alone.
This does not mean that every woman of African origin automatically inherits this physique, but you can imagine how the scale of inheritance is ever fluctuating and complex. There has existed a long standing stereotype and association among the way that society views black women and the certain behavioural, or physical attributes that they should possess.

Get it.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

What My Blackness Means To Others


As a black woman I’ve often found myself working very hard to not fit stereotypes imposed on me, which was difficult seeing as many stereotypes can fit any human of any race. For example, I can be loud- but only in social situations. I can be angry-but only if I’ve been upset or I’m passionate about something, I can be opinionated- because I don’t want to sit on the fence, but these things are only a part of who I am. People need to realize that black women offer a lot more than what other’s preconceived notions of them include, and we shouldn’t be defined by a caricature stereotype.
Many times I’ve met people and their comments suggest their opinions are based on stereotypes. I don’t recall every occasion, but there are definitely some standout moments.

 “You don’t seem like the type”
Many moons ago I went to a job interview for a role that required me to be upbeat and outgoing. It was an assessment day where they observed people’s personalities to see if they fit what they were looking for. One activity required us to stand up and state two truths and one lie about ourselves.

When it came to my turn I stated that I had spent a day with Nelson Mandela, I play the violin, and that I had two published books. I was the only black woman going for the job and the rest of the room was made up of white men and women. They decided the lie was that I played the violin; their reason for this was I “didn’t seem like the type”.
I translated that to mean, “you couldn’t possibly play a classical instrument because you are a black woman”, although, I wasn’t aware there was a particular type of person that played a musical instrument! I didn’t know whether I should be flattered or concerned that they thought it was more likely that I’d spent a day with Mandela. Black women can do the same as their white counterparts; race doesn’t limit people’s capabilities!
 “Teach me how to twerk”
Why do people assume all black women know how to twerk? And why do they think black women are their designated twerk coaches? I’ve had many people come up to me at parties and other social settings asking me if I can twerk and to teach them how to do it. Believe it or not, this is not how I like to spend my spare time, I do many other things-twerking isn’t even my preferred dance move!
 “Black girl attitude”

I wasn’t aware there was a label that described every single black woman’s personality, but apparently it is a universal description of a particular attitude. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this on more than one occasion. Although I realize it was used not to cause offense, I wondered why people felt comfortable to assume I understood exactly what they were describing.
I remember in some place I worked, my non-black friend, who was describing one of her other friends and stated she had “a typical black girl attitude,” and continued on with the story as if she perfectly explained what the girl was like.

When she finished the story I realized that a “black girl attitude” described someone who was self-absorbed, aggressive and obnoxious. While incorporating many negative stereotypes attached to black females, it fails to acknowledge other aspects of their personality. There was obviously more to the person she was talking about, however it wasn’t mentioned. I didn’t know what to make of the situation as it made me question what does she think about me? I’m assuming she didn’t think I had a “black girl attitude”. But I do, I’m a black woman, who has an attitude- just like everyone else!
These are only three examples of several incidences I’ve had throughout my life. I’ve been conscious of how I come across to others; there have been times where I thought to tone myself down due to fear of being labelled as obnoxious. I’ve made the effort to being cheery but not overbearing, serious but not miserable and forthright but not rude. I shouldn’t have to edit or censor myself because of negative stereotypes that are ingrained in people’s subconscious, but that’s the reality for many black women. Black women are considerate, intelligent and understanding; we are more than a person with a bad attitude who likes to twerk everywhere we go.
With all this said, my advice to you would be to educate these people and then ignore them! It’s easier said than done, but take a deep breath, find your patience and gently remind them you are more than they think you are. This isn’t something to be angered by, think of it as ignorance and assume if they truly understood the impact of the words they said then they would reconsider these exchanges. Unfortunately you will encounter this for the rest of your life, so the sooner you find a way of dealing with it the sooner you will find peace.

Remember the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story.The problem with a single story is that it robs people of dignity. It emphasises how we are different rather than similar.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Let’s Get Real About Representation

 
As progressive, modern and inclusive as we’d like to think today’s world is, we still have a far way to go. For one, television and mainstream media haven’t yet seemed to tire of playing heavily on the ‘white knight’ or ‘white saviour’ shtick nor have they tired of robbing black people of the positive on screen representation we so greatly need and deserve.

There appears to be no shortage of black visibility in movies and books when we are being cast in a negative light, but we are hard pressed to see faces like our own when it comes on to more positive matters or leadership positions . And this is not only alarming but also proves problematic.

Something is grossly wrong with continuing to enforce the rhetoric of the dirty, helpless, needy black child and the sweet saving white woman or man who rescues him or her. And unfortunately most philanthropic efforts play on this one rather heavily whether deliberately or incidentally as they may like to argue. I know of a BME sister who refused to even apply for a postdoctoral position in her Russell group University because of the demeaning and belittling images of BME people that she saw around when she was an undergraduate. Though movies and ads seem to favour this dynamic, the poor representation of black men and women doesn’t end there.

When our suffering isn’t being documented for grief porn like purposes, we are being made into the greatest recognizable symbol for poverty and saddening conditions or we’re being over-represented as jailbirds, thieves, druggies, drug dealers, dropouts or all around thugs and baddies.

All this further feeds into the denigrated view of black people everywhere – that we’re too uneducated, poor, or otherwise helpless as a whole, to attain success without the assistance of the descendants of our colonial slave masters, or that we are all somehow innately bad or predisposed to criminality and other reprehensible behaviours. Only today when I was in a public space, I heard people discussing about what’s going on Zimbabwe. Being Zimbabwean of course I listened only to hear them say, ‘’the people seem to be a decent lot and apparently educated’’. Really, why shouldn’t we?

Ultimately when black people are consistently portrayed in such a light, with white men and women always playing the hero and us alternating between playing the villain and the needy citizen, it’s no wonder we are not often viewed as equals, and are sometimes simply suffered as pity projects (if we are even believed to be worthy of pity).

For every black girl that’s relegated to the part of sidekick or a two dimensional character on a little black girl’s favourite TV show she gets the feeling that that’s where she belongs – on the side-lines. And for every movie where black boys only play the gun-wielding bad guys, our young men become further challenged to see themselves as more than rough and tough.

If one were to truly buy into what mainstream media is selling one would be lead to believe being black is a sentence of being uneducated, poor and a criminal. There’s also something icky about some creatives in mainstream media’s commitment to portraying black struggles – past and present – but unwillingness to boost positive visibility of black men and women in general. Think of this: if quality black actresses and actors can be found for every big slavery or post-slavery movie, or any jail scene, how come these actors can’t be sourced for other projects?

It doesn’t take much for any reasonable person to realize that not only are black people still being excluded from some narratives and being over-represented in others, but that picking and choosing who or what we can be in mainstream media is harmful to us as a community.

Representation is key – pivotal – even, and we know this. Representation remains a valuable tool in the hands of influencers where they may either choose to provide validation and to be honest in telling people’s stories or they may choose to do the opposite, even if it isn’t said in as many words.

While mainstream media should never be anyone’s only source of validation we can’t deny that in this day and age trends on Instagram, Twitter and prime time television are some of the world’s biggest influencers. Representation of black people has been poor and skewed for far too long, and clearly we can’t leave it to mainstream media to raise our next generation of black girls with a positive self-image, so it is up to us to be the representational change that we want to see.

We have to first recognize the realness and depth of anti-black sentiments, then we need to push ourselves to attain greater visibility, particularly with positive things. After all if you and I know we can be college graduates, lawyers, nurses, teachers, preachers, writers or whatever else it’s up to us to go out and be that, making sure that other sisters (and even brothers too) can see us.

 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

When life gets you down as a black woman

 
When life gets you down as a black woman, you have an unspoken duty to be strong. Perseverance then becomes second nature and you automatically know not to break, especially in the company of others. My closest perspective of this stems from the women in my family; if they were hurting you would never know it. I had an aunt diagnosed with cancer and I didn’t even know how sick she was until she was gone.

I found myself looking at all of the women in my life and wondering how the hell they kept it together. My life’s ups and downs seemed to wear on my face like the makeup I glazed on each day when I start my day. I started to question my strengths as a black woman and whether or not I was cut from the same cloth as my counterparts.

Now, don’t mistake me for the black girl with a woe-is-me mentality.  There are times when I have shown my emotions and all I hear people saying of me is ‘overly sensitive, unprofessional’, ‘you are not in the right place’ only because I have just showed signs of being upset over something. In one workplace I was told ‘you are not cut out for this place, here we don’t do illness, migraine headaches, cancer or whatever is ailing you’’.

It’s almost unfair that we get to watch white women cry, be goofy, hell even indulge in a little self- pity with little to no one looking down on them for their humanity. In some cases they are even applauded for their bravery in the midst of adversity. From my experience, black women aren’t afforded that same luxury and I am here to shed light on an ongoing situation.

Girl, get out of your feelings!

In moments of disaster and uncertainty I’ve always been put back on track by a good “get out of your feelings” nudge. The quick-fix that places shame on the person whose emotions it’s being directed towards. Well, I say girl get in those feelings and express them. It’s OK to cry and to be emotional.

Analyse exactly what you are feeling and ask why. Get to the root of what it is that you are experiencing and then address it. Since when has stashing away emotions and acting like things don’t bother you ever helped a person overcome anything. It doesn’t! It actually has the opposite effect.

Strong women are strong enough to know when to let it out. If you are incapable of self- expression then how strong could you possibly be.

A black woman without restraint is unstoppable. If there were more room for us to be exactly who we are and respond in our own unique ways I wonder how much power we could attain. That reminds me of a black sister who tried to do an access to nursing course but the college was adamant she would not make it into nursing. Lo and behold, this woman was unstoppable, challenged all and now she is a registered nurse.

People’s expectations of black women when it comes to our self- expression are built like a prison, meant to keep us in check and aware of how we make others feel. Never let them box you into thinking that you have to bend your mood to fit what makes them comfortable. Pain is relative and no one can measure what you feel.
We are a rare group of women who encourage each other to say “forget it” and then genuinely be convicted in thought and action to move on. True warriors, fighting a seemingly never ending battle to be stronger than whoever to get through whatever life may bring. I admire our ability to overcome, but who knew that we could lift those expectations. Lately we have denied ourselves allowance to be human. We are black women, but we are human first, we are ever complex and we do have the right to be heard.

I believe, it is possible to be a black woman and go through life open and allowed to have feelings, good, bad, happy, or indifferent. Understanding that life will happen and when it does we can grow through it without the stigma of shame and the angry black women. It is all allowed and as long as we support one another in our journey for freedom then our song doesn’t have to be solemn and angry. It can be joyful and full of celebration because we are free in the mind and have peace within.