I have always enjoyed writing about anything but the more I talk to other BME women from different organisations ,the more I realise that race and racialisation in workplaces will carry on forever. Unlike my parents who were born and grew up in the racist white minority government in Southern Rhodesia, I was born and grew up where all were equal and I didn’t have to think of race the way I do today in Europe.
Let me start by defining racialisation according to Galabuzi (2006):
Racialisation translates into actions and decisions within social systems that lead to differential and unequal outcomes, and entrenchment of structures of oppression. The influence of negative race based judgements in decision- making at different levels of society produces racial inequality.
Why write about black women experiences? As a black feminist- yes that’s right, I speak and write in the hope of raising questions to new and enduring problems in the workplace- re gender and race. In most workplaces the mere mention of race or racism can incite particular responses which can be disturbing. I write in the hope of transformation. For many women of colour in the workplace, problems begin with numerical representation. You look around you and there as hardly anyone you can relate to re race. You tell someone and either they think you are ‘just sensitive or you have chip on shoulder’. This has always been the case wherever I work. I also discovered that there were different rules for ‘different people. White folks will be treated like royalty if they are having problems and when it’s you, you are told to grow up or as one person said to me once, ‘you are not cut out for this place.’
Since moving to Europe in 2006, I have experienced prejudice one way or the other. I have tried to blend in but I am always reminded of my race and ethnicity. This has been mostly in the work place (private, public and not for profit organisations). Sounds familiar anybody?
Derald Wing Sue (2011) notes that the research on race shows that ‘whites experience themselves as good , moral and decent beings who would never intentionally hurt or discriminate against others’(418).
I am however baffled by some people I have worked with who seemed ‘affable’ and ‘intelligent’ and who preach ideals of equality but seem to have little if any consciousness of the ways in which their attitudes and behaviours are interpreted as racist by their non-white nor how the system of white supremacy works. In some places I found myself working in an environment in which certain white workmates did not seem to care what they said in my presence, or perhaps I should say, that they seemed unaware of the messages of undesirability and inferiority that they were communicating regarding non-white people. Even in Human Resources where you expect some sort of level headedness, a workmate who was recruiting once looked at her list of potential applicants and said the people had all ‘weird names’ and wouldn’t be suitable as they would need visas (I am putting it mildly here). So how did she come to that conclusion one might wonder. I for example am British but with the so called ‘weird name!’ And what’s in a name anyway? Toni Morrison one of my favourite authors cautioned ‘Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge ; it limits knowledge’.
In the social world of white normativity, as George Yancy (2012) writes, ‘it is white meaning making that creates the condition under which black people are always already marked different/deviant/ dangerous. Sanchez –Hucles (1997) reminds us, black women in the workforce have often been regarded as tokens, deviants, invisible, isolates and of low status…..’’
To start talking about weird / foreign names in my presence in a belittling way when I am the only one in the office with such a name is clearly not only isolating but trying to make me invisible.
That reminds me of something that happened, there was an organisation I so wanted to work for in my area. I applied for all the HR jobs that I qualified for but never even got an invitation to an interview and I wonder if they used the ‘ weird name criteria’ for shortlisting. I know what you are thinking – that I might not have had the skills. I can assure you that any person who has been to University with 3 degrees can do administrative work. And I wasn’t overqualified because the work was in my line of work – Human Resources!
Another thing I have seen is, if you are lucky to get the job then you become the dumping ground for anything to do with diversity as one friend of mine found out in her workplace. Celebrating diversity only meant she had to organise events and even attend them while her white counterparts were busy with work apparently! Preaching to the converted!
As Henry (2000) points out:
‘Black women professionals know too well how their race, gender and class backgrounds have structured them historically in the workplace to ‘clean up everyone’s mess (hooks and West 1991, 154). Black women once hired are often expected to do the ‘hands on work’ and the less intellectual work and the diversity work (Bangar and McDemott 1989).
Another interesting thing that happened to me in one of the organisations I worked is a good example of this ‘two-facedness ’ on diversity and race issues. On my arrival, I noticed there were a few black faces scattered in the open plan office which was encouraging. I was hopeful since I had also seen on the advert the following words: ‘applications are particularly welcome from women and black and ethnic minority candidates, who are under-represented.’ I thought they were the real deal. This was the place to be. This was so much in contrast with every place I had worked.
Then wham change happened- team restructuring! All the four black faces including me were made redundant and there went the ‘we are for diversity and welcome people from ethnic minority’ theory. Those who stayed on were white, not senior or had any special qualities; we only happened to be black and had to go.
The four of us were shocked but happy to leave because of the toxicity of the environment. It was as if plans had been made to get rid of us all long and after the restructuring, the organisation still advertised for Human Resources personnel.
What angers me is the rhetoric of some organisations and senior management where the subject of race is concerned. As Ballard and Parveen (2008) wrote, rhetorical commitment to anti-racist practice, no matter how loudly articulated, cannot be taken as evidence of the absence of problems seething below the surface. Sue argues, ‘An unwillingness to name the contours of racism means unwillingness to challenge notions of meritocracy and a level playing field’, clearly the case of most places I have worked.
In one of the organisations I worked for, when I mentioned racism to my workmates or even the lack of black people in the decision making positions, I was met with silences, denials of structures of racism and even encountered tears. One lady hugged me and cried ‘Oh don’t worry you are one of us. We want you here.’ Really? Why would I be one of you?
In another organisation they used to organise talks/events and when I asked why there was no diversity among the speakers, I was told ‘there aren’t any black people doing this work’. Really?
This denial of racism is convenient.
Food for thought!