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.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Microaggressions in the workplace we’re all sick of having to deal with.

Navigating the sometimes daily grind of office life is no easy feat. Between having to deal with work politics, constant (but not always necessary) meetings and petty colleagues, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been dropped into a boxing ring armed with nothing but your wits.
And while we’re not discounting the fact that men also experience their fair share of grievances in the office, it’s much harder if you’re a woman.
I recently read an article in Bustle in which hepeating, a new term that describes the act in which an ignored idea pitched by a woman is praised and accepted when it’s repeated by a man, emerged.

The term hit home with a lot of women.
From mansplaining and being constantly interrupted, to comments about what we’re wearing and dealing with underhanded jibes about our qualifications, hepeating is just another notch on the list of workplace sexism and microaggressions women have to deal with on a constant basis.

And the biggest problem here is that no matter how overt or subtle it is, many of us feel that we can’t address the issue because society has always dictated that we act demurely as women whose demeanours should be rooted in being quiet and complacent – particularly in workplace environments.
In many cases, job security is on the line – particularly in toxic workplace environments that actively refuse to be inclusive in terms of equal opportunities and assigned roles.

Not only that when some women do speak up, they’re often gaslighted and made to question whether their experiences are actually real or valid, which makes this in itself an additional microaggression to deal with on top of everything else.
From invasive questions about when you’re planning to be a mother and how it will affect your job performance to being tone policed when expressing an opinion and then being asked if “it’s that time of the month”, these remarks and questions are designed to make us question our worth.

Unfortunately it can be even worse when you’re a person of colour. For example, when someone is “surprised” that you’re so eloquent and articulate. Or assuming that someone is the tea lady or cleaner when they are a Professor (Note, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these jobs, but there is something wrong when there is gender and racial bias attached to them). 
The problem with these little jibes is that they aren’t going to go away any time soon, but the more we address the issue the more we become aware of the fact and as such can call people out on their behaviour.

Here are a few examples,

 In response to people being surprised that you as a black person can speak “so well”, you should ask why they’re surprised.

Turn the tables on them by asking them what makes you so different that they’re surprised about your eloquence and take it a step further by questioning them about whether or not they speak any other languages fluently.
Another example,
For the never-satisfied manager who uses dismissive and condescending tactics towards you… Schedule an information-gathering meeting.

Beware of such managers, they like to manage in the grey and continuously move the goal line so that they never have to truly value your work. You must manage up and hold them to task by asking them to be specific.
Here’s what you might say,

“I’d like to understand from you what success looks like on your team. Can you give me specific examples of what I need to do to be successful and receive recognition?”

In this question, you are asking what it takes for you to be seen and no longer invisible in his or her eyes. If he or she beats around the bush, ask them to describe someone on the team they see as successful and ask them to explain exactly why that’s the case.
You might not think that things like this matter if it’s never happened to you but it does. It’s the difference between being happy at work and constantly feeling like you’re a placeholder whose well-being at work doesn’t matter.

Here are some experiences at workplace:
1. The worst example for me is when you try to resolve a problem etc. and you are told it is all in your head or you are imagining the problem (AKA gaslighting). You actually get blamed for saying your feelings or have some mental health explanation thrown at you.
2. Staring. For the most part, I dress in very bright colours. Because of this I am often scanned from top to bottom a comment ‘I wouldn’t wear that? Shockingly enough in this case I also experience discrimination from some of the women here who do this. I can't tell you how annoying it makes me feel. Why should it be an issue and what has it got to do with work?
3. Human interaction: Some people treat you like they treat everyone else, but others will turn their backs on you and or refuse to greet you when you greet them. Some if they do respond at all, they mumble and just when you think they are having a bad day, they laugh and chat with another team member!
4. Social interaction: Social functions at work are supposed to be events for people at work to mix and mingle. Nothing is more awkward when people purposefully push you aside or ignore you. Some will choose not to comment on whatever you are saying but when another colleague opens their mouth, they get excited.
The joys of the workplace!


What a piece of work man is. (William Shakespeare)



Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Sexualisation of Black Women and how it leads to other forms of oppression: A case for intersectionality

The fetishization of Black women in mainstream culture is no novel notion. Black women have been seen as sexual objects since slavery. In its most basic form, a fetish is defined as “something, such as a material object or a non-sexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification” or “An abnormally obsessive preoccupation or attachment; a fixation.”. The objectification of Black women in regards to their body parts is just that—a fixation.     And it’s all too prevalent. From movies to videos, to photos on Instagram, it’s everywhere you turn. Question however is, do Black females empower the black community when they exploit fetishization of the hyper-sexualized black female body or is this exploitation objectifying and therefore devalues rather than of empower the black community.  Jezebel: “The woman who was a she-devil” was a term used to describe Black woman pre-slavery. The term itself has biblical roots; Jezebel was the wife of Israeli King Ahab and her actions exemplified lust. The ‘Jezebel’ Black Woman figure was stereotypically constructed through the initial European encounter with Africans. They associated their nakedness (which was due to the high temperature) to their lewdness and their polygamy practices to them not being able to control their libidos. Jezebel “the promiscuous female with an insatiable sexual appetite” came to represent the Black woman. Depicting Black women as erotically appealing and openly seductive was used to excuse White Slave owners abuse of their female slaves. The sexual myth of ‘jezebel’ serves as a tool for controlling Black women and throughout history the media exploited the Jezebel myth; using the Jezebel image to make racism and sexism appear somewhat natural. More recently, we still see the residual effects of this stereotype, as sexual promiscuity is imputed on most black women, even absent specific evidence of their individual sexual histories.

Where a “Jezebel” was what black women were defined as pre-slavery, “Mammy” was used to explain the sexualization of black women immediately after slavery. The History of Slavery served as the background for the “Mammy” figure. In slavery, female slaves were often tasked with domestic duties in White households; preparing meals, cleaning homes, and nursing/rearing their owners children.  A good portrayal of this was ‘The Help by Kathryn Stockett.’ These circumstances influenced the rise of the “Mammy.” Many black feminist, most notably Melissa Harris-Perry have argued that the “Mammy” figure was created through the imagination of White Supremacist thought who reimagined the powerless, coerced slave girls as comfortable consenting women. Like stated before, while originating in slavery the “Mammy” figure was rose to prominence in the reconstruction Era. Mammy’s were characterized as large black women with their hair tied up and no sex life nor family of their own. She lived to take care of her white ‘family’ as she was the premier house servant; “she could do anything better than everyone.” She was extremely devoted to her white chargers (children she was in charge of).  Everything about the Mammy demonstrated deference to White authority. With her idealized figure of a caregiver: amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening and obedient. As her being ‘asexual’ “devoid of any personal desires that might tempt her to sin” helped her serve as both a confidant and a moral guide to her young charges, capable of keeping them in line. Hattie McDaniel in the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ won an Oscar for playing this role that depicts a Black Woman as stupid and without feelings. The three principal black characters, Mammy, Prissy and Pork, don’t even have real names and were portrayed as simple-minded, complacent, even happy in their enslaved existence, and filled with love for their oppressor.

Believe me this is still happening. Recently a friend of mine was once stopped by a random man and asked to join his band as a dancer. When she asked why that was she was told because she was black and a good dancer. My friend was shocked because she never considered herself as ‘Beyonce’ when it comes to dancing. I was once told by some guy while at University that he loved black women because they look sexy?! I was shocked to hear this as surely love has no colour. The black woman has always appear in as a bad mum, single mother or just a bad person. And it carries on in the work place. You speak your mind and you are seen a trouble maker, as if people expect you to be an ‘idiot’- a’mammy’ who should just be happy to have a job. In the board room , one not to be taken seriously and always being seen as not having enough experience.

Even when it comes to pay a modern day ‘mammy’ should be happy to have a salary. A friend of mine went on leave due to a serious illness and she is of course black. The person covering her sickness was white and just for that time only management thought it fit to pay the white woman more pay than my black friend. You get my point. What was the reason for the pay disparity for somebody doing the same job?

So when looking at any policies in the workplace, communities any place, let’s not forget that a lot of inequalities are interlinked- race, gender, ability etc. After all, no one would take lightly their organization being led or having decisions made by a ‘mammy’.


Sunday, 29 October 2017

So why exactly do black women face a concrete ceiling while their white counterparts have the glass ceiling in leadership position?

Watching ’12 years a Slave' left me upset, not because I didn’t know about the horrors of slave trade, but  it brought to surface clearly what we seem to have forgotten , i.e. that we can’t talk about gender without considering race when it comes to women equality. The horror of the institution of slavery during the late eighteenth century was not that it displaced millions of African people from their homes to the US, but rather that it laid the foundation for the commodification and dehumanization of the black body that was culturally, socially, and politically maintained for hundreds of years to come. White slave owners executed their perceived right under the creation of commoditized black bodies to sexually abuse their slaves, producing mixed race children.

As a result of commodification, black bodies were rendered disciplined subjects; beholden to the will of white men. Simultaneously, white planters‘ wives were socially conditioned to remain publicly silent in the face of their husband‘s betrayal and abuse; hence they often executed their anger on the black slave, further rendering the black body an object to be claimed by others to enact their will upon. Commodification of the black body at the start of the era allowed for the objectification of the black female body to continue throughout slavery, as portrayed by the simultaneous abuse of the masters and the subsequent retribution of the master‘s wives, which were enacted on the black female body. Depriving humans of dignity, agency, respect, and basic human rights was also the tool that was later used by slave-owners in order to create and maintain the inferior slave subject. Essentially, the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners.

‘Enslavement robbed [slaves] of the markers of their social existence—the violence of commodification signalled to [the] captives….that they had been doomed to social annihilation’

Human beings define themselves by their social interactions and relationships; the denial of these social relationships renders slaves subhuman and abnormal. Some common practices included, the sale of family members to different masters in different locations (e.g. selling children away from their parents) and masters creating sexual relationships with married slave women, among other equally destructive tactics. While black slaves could have an unofficial marriage or partnership, ―enslaved people could not legally marry in any state .The black man had no defence, if at any moment the master decided to have sex with his wife. White plantation culture dictated the behaviour of planters ‘wives; social norms stipulated that women were to be docile, gentle, and turn a blind eye to the infidelities of their husbands, whose existence they were keenly aware of. Under this cultural imperative, families operated under a model where ordered obedience created hierarchy and respect for the patriarch of the family, and produced the appearance of a well ordered family and thus society.  I know white women were also victims in this (cheating husbands and all) but white women‘s purity could only be maintained by the simultaneous upholding of the black woman‘s impurity. Black women were often fetishized, called names like ‘mammy’ and some of these tags are still their today.(topic for another day)

 Colonialism and imperialism relied upon this notion of superiority, which allowed whites to set themselves in opposition to their inferior – ‘uncivil’ non-white counterparts, and justify their actions of structural oppression as acceptable.

Black women were both fetishized and regarded as impure, when seen in contrast to the modesty of white women; therefore at the height of slavery, relationships with slave women were decidedly culturally unacceptable. However, just because these relationships were frowned upon did not mean that men resisted crossing the line of this social taboo; they did.

Black females were seen as sexually promiscuous and lustful, thus cases of sexual violence were often viewed as being the fault of the black woman. These cultural assumptions were successful in indirectly reinforcing the notion of the pure white woman, set against the vileness of the black one.

So for me it is very difficult to talk about gender equality only forgetting that we are actually starting the battle at different levels. Any policies by any organisation on equality should be all inclusive (gender, race, class, ability, religion etc).  If we are running a 100 metres race and my competitors are 20 metres in front of me before the whistle to start the race is blown , then it’s  clearly a race I won’t win.  

Black women have always been at the bottom of the pile even in countries where black people are the majority with men being on top. As far as I am concerned , its pretence to talk about gender  equality only and empowering women when we are all separated by social factors. If white women have no equal rights as white men, where are black women in all this?  Who is being empowered? We need policies that are inclusive. (Athena Swan charter should have been mixed with the race charter). I have seen efforts being made to promote women following the introduction of this but I don’t see any women of colour in position of power or even in clerical/ administrative jobs.




Friday, 27 October 2017

What is Intersectional feminism?

I attended a very interesting talk on intersectionality which I found very refreshing.  And I agree with Kimberle Crenshaw. The problem we have is we forget that when we talk of women oppression on individual basis, we create other channels of oppression. For example talking about ‘glass ceilings for women’ doesn’t take away the fact that for black women it’s more like ‘concrete ceiling’ because of the racism, and what about their class, ability of even gender?

So Intersectional feminism recognizes that certain groups of people have multi-layered facets in life that they have to deal with, such as racism and sexism

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The concept already existed but she put a name to it. The textbook definition states:

‘’The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, religion, ability, and ethnicity.”

In other words, certain groups of women have multi-layered facets in life that they have to deal with. There is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism. For example, I am a black woman and as a result I face both racism and sexism as I navigate around everyday life.

Even though the concept of intersectionality in feminism has been around for decades, it only seems to have made it into mainstream debate in the past year or so. And yet still so many people are confused by what it means, or what it stands for.

It doesn't help that the message surrounding intersectional feminism has been somewhat confused.

The main thing 'intersectionality' is trying to do, I would say, is to point out that feminism which is overly white, middle class, cis-gendered and able-bodied represents just one type of view - and doesn't reflect on the experiences of all the multi-layered facets in life that women of all backgrounds face. For example how does a woman Professor sitting in the comfort of their office at one of the Oxbridge University represent a poor woman struggle in the middle of nowhere in Africa, India or Brazil?

Until the mainstream feminist movement starts listening to the various groups of women within it, then it will continue to stagnate and not be able to move forward. The only result of this is that the movement will become fragmented and will continue to be less effective.

There is the mistaken belief that the only 'privilege' that you can have relates to skin colour. This is not the case. You can be privileged because of your class, educational background, religious background, the fact that you’re able bodied or cis-gendered. A lot of black women can and do have privileges too.

Everyone I talk to about feminism from my poor country of Zimbabwe has a problem with this term. To them, feminism is overwhelmingly white, middle class, cis-gendered and able bodied. When voices within a movement are marginalised to the point where they don’t even think that it is for them, the only result of this is that the movement is weakened becoming less effective.

Intersectionality is still a relatively new term for the masses - and yet its message is one that surely any feminist can relate to: start listening to and including various groups of women, and their multi-layered facets and experiences of life, and respect them, in the overall debate.


Monday, 23 October 2017

Some stereotypes that one might associate with in the work place

Being black in the western workplace comes with a whole bunch of unique experiences that only black people can relate to, and the struggle can be very real sometimes.

So if you’re not black, do take note, and if you feel personally attacked by some of these points, then you my friend are probably guilty of some of these things.

1. The ‘I’m not trying to be racist’ or ‘I don’t mean to sound racist but…’ We’ve all heard this one before. This statement is always followed by something borderline racist, racist, or just pretty damn stereotypical. And no, not all black people like dancing. Non-black people love it too. And no, I don’t know where the stereotype came from. So please stop asking me and please stop being silly, thank you.

2. ‘WOW. Did your hair grow over the weekend?’ This one can be quite sweet because you get to educate your colleagues on the wonders of black hair. However, the other side of this is dealing with those annoying looks and a million questions about how your hair ‘grew’ overnight.  Normally I say yes, but you still hear the question, ‘’Oh I had a black friend who told me its extensions.’’  Then why ask me? And yes, it’s a weave darling and white and Asian people wear them too. So what? On the hair issue I told a workmate I was going to dye the tips my locks blonde and she was like ‘ Oh no, you can’t do that?’  When I asked why not she said black people can’t do blonde. When I asked further who said so, there was no response. Another social construct! I will rock whatever I want without giving a damn what people think, thank you.

3. Straight hair, no fear. You hear about this one all the time. Dodgy workplaces that drop people for not having a hairstyle classified as ‘professional’ because their hair is not bone straight, so you opt for something more ‘toned down’ and ‘normal’ to fit in with the standards. What standards though?

4.‘I know someone from there’ This one happens a lot. You tell someone that you’re from Zimbabwe then they proceed to explain how their brother’s, ex-girlfriend’s was also Nigerian. Some even assume you are from Kenya or South Africa and go on to talk to you about their holiday in either of the countries without actually thinking that Africa is a mighty big place.

5. ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ As much as you’d like to bring in some of your country foods from home and eat peacefully at your desk, you just can’t deal with all the scrutiny and a million questions about what you’re putting into your mouth. In a place I once worked a lady from Ghana was made to cry because of the way people commented about her food. Really, what’s that all about?

6. No, I don’t know the name of that rapper You’re used to everyone assuming that you know the name of a RnB/rap/hip-hop song or artist because, you’re black. I was at my desk once listening to an audio book ‘At the Existentialist CafĂ©’ and was asked ‘Is that Drake?’ I didn’t know what to say, yes we love music so do many people and no, it’s a book! Having earphones does not mean I am listening to Drake!

7.‘What is your real name?’ Getting asked ‘what your real name is can be something’ and replying Abigail because that’s my name and then on que, they respond ‘no, I mean what’s really is your name?’ as if being black makes me have a weird sounding name. If I said I was Peter, why not accept I could be Peter, period! Since when has a person not known their name?

8. Twice as hard. Constantly feeling like you have to work twice as hard as your white colleagues to prove yourself, because no matter what you do you might still be seen as lazy.

9. ‘We’ll just call you Abbie M’. People having trouble saying your ‘exotic’ last name but can confidently say Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a heartbeat. Somewhere I worked I was told, ‘we can’t say your name; it’s too foreign and difficult’. Its only because they don’t see no Smith, they have concluded it’s difficult to say yet phonetically it’s easy to just follow the English sounds! The most annoying thing is they don’t even try!

10.The angry black girl/ The aggressive black man. You’re aware of stupid, negative stereotypes like being ‘the angry black girl’ or ‘the aggressive black man’ so you try and downplay everything. You turn a blind eye to the nonsense and be careful not to talk too loud or even get too excited about anything, in case your colleagues think you’re ‘raising’ your voice. Happens to me all the time!

The list is endless but it comes back to the fact that some of non-whites have everything we do judged by western or white standard.  And we wonder why prejudices and racism keep taking different forms!


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Why men deny sexually harassing women at work

The Harvey Weinstein revelations have highlighted a surprising ignorance about an issue that affects every workplace.


 “Would you do a three-way?” (Peter*), one of the managers, asked me.

It was my first job and I had just graduated from the University of Zimbabwe. I was young and had joined the company as a junior, and was one of several women in the team. Over the coming few months, I witnessed Peter saying some of the most repulsive things to female co-workers, some of which include:

“You’re a slut” (after witnessing a member of his team kissing her boyfriend in the car park)

“Why do you wear lipstick like a whore?”

“This is an ass I could kill for” while eying a female colleague

 “You’re a fake lesbian. All you need is a good f*** from the right guy -  I’m willing to do the deed” (to a female colleague who kept short hair and wore baggy trousers)

“The only reason I hired you was because of your boobs. (joking he said)

At one point, he took a picture of a female colleague, whose skirt had been blown up by the wind, which he proceeded to show to others in the office. She was the only one brave enough to take him to HR.


Why did he get away with it?

This was the norm. Though it was known in the office that Peter made most women feel uncomfortable, he had become part of the office culture. He was the guy that got rides from everyone, got drunk with everyone and joked with everyone.

People have a hard time accepting that the men they know and like can be guilty of sexual misconduct. When I asked about his behaviour in my second week, I was told by a team members that “that’s just who he is”.

So Peter continued to say what he wanted to say on the basis of being “who he is”.

That’s when I realised that the workplace is no different to any other environment for women - where sexual harassment and misconduct is not about incidents, but about culture. When discrimination and indignity is supported and tolerated in any culture, it’s astounding how quickly one can get used to it.  

It seemed that every woman in the office acclimatised to it too, because when HR finally asked about Peter only  one person came forward. Not one other woman, including me, said anything – which in itself is a powerful commentary on what we had come to accept as normal.


The language of sexual violation

In the UK,the Equality Act of 2010 has this definition: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” It covers indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex and the dissemination of pornography.

The terminology sounds simple enough, but my experience of office sexual harassment was anything but.

Sexual misconduct of any kind is always shrouded in semantics. A recent study from researchers at the University of North Dakota threw into light the role of language when it comes to men’s understanding of sexual assault. Among the respondents, a group of 73 straight male students, one in three reported that they would force a woman to have sex if they knew they could get away with it. According to the report, 31 percent of the men surveyed said they would force a woman to have sex “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”

But when researchers asked the same question, this time dropping the language of forced sex and using the word rape instead, that number dropped to 13 percent: “Respondents, it seems, were comfortable with the act of rape, just not the name.”

Similarly, most men who engage or instigate sexual harassment at work are likely not self-identified creeps. They don’t regard what they do as ‘sexual harassment’. Sometimes their behaviour is unintentional, and other times it’s pouched in denial: “I don’t sexually harass women, I simply make dude-jokes that the ladies don’t get!”

Like the majority of rapists and racists, they refuse to admit the label that defines their behaviour.

Tolerance of misogyny


This kind of harassment thrives off ambiguity and is fuelled by rape culture. People don’t report it because it’s usually someone they know, they don’t want to be blamed and they don’t want to be stigmatised. Most importantly, they don’t know if it really was violation.

Once you pull the first brick out of the pile, the whole wall starts to crumble and everyone who was complicit gets hit. It’s not simply about the perpetrator, but about his friends in the office, the other seniors, apathetic managers, and worst of all, the people who have seen his behaviour but think it’s “not a big deal”.

For most women, it’s easier to simply suffer the harassment and look the other way – which, to be frank, is something we do every day, regardless. It’s basically the female modus operandi for living. Why should the workplace be any different?

Except it should.

It should be different and it should be called out and organisations should be held accountable. This kind of discrimination didn’t materialise when the person said or did something inappropriate. It started when they realised that they can say things like that.

It started when management and companies decided not to actively engage in conversations around sexual harassment. Companies alone may not be responsible for global gender inequality, but they do have a legal responsibility to protect employees and they can be held accountable for that.

Talk about it


If this is something that you’re facing, do not remain quiet. There are 2 basic steps you should consider:

 If someone says or does something inappropriate, confront them as soon as possible. Often it’s unintentional and drawing a line will show them boundaries.

 Failing that. Bring it to the attention of Human Resources. They’re there for a reason. Use them.

These two steps can help make your life easier but they unfortunately come with no guarantees. Regardless of how women go about it, the sad statistical truth is that tackling sexual harassment is not simple and most companies deal with in the way that conservatives deal with sex-education – by not dealing with it.

Right now, harassment against women in any situation is the accepted norm. We’re told that every human being has the right to dignity, yet in practice we’re taught something very different. The normalisation of these kinds of gender dynamics can only be changed when they’re challenged – not just by individuals, but by organisations and businesses.