Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Office microaggressions and being the only black woman in the office

Today I’m wearing a colourful headscarf over my dreadlocks and big hoop earrings in my ears. That may not sound to you like a professional set-up, but it’s how I dress sometimes.

I’ve never had a boss who (as far as I know) deliberately set out to make me uncomfortable as a black person in the workplace, but I’ve had plenty who didn’t approve of my dressing and the way I speak.
And I get it: Employers want the workplace to be a setting in which people can—well—work.
I know I’m supposed to be representing my workplace in a professional way but not at the expense of who I am.
The problem is that many employers end up perpetuating racism just by following the norms that most people consider harmless, or even helpful, for creating a professional work environment.

One can unintentionally make one feel unwelcome just by upholding what’s widely considered to be “normal” workplace culture.
For instance, common standards of professional dress create dress codes that aren’t easy for many people of colour – and pretty much anyone who isn’t a wealthy, able-bodied white man – to follow.

The requirement to adhere to such a dress code would make one not just uncomfortable but also set one up for failure. There’s an expectation to look like someone other than myself in order to do a job I’m perfectly capable of succeeding at while I look like myself.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal. There are larger issues when it comes to race and work – like blatant discrimination in hiring, racist harassment, or institutional racism.

But even so-called “trivial” things like dress code requirements and everyday micro-aggression add up to create big problems for access, safety, and equity for people of colour in the workplace.

And it’s not just clothes that create obstacles for people of colour.

When you think about it, all of our common ideas about professionalism in the UK are based on an idea of upper-middle-class whiteness.
So let’s think about it and then do something about it – because following the status quo on professionalism is a sure way to cause unintentional harm.

Here are some of the ways common workplace culture has created struggles for me in the workplace, and how we can work to change them.

1. People Look Down on Me Because I Don’t Straighten My Hair

Like other aspects of the dress code, you may not think that hair is the most pressing issue when it comes to race and the workplace. But for me, it’s huge. I once went to have biometrics done with a funky afro hair. On seeing me the lady at the counter shocked me by talking to me as if I was deaf and unable to comprehend what she was saying. I was given the classic, ‘Can- you- stand –over –there- and wait?’’ This was spoken slowly as if to a two-year-old. Why, because I looked very African possible since I was doing my biometric having arrived and therefore unable to speak English. I bet you if my hair was straightened, a bit of make-up she might have spoken to me in a normal voice.
Like many other Black women, my hair plays a significant role in expressing my pride and my identity.
In order to fit many people’s standards of professionalism, I have to take time, put in money, and endure pain to permanently alter the texture of my hair through chemical straightening. Black people with natural hair can be judged as everything from gang-affiliated to “distracting.”

But, shockingly, there is no correlation between straightening my hair and doing better work. When I put it that way, it’s obvious, right?

I’m a hard worker, and saying that I have to change my hair to do my job is misguided at best – and actually, it feels pretty downright insulting.

So by choosing to wear my natural hair, I’m taking a risk.

No matter how much self-love I build up, I still have to face external barriers that say that my natural beauty is not appealing

2. People Think My Natural Voice Sounds Unprofessional

There’s no one way of talking like a white person or a Black person, but usually in the UK, the idea of “speaking professionally” brings to mind a specific form of English.

That form does not include the way I naturally speak, and it sure doesn’t include Africans, African Caribbeans.

The fact that I feel the need to change the way I speak is strange because, throughout my life, I’ve heard “compliments” about my so-called “proper” way of speaking – comments like “You’re so articulate!”

I’ve learned that this is not a compliment. It’s basically another way of saying “Wow, you don’t fit the stereotypes that come to my mind when I picture a Black person!”

This is a problem, and not only because people expect me to be something I’m not. It’s also a problem because of the negative misconceptions people associate with African/ African Caribbean accents. In a professional setting, Black users of thick African accent are judged as unintelligent, uneducated, gang-affiliated, and more. Fun enough, not Europeans. Theirs are seen as sweet and cool accents.
These racist and classist ideas about how we should speak in a professional setting actually affect most Black people, regardless of how we naturally speak, because we’re all judged based on the same stereotypes.
I went to a Christmas party once and a workmate having been drinking all evening had the guts to ask me to ‘speak like an English person’. That was not funny and to make it worse people laughed. It was as if he was saying I didn't belong there
All of us should be evaluated on how well we do our jobs, not on how well our voices can hide the fact that we’re Black.

3. People Doubt My Capabilities Because of My Name

Studies show that potential employers associate “black-sounding names with violence and incompetence, making them much less likely to call back Muchecheti after an interview than Wesly or Smith.
Job-hunting can be discouraging enough as it is – and it’s even more demoralizing when you realize potential employers might be throwing away your CV upon reading your name, without even considering your qualifications.
My name reveals my Blackness, and I really shouldn’t have to think of it that way – like it exposes something negative about me. Turning down my application because the hirer knows I’m Black is racist discrimination, period.

But oftentimes it’s more subtle than potential employers thinking, “She’s Black, so I won’t hire her.”
Even people who don’t think they’re racist can hold subconscious biases like believing Black people aren’t hard-working. And even beyond hiring, these biases can come through in ways like laughing at our names or insisting on calling us by nicknames you find more appealing or easier to pronounce. I once worked in an office where I constantly heard other teammates either laugh at people’s names or complain that more visa people were applying (even when some of these people were British people).  And even if they were visa people, aren’t we living in the world of global competition where the best get the job?
Some Black people end up changing their names or going by initials to improve their chances of success in the job market.  How bad is that? It’s just one of the many ways Black folks feel pressure to change or hide who we are to avoid being misjudged.

4. People Judge Me as Excessively Angry If I Get Mad or Set Boundaries

Emotion is a natural part of life – everyone gets mad sometimes, including at work.
There’s an understandable expectation to keep emotions in check, to a certain degree, in a professional setting. I wouldn’t be a very good employee if I lost my cool with every condescending customer or irritating co-worker.
But you wouldn’t be a very supportive employer if you held my emotions to a stricter standard because I’m Black.
Unfortunately, this tends to happen.
As the study on “black-sounding” names revealed, many people associate Blackness with being violent and dangerous. Further research on implicit biases shows that people who don’t even realize they hold racist views can feel this way.

I used to think my ability to be patient in all kinds of situations would help me avoid being misjudged as excessively angry.

But now I know that it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m actually angry – I can be stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman just for sharing my opinion, asserting my boundaries, or speaking in anything other than a sugar-sweet tone of voice.
That makes things really inconvenient, to say the least, in a work setting.

For white men, confidence and assertiveness are treated as positive qualities and leadership skills. But when I was a supervising manager at a retail store, I had to balance taking leadership – like telling a habitually late employee to be on time – with gentleness, so as not to be judged as aggressive when I was just trying to do my job.

I need to be able to be assertive at work not only to get my job done but also to take care of myself while I do it.

Since emotion is part of a natural human experience, it’s unhealthy for me to suppress all emotion at work. And since setting boundaries is absolutely necessary for self-care, it’s oppressive to expect me to put up with being mistreated because people judge my assertiveness as excessive anger.

5. I Have to Stay Quiet about the Pain of Racism

As a woman of colour, racism is part of my everyday life.

We’re often expected to carry the burden of racism silently because when we talk about it, we’re seen as rocking the boat. And that even includes when racism shows up at work.

Many Black people are familiar with this cycle: We witness or experience racism, point it out or stand up for ourselves, and then a white person cries, or feels guilty, or says they’re being attacked. Often you hear ‘Oh she has a chip on the shoulder or she likes playing the race card’. Suddenly, we’re seen as the aggressors creating a hostile environment, rather than being supported through the hurtful process of experiencing racism and gathering the courage to call for it to stop.

Racism is a part of my life, and especially if it’s part of my workplace, I need to be able to express my frustration with it without being seen as “attacking” white people.

6. I’m tokenized as the ‘Only One in the Room’

Many of the examples I’ve discussed so far have come up for me in white-dominated workspaces. Having more Black leaders and co-workers of colour isn’t a guarantee of better working conditions, because we can be guilty of these behaviours, too.

But there’s something special – and by “special,” I mean “oppressive” – about being the only Black person at work.

Even employers making an effort to diversify make mistakes when it comes to tokenizing, hiring one person of a certain race and expecting them to represent everyone from their community.

It’s a lot of pressure.

It comes with knowing that your every move, every misstep, every blunder will be used to judge everyone like you. When I’m in this situation, I feel like any small failure will confirm someone’s racist ideas about Black people being incompetent or lazy.
I know this fear doesn’t just come from my imagination, because of how often employers come right out and ask Black employees to speak for all Black people.

For an idea of how well that works out for me, refer back to what happens when I’m judged as excessively angry. As the only Black person, I feel the pressure to make sure others see me as a “good” Black person – as in, one who won’t call out racism or get angry or “make” white people feel bad about themselves by naming oppression.
In the end, even if I’m being tokenized as the only Black person, I’m still expected to conform to whiteness in a way that’s simply impossible for me. But it can feel like the financial support I need to survive is at risk if I don’t suppress my pain and try.

***
These are some of the struggles of not just being Black in professional settings, but especially of being unapologetically Black. I’m essentially more likely to be accepted at work if I’m ashamed of who I am.
I can laugh at racist jokes instead of admitting that they hurt me, to try to avoid being labelled as an Angry Black woman. I can straighten my hair to avoid the negative stereotypes about what it means to be a Black person with natural hair. I can change my name so my ethnicity isn’t clear on business cards or on a CV.
But I don’t have to do any of these things in order to get my work done, and I shouldn’t have to do them to convince anyone else that I’m an effective worker.
I should be able to be myself – and to be proud of who I am – while I’m at work.
The expectation of conformity with upper-middle-class whiteness means fewer job opportunities. It can also mean having to work at a job that requires me to put time, money, and effort into changing myself to fit in.

So the pressure to conform put me at a disadvantage and adds the stress of knowing that if I slip back into my natural self, my financial stability could be at risk.

But being unapologetically Black doesn’t mean I’m incapable of doing my job. It means I feel free to be me, and that’s a feeling everyone deserves to experience at work.

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


Navigating the 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 demeanors should be rooted in being quiet and complacent – particularly in workplace environments.
In many cases, job security is on the line – particularly in toxic work 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 also 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 are 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,
For example: 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,
 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 workplace experiences from my friends:
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.
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?

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!
 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.

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





Sunday, 24 June 2018

Is There a Bitch in Your Workplace?



Occasionally you may unexpectedly come across a bitch at work.

Most professional women are too busy working long and hard to even contemplate the question. We don’t expect to come across any and we certainly don’t look for them, so how could we tell?
Initially, we can’t believe that someone is being bitchy and tend to assume that we have misread the situation. Why would other women want to humiliate us in a meeting, sabotage our career, or play silly games to destabilize us? We give her the benefit of doubt and may blame ourselves for the misunderstanding and work even harder at communicating. When that doesn’t work, we tend to blame ourselves as we struggle to cope with the interpersonal difficulty.
We don’t wish to betray the sisterhood, or draw attention to our vulnerability, lack of coolness or internal resources. If we try to tell friends and family, they may try to problem solve by offering simplistic retorts we could never utter, or snort with derision at our silly paranoia. 
We tend to remain silent – it is embarrassing and shameful to acknowledge that we’re allowing someone to upset us, or that we are helpless at trying to resolve it. Perhaps we are concerned about retaining our job and swallow our distress. Secretly, we wonder whether we are weak and pathetic; other women seem to take it in their stride or fail to notice. We must be overly sensitive. Maybe we lack political or strategic prowess – yet another failing. We witness our career prospects wither as our naivety or niceness renders us powerless.
A number of women say the following,
1. Incredulity: They cannot believe that another woman could be nasty to them. They surmise that there must be a miscommunication, misunderstanding, or lack of skill – it must be their fault or perhaps there is something wrong with them. They may be re-triggered with primary school memories of popular in-group girls who excluded them or taunts hurled across the playground.
2. Numbness: They work even harder, and trudge on.
3. Exhaustion: They may dread going to work and worry about their reputation and career being eroded. They find it increasingly difficult to ‘switch off’ and worry after hours. They lose their work satisfaction, and struggle to manage their workload.
4. Cynicism: They feel hurt and betrayed. They drag themselves through their work day and ruminate each night. Their creativity and joy is compromised.
Here are a few basic strategies for coping with a nasty manager at work.
If your manager is a destructive bitch,
Never be alone with her for important exchanges. She will lie in the form of ‘not remembering’ what you remember about what was decided.
Transparency is your weapon because secrecy is hers. If you find yourself shafted by her in a meeting, say sweetly in front of colleagues, “I am really confused that you said that, because I thought we had agreed that this and this was happening. Can you help me understand what has happened here? 
Counter her attempts to undermine by dividing and conquering and working individuals very hard, by talking to colleagues and finding support. Don’t allow yourself to be isolated by self-doubt.
Be protective of your privacy. Make sure not to leave your work screen open because she will look over your shoulder and her eyes will ‘vacuum’ your desk.
Stay calm. Many staffers who must answer to destructive managers tolerate ill treatment for months and then explode over something minor. She will turn this into evidence of your emotional instability.
Protect yourself with records. Write confirming emails after verbal exchanges and cc others; always print out and keep hard copies of communications.
These things do happen.

Monday, 11 June 2018

How toxic leaders/managers destroy people as well as organisations


How toxic leaders/managers destroy people as well as organisations

There is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organisations across the world. Yesterday I wrote about a toxic organisation where my friend nearly had a breakdown. Had he not left maybe he would be ill from what he went through. In most cases it is people who give organisation bad reputation. And its all about power. It is therefore clear that this cancer of toxicity threatens the well-being of both individuals and organisations. It also affects the performance of a society and country. That’s why there is a pressing need for leaders to understand the nature, dynamics and evolution of toxic leadership and organisations.

The word “toxic” comes from the Greek “toxikon” which means “arrow poison”. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (poison) in a targeted way (arrow). Toxic organisations and leaders/managers therefore are those who deliberately destroy the fabric of the institution.

What makes a toxic leader?

Toxic leadership represents the “dark” side of leadership. It affects individuals as well as organisations. In the case of individuals toxic leadership refers to ongoing, deliberate, intentional actions - the “arrow” - by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual - the “poison”. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences. These destructive actions may be physical, psychosocial or even spiritual when they diminish a person’s meaning and purpose.

A toxic organisation is one that erodes, disables and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well- being of the people who work in it in permanent and deliberate ways. In other words, an organisation becomes metaphorically a “poison pill” for employees.

In contrast to toxic leadership, healthy, authentic leadership nurtures and affirms the dignity, worth and efficacy of an individual. It creates enabling, empowering and meaningful work experiences.

And a healthy, authentic organisation is one that nurtures and grows the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well-being of its organisational members.

Can toxic leaders be competent?

Leadership toxicity and incompetence are not directly related. Both competent – getting the desired results - and incompetent leadership can be toxic.

If a narrower definition of competence is used - only focusing on technical and professional competencies - a toxic leader may still be seen as competent because they are “delivering the goods”. This is particularly true if a short-term view is taken. But over the longer term their short-term success is unsustainable. This is because they are destroying their teams, departments or organisations in the process.

If a comprehensive, long term view is taken toxic leaders are incompetent because they are not competent across all domains of a well-rounded leader. Taking a comprehensive view, leadership qualities include personal attributes, technical and professional competencies, values and attitudes, and conduct.

I believe that toxic leaders, regardless of their level of technical and professional competence, are incompetent. After all, competent leadership is all about getting things done with people.

Typical toxic leaders

Five typical toxic leaders exist:

  • The Cold Fish: the ends justify the means. So,any decision and action is justifiable in terms of the results desired.
  • The Snake: the world serves me in the endeavour to satisfy my personal needs like greed, status and power.
  • Glory Seeker: personal glory and public visibility at any cost, regardless of whether I have made any real and meaningful contribution.
  • Puppet Master: absolute, centralised control over everything and anyone, under all circumstances.
  • Monarch: ruling the organisation as if it is my kingdom. All of its assets are available for my personal use.

The more prolific these toxic leaders are in an organisation, the more toxic the organisation.
Below are some of the characteristics of these bad leaders:
The Snakes: lacks integrity, manipulative, egocentric and self serving,divisive
Glory Seeker: demeans and devalues people, manipulative, egocentric and self serving, divisive, unpredictable and inconsistency
Cold Fish: punishes and coerces, abusive, aloof and excessive control
Puppet Master: punishes, manipulative, exploitative ,aloof and excessive control

Monarch: punishes, manipulative, exploitative, excessive control

Typical toxic organisations

The typical manifestations of a toxic organisation resulting from toxic leadership are:

  • Negative emotional moods and mood swings: anger, despair, despondency, frustration, pessimism and aggression.
  • Unproductive and meaningless work.
  • Destructive and counterproductive conduct.
  • Employee physical and emotional disengagement and withdrawal such as absenteeism, lack of contribution, and turnover.
  • Unethical, deviant conduct: theft, fraud and sabotage.
  • Poor well-being and health.
  • Low (team) morale and work satisfaction.
  • Organisational dis-identification and low organisational commitment.
  • General life dissatisfaction.

But organisations can be toxic in their own right through the organisational culture they have. Organisational culture refers to shared ways of seeing, interpreting and acting upon the world that becomes ingrained in an organisation’s DNA. It’s the glue holding it together and provides an organisation with a way of looking at and relating to the world.

When toxic patterns become ingrained into the DNA of an organisation the following patterns emerge:

  • Paranoid: the defensive, afraid, suspicious, trusting no-one or nobody organisation.
  • Compulsive: the over-planned and over-programmed organisation.
  • Hyperactive: the impulsive, unfocused organisation, acting like an adolescent.
  • Deflated: the energyless, depressed and impotent organisation.
  • Delusional: the reality estranged, make-believe organisation, living in a world of its own.
  • Conscienceless: the unethical, amoral organisation.

There appears to be a growing incidence of the cancer of toxic leadership and organisations. This is in no uncertain terms endangering the well-being of organisational members, compromising future sustainable organisational, community and societal performance and success, as well as the very continued existence of them.

As someone interested in Leadership and Management, as a person who talks to people, I have heard so much about toxic workplace to know it is an important area.

Based on Research by Theo Veldsman

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Microagressions in the workplace -Toby’s story


I had just got seated in a café when I heard my name being called. I didn’t look up as I just thought there could be another Abbie.

‘Abbie, its me Toby!’. The name sounded familiar so I looked up and lo and behold, my friend Toby had made his way in the café where I had been enjoying a hot cholate drink.
‘Long time, what are you doing here?’ I asked pecking him on both cheeks. ‘I thought you went back to Africa?’, I added.
‘I did but went to Belgium after that. I was working for a big non governmental organisation’, Toby added.

‘Wow! How did you find it and what are you doing here then? ‘, I asked curiously.  I had met Toby while working part time while I was studying. We just got on and used to talk a lot about the challenges we faced on coming to the UK. Toby was from Ghana and we had so much in common.
‘Long story Abbie but let me get a drink first’, he said going to the counter to pay for his drink.
He came back quickly and I said, ‘I am all ears. What’s the story?’ I asked sipping my hot drink. I thought it was just about his settling here. I was not prepared for what he told me.
‘Before I bore you with my story, you look well Abbie’, he said.
‘Thank you ‘, I responded. ‘And so, do you’, I added. I hadn’t seen Toby for more than five years now and we had not even kept in touch.
Toby had gone back to his country and got married. His wife got a scholarship to go and study in Belgium and they decided to go together.  ‘Life has treated you well Toby’, I said.
‘Oh yes, I can’t complain and my wife is doing well so she has been posted here, that’s why we are here’, he added.
‘Great! How about you? I asked, pleased for my friend.  When they came back to England from Belgium, Toby didn’t have a job so he started looking for work again. Luckily, he got temporary work and he didn’t mind as he hoped to get a long-term job in the long run. His nightmare story started when he accepted this job in a big organization.
Toby’s experiences of micro aggressions and his talk of depression.
Toby was a quite guy, only talked when you talk to him, unless he knew you.  Professionally a great employee who paid attention to detail and eager to learn. I was one person who made Toby talk and we used to talk and laugh before he left the UK, but generally a bit on the quite side, if not shy. What he told me was rather shocking and worrying. When Toby was posted to the job he accepted hoping to learn as much as he could and had hoped this first position would lead to bigger things. He was to work in a team of five ladies. At first, they all seemed happy to have a man in the team. Then he noticed that it was all a façade. The last thing they wanted amongst them was a black man, and soon this would become clear to Toby.
Toby explained that microaggressions ranged from excluding him in conversations, treating him like an idiot.Toby was an intelligent guy with two degrees in Stats and Maths.  As a new person, he needed guidance- sort of an induction in the new job but the ladies decided they would do no such thing. Some even complained he was disturbing them when he asked work related questions- even complained to senior management, others, just blocked him in conversation-like he wasn’t there.  Whatever he did was never right. For a person who had worked for a big organisation in Belgium, he couldn't not understand what he was doing wrong. One of the ladies lived in the same area with Toby and whenever she saw him on the bus to work would get out and get the next one. The other asked everyone in the office if they wanted a cup of tea and left him out. While these might seem small issues, try being on the receiving everyday and se how it feels. It got to the point of him being scared of speaking to any of the girls for fear of being reported to the managers for disturbing 'the hard working ,ever busy ladies'.
He didn’t know who to ask anything, if he did, one would say don’t disturb so and so, she is so busy. The same ladies would from time to in go on their phones during office hours or chat to one another endlessly excluding Toby. He told me if he went for his lunch, he would come back to an office full of laughter but the moment he took to his seat, the silence will be deadening.

He said he realised he was not welcome and came to the conclusion that these people might have not worked with people from other cultures. He said, ‘Abbie, I felt as if there was something wrong with being black, having an accent and just being different’. I started to get anxious every Sunday night when I knew on Monday I would be in the office with these ladies’.

I could not believe what I was hearing. All I could think of how neo liberalism really has made us believe that we are living in the post racial years. It took me back to my own experiences in places, where I could also feel that I was not welcome. Unfortunately, there are new forms of subtle, unconscious or colour-blind racism and we live in a society that seem tired of hearing about race. And it is people like Toby and myself and many others who can only know what it feels to experience racism.  As a friend of mine once said, racism that is direct and clear cut is better to accept than the one that comes camouflaged, because what does one do? No one will believe you and people would only say ‘chip on shoulder’ and one wouldn’t be able to prove it as well.
Our drinks got cold and I offered to get us new ones.
I got up and left Toby looking forlorn. ‘How can I help my friend?’ I thought to myself. Sadly, it was not the first time hearing such stories. What worries me is this happens in big organisations.
I came back and sat down with my friend. I thought the best therapy was to let him talk.
After spending two weeks he decided to keep silent and only talk when he was spoken to. ‘I decided to give them their space, Abbie’, he said. ‘And when you get back you are so drained, angry and you can’t have quality time with your family’, Toby added.

I was getting upset. My friend was really in trouble I could tell by his face.

‘People can get depressed, or even kill themselves just by the way they are treated in organisations. Its better if organisation could just stop pretending they are for diversity and stop torturing ethnic minorities than bring them in an organisation only to kill them’, he added.
‘Toby, are you still working in this organisation?’, I asked worryingly.
‘No, I left. I will be looking and taking care of my son now while I think of what to do next.  I could not carry on working in that toxic environment. Maybe I will do some studying’, Toby said. 'I am lucky I could leave ,but imagine those who cant afford that luxury. But these things stay with you', he added
My brain was now working overtime.  I was not a trained counsellor but what I was hearing didn’t sound right.
‘You should talk to your GP as well Toby. Studying might also help you put this experience behind you’, I said. I reminded Toby that not all organisations are like that and should look for help.
‘I am glad I met you Abbie. It feels so nice to be talking about this to someone who can identify with what I have experienced. Those women do not like people like me. I could not carry on, the environment was too toxic and even the management didn’t seem to understand me so I had no one to go to’, he added.
‘I am sorry Toby that you had to go through this’, I said.
‘And you worry whether, they would believe you against five people’, Toby added.
I was sad. There was silence, each of us thinking. We didn’t even finish our drinks.
‘Let’s have our drinks before they get cold again. Don’t worry about me, Abbie. My son and wife will keep me sane and besides I have friends like you’, he broke the silence.

‘Of course’, I said, not sure he would be OK. He showed me his wife and son’s pictures. We laughed and talked about old times when we were both new in the UK and feeling homesick. It was nice to see my friend smile and laugh but I was deeply affected by his experiences.  We bid each other farewell and promised to keep in touch. I went home thinking. How can workplaces with few ethnic minorities protect them from microaggressions?  I don’t think this will ever be possible as more and more organisations would like to claim they have race and equality on the agenda, but the truth is people are feeling isolated in some organisations. I am not only talking about Toby but I have spoken to friends who have been in similar situations as Toby’s. Some left their jobs but others still soldier on because they have no other way of making a living. And the problem is how do you know whether were you go will be better?

So, what does the future hold?

What Toby has experienced is nothing new and there are many Tobies out there who are taking this treatment silently. I shudder to think how many cases of mental health and suicides a result of this kind of treatment. We seem to have moved a lot from the days of direct racism but as I said the racist of the 21st century is worse because its difficult to prove. I have spoken to people who like Toby have gone home fuming with anger from they way they would have been treated by colleagues and management with nothing to could do. Terms like ‘too sensitive’, ‘you are not cut out for this place’, ‘you have chip on shoulder’, ‘you like playing the race card’ have been used to anyone who dared say anything. A friend of mine once said we need to have some research on the long-term effects of isolation of minorities in the workplace. From my friend Toby’ s experiences and many others I am sure if such research were to be carried out, we will be shocked. The problem I see now is every organization wants to be seen as embracing diversity. While it is a great thing to do, there is no point if it’s only done to tick boxes because the issue of equality, equity and diversity affects real people. Organisations should think through their policies and make sure they are not making ethnic minorities ‘s lives in the workplace even worse.

 

Disclaimer:  Toby - not his real name but the story is true and happened to my friend I shall not mention here. He is alright and for now is on a career break doing a PhD in Mathematics. We talk and laugh, he has been able to speak to his GP and is enjoying being a stay home dad and doing a part time degree.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

How important it is to have representation in learning Institutions!


Representation -simple as it is, is one of the most challenging thing for organisations yet so easy and simple to put in place. Recently a friend of mine who finished her PhD, swore not to even think of working for the institution she did her course. When I asked her why, she told me – representation. Being the only black woman in that department, she never saw anything that represented her in a positive light. She said to start with, there was no one she could call a mentor, people around her didn’t seem to understand her and as if that was not enough, everywhere she looked had negative images of Africa. She felt lost, insulted and belittled. All over the notice boards were images of thin black children with mucus on their faces and eyes covered in green mucus like stuff. The image that everyone has of Africa! She said how can I respect myself let alone be respected in a place like that. What are those pictures doing anyway in a science department of a good well known university, as if students will donate their so cherished grants and loan to poor Africa! 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. 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.
She said she had intended to stay around and work and help develop some science that might save people but she thought not in that toxic representation. Sure enough I am now aware of what she meant than before. Every country has poor people. Every country has people sleeping rough, but the way things are portrayed on poster , on TV and some other platforms, you would think only Africa has the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people should not be helped, but there has to be place and space. Putting such images in learning institutions only helps to denigrate people from that part of the world. Like my friend said, would stop and donate their grants and loans? How much money then has been collected for charity work from students in these universities?

Recently I was having a conversation with a bright Sixth former whom I will disguise from this article but all I can say is he is at a state school. They had a representation from one of the high and mighty universities in the country coming to talk to them about their prospects of applying to go to this university. The person started talking about the dress up and rig ma role that they have to do when going for dinner etc.  Obviously for kids used to a simple dinner at school, this all sounded intimidating. Now the sixth former and a group of friends are thinking of alternatives. One would think, if the idea was to have kids from state schools applying to this elite university, one would have been more careful in how they explain things.  So again, mission unaccomplished ! As far as the representative of this university is concerned job done but really?
As progressive, modern and inclusive as we’d like to think today’s world is, we still have a far way to go. 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.


Disclaimer: These are my thoughts based on conversing with people and observation.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Applications are particularly welcome from women and black and ethnic minority candidates, who are under-represented: reflections on race and life in the workplace


 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!