One of the beliefs that hold black women back from successful careers in the workplace is the belief that they are not good enough. If they are qualified enough then they don’t have enough experience, or don’t know enough, or any other reason that they give themselves for why they can’t have the kind of careers they want. Besides the obvious historical reason of conditioned black inferiority in order to advance slavery and colonialism. Black women often find the corporate world a foreign place. A place where they don’t fit, where they don’t understand the rules, where their hard work does not necessarily pay off. Besides being good at the job itself, black women have to maneuver a foreign culture, often without any mentors because they are the first in their families. I will use my experience to explain.
I grew up in the township, what Americans would call the ghetto. Everyone around me was black. I was book smart and was validated by my teachers and peers. I know how to maneuver this place, I was in many ways comfortable. I had also noticed that in my community black people had an interesting relationship to white people. They both hated and revered them as superior. The expression that was ascribed to a person who is accused of thinking they were superior was that they thought they were white. To aspire to be better or superior was associated with aspiring to whiteness, whether conscious or unconscious.
I went to a predominantly white university and for the first time in my life I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to navigate this world. The black people who seemed comfortable either came from middle class families and or had studied in multiracial high schools. My confidence took a knock and I started failing dismally, from a student who never knew failure it was a hard knock. I still worked hard but I was still struggling. We hurdled together with a few friends who were also struggling and limped to the finish line.
My first real job was in one of the Big 4 Audit firm and again I didn’t fit. I was black, didn’t have a car and didn’t speak well. I was starting from the back foot and I was just not fitting in. There was no one to talk to about this at home since I was the first to graduate and have a corporate job. No one understood and I felt lost and not good enough. Just like in University I was failing again. I was getting into a depression when I stumbled into a book whose title I can’t remember. In it there was a chapter on how to double your income in 90 days. At last! I had a manual. I applied the principles, 90 days later I was in a different company and job, earning double my income. A year later I was promoted, then every two years after that applying the same principles and the others I was learning from reading more books. I had found the manual, the road map, the compass.
I realized that the problem was not that I was not good enough, it was that I was in a foreign space, with no guidance on how to maneuver that space. If I had found myself in India, or China, I would initially struggle if I didn’t have guidance about how to navigate the culture. I would not assume that I was not good enough I would know that I just needed to understand the culture
I had a privilege of coaching a young African American women and I got a glimpse into how difficult it was to live in a country where you are a minority and a despised minority. Where most of the spaces that you have to inhabit, you are not right, you don’t fit. I also realized that it is the same thing in Corporate South Africa. Even though black people are the majority in South Africa, the corporate space is quite western.
When we as black women find ourselves in such spaces we often assume that we don’t know enough, that we are inferior. Because we had been conditioned to believe so and don’t often don’t have the inner knowing of our worth to fall back on. I now understand then African American obsession with representing stories of black excellence. It is to build that inner sense of worth that we all need to have.
This is one of the reason that inspired me to start Black women in the workplace. I want to help black women identify the conditioning that keeps them from having successful and thriving careers. That is also the reason I created the Re-imagined workplace program for black women in the workplace. I wanted to give them the tools to build successful careers even in those ‘foreign’ spaces and be able to separate their sense of worth with being different.
Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo