“What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
When I wake up most mornings, I take an extra few minutes to lie quietly and just allow my body to wake up. Often, I will say a little word of thanks to God while I wait. At other times I will simply think. My first thought today was a realisation. The realisation that living in South Africa has made me acutely aware of my blackness in many good and bad ways. South Africa’s past has left deep scars on the psyche of its people and it is impossible to live among them and not get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes you get hit by rubber bullets, but at other times, the bullets are real.
I am an avid hockey player and it’s common knowledge that more white than black people play hockey. Often, and rather unnecessarily, people will have something to say about that. My black manicurist, on working out that the reason why I break my nails so often is because of the sport chuckled and said, “black people are silly. You make a little money and you think you can run around doing the things white people do. Playing golf and hockey. Why don’t you leave hockey to the white people who know about it.”
On an entirely different day, I was having what we call a stormer of a hockey game. I am a defensive player. It was one of those days when no one could get past me no matter what they tried. Every gamble I made paid off. It was a good game until I tackled the other team’s attacking wing player for the umpteenth time and for the umpteenth time, I got the ball and she muttered “you stupid kaffir bitch.” For the first time I noticed I was the only black player on the field.
Courtesy of the schools my mother sent me to, I have a fairly neutral accent. As a result, clients I have phone consultations with prior to meeting in person are often a little surprised to find I am black. I often hear things like “you sound very different for the way you look” or “I pictured you a little different.” The ones who are not afraid to flirt with the line will say “you are not a South African black person are you?” or “Did you study abroad?” I have learnt to take all this in my stride. What caught me completely off guard was an elderly English gentleman who was so shocked by my blackness that his internal filter broke. “Are you Chu,” he said as soon as I walked in. “Yes, It’s very nice to finally meet you John*,” I said as I sat down. “But you are black!” He stuttered. The man literally stuttered out the statement. He was incredulous. “I am. Shall we start?” I responded in as neutral a tone as I could master but I could see he was extremely agitated. My colleague, who had met with him just before my meeting could see as well as I could that the simmering pot was about to boil over and chose not to leave. I am grateful he didn’t because the little pot did boil over and what followed was the worst racist tirade I have ever been subjected to and someone other than me witnessed it. If there had been no witness, everyone would have thought I was exaggerating. I remember every word that came out of that man’s mouth but a few phrases stand out. Phrases like “black people are not nearly as educated as white people and I don’t understand how they think they can do the same job.” An even better one was “You people should be paid on a graded scale because even if you study the same thing, you don’t have the same knowledge so it’s unfair to pay you the same.” He was particularly aggrieved about the fact that his daughter, “a really educated teacher,” is getting paid the same as “these people.” The winner was “My son is lucky he is away from all this. He is in Australia. It’s a country that is an island. Did you know that Chu?” I almost laughed out loud but that would have been rude, wouldn’t it?
It’s sad that I could give you many more examples of this kind of behaviour that I have been subjected to. I could tell you about the specialist seminar for trusts I attended where the arrogant presenter was full of racists and homophobic jokes and references. I remember him saying “KFC is for black people and Nandos is for white people.” Everyone around me started shifting uncomfortably in their seats and looked at me while they laughed uneasily. Again, I realised I was the only black person is the room.
Or I could tell you about the tea lady who told me to make my own tea because she doesn’t make tea for support staff. I chose not to say anything and I made my own tea. It took her about a month to work out that I was in fact a manager. She came to apologise and asked how I take my tea. She explained it’s not her fault because “most of the black girls here are not managers so I didn’t know you were one.” Interesting, I thought. A couple of years later, I am still the only black manager in the entity that we operate our business through and every time I move to a different floor I face the same problem from the support staff.
Perhaps the most realistic and helpful advice I have received about this sort of thing came from my boss. She is a driven woman who many people do not understand. But she is also the reason I push myself everyday to take one more step up the ladder. During one of my performance appraisals she told me “You have incredible potential and I know you will rise very high in the corporate world if you make the decision to do so. I have done it and you can do it too. But I battled every step of the way. Don’t be fooled by the constitution. The corporate world is a cut throat boys club. They smile at you and indulge you while they secretly doubt your skill. You have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. That was the road I walked. Yours will be tougher because in addition to being a woman, you are black. Be prepared to push back but also remember to pick your battles. Don’t exhaust yourself completely with people whose opinions do not matter.”