The politics of Black womanhood


Growing up, I didn’t see many people who looked like me being corporate ladder climbers, business leaders, business owners and on the covers of magazines being celebrated for their success, acumen, grit and wisdom. I saw white men. Everywhere. And occasionally, white women.

Unconsciously, it began to frame what I believed was possible for me, as a young Black girl. After the 1994 elections, Madiba Magic reframed what I believed was possible. The promises of freedom and equality opened up a whole new world in my mind and those promises gave me permission to dream bigger and to want more for myself, as a Black person.

The gap that still existed was the one that was supposed to show me the infinite possibilities that would be a result of me being a Black woman. TV and magazines were still full of white men, white women and slowly, Black men started making their entrance. Black women were mostly only featured as models, musicians and actresses. So, as a young Black girl who can’t act, isn’t a model and cannot sing, I still had no help with crafting a vision for my life based on what society and media were feeding me.

When I started working, I began to realise that women were largely invisible in the workplace, unless it had something to do with our “domestic abilities”, like being expected to bring the coffee/clear the cups after a meeting or plan an event – you know, the soft, mushy, girly stuff. We’re always having to prove that we deserve to be where we are or to have a say or to just have space.

I would listen to men and women who’ve embraced being patriarchy princesses, advising women in the workplace to be more masculine and aggressive if they want to get ahead, because naturally, men haven’t created wars, crashed economies, destroyed businesses and ordered genocides, right?

I was in Corporate for over 10 years and although I had a number of varying experiences, the most critical were those I had as a woman and those I had as a Black woman, and those two experiences are very different.

As a woman, I’ve learned that men get away with being sexist on a daily basis with comments that often leave women giggling, not because it’s funny, but because they won’t risk causing any discomfort by reacting “negatively”. I’ve also learned that some women adopt misogyny and inflict hurt upon other women.

I’ve learned that how we look and how we dress has a direct impact on how we’re treated, what level of respect we’re given and what opportunities are made available to us.
I’ve witnessed how women are crucified for errors but men are given room for error because they’re human.

Don’t even get me started on the Boys’ Clubs and Golf outings that are followed by cognac and cigar evenings where “deals are made” that are specifically chosen because they’re not typical activities women participate in, therefore, it’s automatic exclusion.

On the days when you do speak out against a man’s inappropriate conduct in the workplace, you’re asked if it’s “that time of the month”. I’ve seen women being anxious about having children because they’re afraid of what it will do to their careers or if they’ll still have their jobs when they get back.
I have personally experienced being made to feel guilty for leaving the office so that I can pick up my daughter from school and take her home. On the flipside, there are women who have been told, “You can work overtime because you don’t have anyone waiting for you at home.”

As a result, we’ve increasingly acclimatised to this culture of sacrificing our quality of life for the sake of careers, and we miss so many of life’s beautiful moments, regardless of marital status and whether or not we have children.

And then there’s the fact that based purely on our gender, we’re automatically sentenced to a career of underpayment.

Now, as a Black women, we deal with a very different, multi-layered dynamic, almost like an initiation by fire (except the initiation phase never ends).

When we’re confident, we’re labelled arrogant. When we’re vocal, we’re labelled aggressive. When white women are vocal, they’re outspoken. When they’re confident, they’re… well… confident.

When we don’t assimilate to toxic cultures, we’re told we’re not team players. When we stand up to injustices, we’re labelled troublemakers and plans are put in place to push us out of the system. We have to always watch what we say and how we say it and how we type our emails because we don’t want to be labelled angry, Black women because as we know, everyone is allowed the full spectrum of human emotion except Black women. And then there’s the issue of the bar that’s always shifting when it comes to us.

Serena Williams comes to mind because her public experiences are an accurate representation of the Black girl experience: Top tennis player, but most tested. Even tested more than white players who were *actually* busted for doping. She gets frustrated on the tennis court and there is outrage about how unprofessional and “angry” and what a poor sportswoman she is. But John McEnroe is still considered legendary, and more recently, we have Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios. But, of course, they’re just passionate.

When our hair is in its natural, rich state, it’s labelled wild or unprofessional. Whispers are exchanged about us dressing “sexily” at work, when in actual fact, our bodies just happen to be curvaceous, so clothes fit us differently – duh.

Apartheid spatial planning means that most women stay so far away from work, they have to leave home at 4am or 5am and are not able to take their children to school or pick them up. Sometimes, kids have to learn to cook at a painfully young age because there simply is no other sustainable solution. But these challenges are very rarely discussed, never mind met with compassion.

One of the most painful realisations for me was that Black women are always at the very bottom of the barrel – always the very last on the list. Even though Black women are the most educated group of people globally. And did I mention that we’re also the least paid? Like, number last.

I spent many years believing that feminism meant standing up for all women’s rights, especially marginalised groups. But, I’ve learned that is not the case, because Black women are almost always left to fight for themselves. Alone.

Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it”  perfectly capture why I wrote ‘We Are The Ones We Need’.

As a young, Black woman in Corporate South Africa, I found myself trapped in a system that was designed to limit how far I can go, how much freedom I can have, how vocal I can be, how much I can earn, what positions I will get, what support I would have and how many ears would be willing to listen to what I have to say.

If you’ve read my book, you will know all about my boss’ concerted effort to not just destroy my career, but to also be harmful to my health. What was even scarier was learning that other Black colleagues were going through similar experiences, although they were reporting to different line managers. Does it not shock you how the methods of frustrating us and hindering our progress are similar? And each time, my colleagues would be too afraid to say anything or to complain because they didn’t want to lose their jobs or be victimised further, so they chose to endure the pain and humiliation every single day.

I remember speaking to my colleagues and suggesting that we band together to lodge formal grievances as a group because our power is in our numbers. They all flat out refused. I decided to fight back, but my fight was always intended to be for all of us. I couldn’t bear to see the depths of the toxicity in the workplace and I was determined to do something about it. I was very clear ukuthi ngizobany*sa, one way or another because I’m “very enough of them”.

In a period of eight months, I was told on a weekly basis how I added no value to anyone and that nobody knew what I did. I was accused of being rude to people, I was told that I was not a team player, was unapproachable and that everyone felt that I was “disinterested”.

I was side-lined, excluded, sworn at, told on a number of occasions that they “forgot to include me” and they made sure my Black peers knew not to engage with me, lest they suffer a similar fate. I was threatened with being put onto a performance management programme but nobody could actually explain or prove why there was this mass unhappiness with the quality of my work.

In my fight, I followed all the relevant internal processes. I reached out to senior Black executives, men and women, but no-one was interested in stepping in. Nobody was interested in rooting out abusers. Nobody was interested in justice. Instead, I was the one considered a nuisance that needed to be silenced.

I couldn’t sleep. I was averaging 3hrs a night for over seven months and it took everything out of me to hold myself together and show up everyday and bear no evidence of the tears that soaked my pillow every night.

I was a young, Black woman who found no allies in white men nor white women nor Black men nor Black women. Although it almost cost me my life, I was one of the lucky ones because I didn’t have a heart attack from the stress stemming from having an abusive boss, I didn’t need to be checked into a mental health facility and I didn’t die by suicide, even though the thought did cross my mind a few times.

The painful reality is that we all know that gross injustices are perpetrated in the workplace on a daily basis. Some people are the perpetrators, whilst others are silent witnesses. Martin Luther King once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” If you are silent in the face of injustice, you are as much a part of the problem as the perpetrator.

The first problem for my boss and her crew was that they got the wroooong one! Secondly, they never anticipated that I would have the audacity to know my worth and the quality of my work and be prepared to fight for it hard. Thirdly, they certainly never could have imagined they’d be reading about their shenanigans in my book.

And yes, we can talk about how toxic corporate culture is, but these cultures don’t start and maintain themselves. They are started, maintained, perpetuated and protected by people. All of us. And if you think about it honestly, you will identify numerous instances where you have been a vessel of that toxicity as well.

The reality is that if somebody has a genuine interest in addressing injustices and eliminating inequalities, the work they do speaks for itself and it’s time for us to stop these abusive patterns in the workplace. We have got to start intentionally & boldly being each other’s allies. Standing up for each other. Amplifying each other’s voices. Promoting each other. Nominating each other. Seeing each other. Treating each other with compassion.

Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

It cannot be that because, individually, we’re in a position of privilege that we can ignore inequalities and injustices. We should be seeking to use our privileges to advance, fight for and support others. Integrity is still important. Transparency is still important. Ethics are still important, no matter how the world may try to make us believe they aren’t.

But, none of this is possible if we don’t first confront the prejudices and biases that have led us to this point. We have to have the courage to call a thing by its name (thanks, Iyanla) if we want to address it meaningfully. And this is a hard piece of work because it means we must also confront ourselves and our hearts and figure out what we need to do to be better people for ourselves and for women. And more importantly, Black women.

I left Corporate in 2015 with no job, no plan B. I had no clue what I was going to do or how I was going to make money. All I knew was that I had to get out alive. I needed to rest. I needed to heal. I needed to cry. I needed to relearn my own brilliance because I had a system that worked overtime to make me believe that I wasn’t any good at what I did.

At that time, I could’ve never known that what I went through would lead me down this road where I’m now an author and where my work is focused on helping others heal, be empowered and have the courage to create organisations that have a conscience and that put people first.

It starts with one person, and all of us have an opportunity to decide if we will each be that one person who becomes another source of power for a bigger movement.

In the words of Marcus Garvey, “You, at this time, can only be destroyed by yourselves, from within and not from without. You have reached the point where the victory is to be won from within and can only be lost from within.”

Choose wisely.

Author avatar
Sihle Bolani

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