Awkwardly Stepping Into Corporate South Africa.

Landing a job at one of the top 4 accounting firms is naturally considered a blessing for women of colour. Not only because it’s a rare opportunity, but also because of the pride it brings to families back at home, seizing every opportunity to bring up their children’s achievement in almost every conversation.

 

So day 1 at work finally arrives for me. I’m staying with family in Johannesburg and they have their own little kids who need to get dressed, brush their teeth and go to school. The house is the usual going to school and work commotion. My uncle is firstly dropping his son off at school and then me at work and I finally meet the famous Jhb traffic for the first time. I’m running late and driving in queues of 100 cars at a time and moving at negative 1km/hour. This is simply frustrating. We left home a whole hour before I needed to be at the office and I’m actually starting to believe I might not make the 23Km distance on time. 

 

Finally I rush in, flustered, my handbag pulling my jacket off one shoulder. I realise that my bag is open because I was trying to put my phone in it while running at the same time, but my phone is still in my other hand, so I actually accomplished nothing. I’m checking how wet my “first ever” real weave is from running in the rain and wondering if water affects 100% human hair. I conclude that it possibly cannot, mainly because it was too expensive and also because white girls never complain about their hair shrinking from the rain. (That’s what 100% human hair means, doesn’t it?)

 

The first year accountants are already standing in little cliques. All in fairly small groups from their previous universities. I quickly scan the group, assess diversity (I don’t know why we always start by asking ourselves how many black people there are). We’re in the minority but we’re not too little so I should be fine. I grab a cup of tea and contemplate having one of the deliciously filled croissants neatly served on the table next to me and then I remember the promise I made to myself about eating less carbs. (Something I only discovered in varsity. Mind you, I grew up learning pap and brown bread were the healthiest things next to vegetables) I also promised I wouldn’t become a caffeine addict, which is apparently part of the “aspiring CA” package. I take in the environment, you can hear the buzz of excited, young, anxious voices talking to each other. Asking the same damn questions. “Are you excited?” “Which varsity do you come from?” “Why did you choose accounting?”  It all sounds so tiring and repetitive actually. Yet at the same time, extremely nerve wrecking. 

 

But anyway, standing like a loner in the corner with my tea in my hand, I realize that I have two options now:

 

  1. Look for the only person I know who should be here today but seems to be MIA or

 

  1. Find a new group of individuals to start mingling with (everyone always places the importance of networking in our profession, but I genuinely just want someone to hang with)

 

So I start walking around alone, making sure that it’s obvious that I’m looking for someone and that I’m not actually a loner. I find him standing under a stair case with some other familiar faces and finally I could feel my heart beating again.

Induction begins and they tell us to look around and realise that the friends you make now are very important as they are our future business partners and connections. You can feel the pressure to “meet people” and “make friends” heighten. 

 

But let’s be practical. Who exactly are people feeling the pressure to make friends with? Definitely not the randomly awkward black girl with a wet weave, or the guy from rural Mpumalanga with the black accent, not even the shy, quiet girl who still finds it weird to talk to white people 

 

 

 

It’s the tall Caucasian male with slick hair resting on a professional haircut and a suit more expensive than the rent I don’t pay, or the Caucasian girl whose father owns a business big enough attract prospective clients. Probably the well-spoken individual with a clean private school accent and an extroverted personality that can keep any conversation going. Or the Afrikaans guy who seems to already know all the partners because they apparently grew up in the same area. 

 

Those are the people everyone wants to “network” with, but they understandably only want to network with each other. I mean honestly, what do the rest of us feel like we have to offer? So to add fuel to the anxiety of starting a new job, are the networking questions worming through our minds; “Will the partners even like me?” or “What about the rest of the firm?”, “I need to be noticed, somehow”, “Are my networking skills even good enough?”, “I hope I don’t suck at my job”

 

And then we realise that all the partners and CEOs seem to be white and it’s as though the black kids suddenly become extra aware of the colour of their skin and their train of thought takes a turn. Networking skills become insignificant compared to the self-doubt seeping in; “Wait, Am I even good enough”, “I need to work extra hard”, “They’ll never notice me”, “I am black, I will probably never climb corporate ladders here” and then what happens?

 

All the black kids slowly begin to feel as if their forced interaction are being responded to with polite smiles and the tiring work of maintaining conversations. And as the days go by we begin to realise that we have nowhere else to actually be without feeling awkward and uncomfortable except with each other. Which can arguably be considered our own fault, as a result of us being aware and self-conscious of the fact that we are in the minority.

 

Then one day, huddled in a group on a couch, the most confident comrade begins to voice his frustrations in a loud whisper “We are simply here to learn and then get our land back!” then someone follows “Why are there are no black partners anyway!”  And so the complaining began. 

 

Now look, despite the fact that I’m from the Free State, I’m particularly familiar with these type situations but I still have my fair share of Afrikaans friends I absolutely adore. And I was honestly under the illusion Johannesburg would be a lot more integrated and much more inviting. So I kept quiet, not because I didn’t share the same sort of frustrations, but because my mom had always taught me to have the right attitude. I had also been warned about South Africa’s Private sector but I had vowed to myself that I wouldn’t allow my “blackness” to shrink me.. And I knew complaining about it would be the first step to making the next 3 years of my corporate life absolutely miserable.

 

However, it became increasingly difficult to maintain this attitude when reality had you sitting alone because the white friend you made last week would never opt to carry a conversation with you. You always eventually found comfort in people of your colour and reality was becoming more and more difficult to ignore. 

 

I will be the first to say that this isn’t what I would call Racism. Societal organization is more the term. Allowing yourself to be with people who look and speak like you is obviously easier and more comfortable in an environment full of new people. It just so happens that the group of people will probably in the same social class. You need to be a special type of person with admirable social skills to be able to move yourself away from that mind set, deal with the awkwardness and pray for a genuine connection. 

 

The problem I found with corporate South Africa is that those in the majority and in prominent positions aren’t like me, so that will never make me their comfort zone, their intuitive conversation starter. Or their first choice for promotions. As much as black people “look out for each other” they look out for their people too.

 

Which also puts us in a bad situation for ourselves.. What’s wrong with socialising with other black people? And why does it bother us??The answer here is absolutely nothing. And it most definitely should not. We have become so brainwashed by the environment and the fact that we don’t see black people in high corporate positions that we begin to undermine each other and our own value. Yes, we can advocate for diversity.. But we don’t need to force ourselves into social circles we are not particularly comfortable with simply because private corporate South Africa doesn’t represent you. I’m not saying don’t mingle, of course you can make friends with whomever you want to, and as long as you are happy and comfortable with each other and maintain it for the right reasons. 

 

But don’t let reality beat you up when you’re forcing yourself into social circles that you think you need to be a part of in order become relevant or noticed for promotions etc. Simply because you don’t.  Do you and work hard, even if rumour has it that as women of colour you need to work twice as hard to be noticed, then so be it. Don’t let statistics that aren’t in your favour shrink you. It is difficult. It will be difficult. It’s like an emotional rollercoaster where every day brings you something new to deal with or to face up to. And the trick is to tackle it by the horns and admirably watch yourself grow and develop thicker skin.

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