Thursday, 18 February 2016

Working - as a person of colour and survivor of abuse

The transition from being a student to working is tough. The trade that you make for financial "freedom" comes at the cost of your time and autonomy.

Those of us who are lucky enough to do work we at lease somewhat enjoy, still face countless struggles in trying to adapt to the peculiar dynamics of the work force. In the work place, the social norms are not like they are outside. As much as organisations proclaim to be "flat", "title-free" and non-heirarchical by the nature of work itself, there is a heirarchy - someone with twenty years of experience in a field is going to have an advantage over someone with just one year of experience.

The idea of a flat organisational structure is thus untrue. It is especially untrue if you are a minority, a double minority or a triple minority. Let me explain. Single minorities are those who are let's say, black. Double minorities are those who may be black and queer, or black and female. Triple minorities are those who may be black, female and disadvantaged in some other way - perhaps a survivor of abuse.

South Africa is a country with one of the highest violence against womxn and children rates in the world. Violence against womxn is so commonplace that it has been accepted as part of society and in many cases, even among those highly educated and well resourced, is not questioned. Add the more subtle components of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect into the equation and we have an entire cohort of humxns of colour (and a few not of colour) who have suffered at the hands of some abuser - whether it be in their family, a traumatic experience, in the education system, in their community or inherited trauma attributable to the nature of the apartheid state.

There are many such humxns who have been able to forge an education for themselves, and have made the transition into the working world. The challenges these humxns face in the working world is unlike those of their peers and their likely seniors - most of whom have benefitted from the system designed to take care of them. A system that speaks their language and caters to their needs. Most of whom are - let's face it - white, or male,  and often white males.

Working in an environment such as this for a person of colour is challenging for the following reasons:

We stand out like a flapping fish in a stack of hay. The way we operate is different. This is not to say that we do not have what it takes to banter and cope with our privileged counterparts, but merely that we are not of their world. Everything we do is different. We see the world differnetly to the way they do. Even the things we listen to, eat, and laugh at are different. And right here lies the age old dilemma that comes from this whitewashed world - we have to make the effort to acclimatise to them. For instance, over the  years I have learnt to roll my R's less hard and soften my tone less I be referred to as "intense"(code for too black, too ghetto, too rough).

Equal treatment does not exist. By asking to be treated equally as a womxn (and humxns) of colour I am not asking you to treat me equally as shitty as you do my male counterpart (while I get paid less) or equally as crap as you were treated when you were at my level. I am asking for you to treat me with the dignity that you would your child, or your senior. That basic human dignity. Not to be a general bigot - which is clearly too much to ask for.

Our life experience is one of trauma and abuse. This is all day everyday, day in and day out. The microaggressions we face - as tiny as they may sound: "What kind of a childhood did you have that you didn't read Harry Potter?" "How did you not know what Mean Girls was?"  You don't see me walking around asking them "How do you not know Mzekezeke?" "How have you never seen yizo yizo?" "How have you never watched jam alley?""Remember the presenter from Selimathunzi?" This is what I was doing while you were at boyscouts and summer camp. This is what I was doing while you were holidaying in Italy and the Americas.

More seriously, because many of us grew up in households that may not have been emotionally stable, so that we had to protect ourselves from physical, verbal and emotional abuse - we learnt how to cope so that we could get here. Which brings me to my main point: This history of abuse means that we (people of colour and survivors) process "criticism" in the workplace differently.

When your white boss tells you that you are stupid, or that your work outputs are useless, discards them infront of you, and tells you that you can not be trusted, this can be triggering. Triggering of an already vulnerable center of self. Triggering of a lifetime of abuse resting beneath the surface.

As someone who is a survivor of intense abuse, criticisms brought up in an authoratative, superior tone are triggering indeed. Triggering to the point where I find myself unable to work in the wake of the trauma that surfaces. And do I have an outlet to express it? No. I have to get up and get back to the grind as is expected of me. Except now with the self-doubt imbued by an overly critical senior. There is a serious lack of compassion in these environments.

This post is not a cry for coddling or special treatment - it is simply stating a fact. We have suffered at the hands of people with more power than us for too long. This translates to no difference in the work environment. In fact work environments can be more triggering or traumatising because of processes that are in place to protect the company.

One such process is the HR function. Saying that HR has your best interest at heart is like saying that the tax man has it in your best interest to ensure that you do your finances properly. The purpose of HR is to make sure that our grievances do not turn into trouble for the company. This puts any employee in an immediate position of less power - automatically unlikely to trust the function - now couple that with being non-white and non-resourced and this only amplifies.

We are constantly treading water. Not consciously obviously. Consciously we graft, we work hard, we succeed, we exceed.  Subconsciously brewing in the background are the ways we were taught to believe that we are less than, and these come out so clearly in this environment of smoke, daggers and unbalanced power.

*Disclaimer: I do truly enjoy my job at times and do not want to quit. If you know me then this post is just an abstraction and refers to no particular incident - but an amalgamation of incidents over the years.  
** No shade to HR - just stating facts. 

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