Friday, June 15, 2007

Racial Relationships in the Workplace Re-visited

Roy Blumenthal (Creative Artist - WOW guest speaker) in response to my post on ''Racial Relations in the Workplace'' raises some very salient points. Perhaps that particular story does not adequately show that I am not addressing the issue of ''racism'' in particular but really ''racial perceptions''. More to the point, how different races relate to one another in the workplace in South Africa, and their perceptions about one another.
I was really using the story to underscore a point raised by Hilary Geber (Wits Center for Learning and Teaching Development) during our ''Grow Tomorrows Leaders'', workshop on mentoring last Saturday and the one before. She talked about how interns/mentees should seek the advice and guidance of their mentors on how to handle matters in the workplace. Given that the workplace is ridden with internal and external ''politics'', there is so much more that an intern/mentee has to deal with, which is why mentorship is necessary.
In South Africa particularly, the issue of race permeates every aspect of society and life in general. Due to space constraints in my last article on this subject, I didn't want to go into an elongated spiel, but when my friend told me the story, there were other dimensions which I didn't think would be appropriate to present in a public sphere, such as this.
I agree with Roy that my presentation of the facts does appear one-sided. And that the ''Mbigi'' (Prof. Lovemore Mbigi, expert on Ubuntu) attitude of actively and consciously examining your flaws and correcting them is a winning approach. Realistically, the issue of racial relations in the workplace is a much more complex and deep-rooted problem. As an outsider, viewing the situation objectively, I think it is not being adequately addressed.
As a non-South African, if I found myself in a similar situation to my friend, my reaction would probably have been different. I would perhaps first make sure that I was delivering on my responsibilities. Then I would go to my line manager, and have a discussion with her/him to ascertain if she/he was satisfied with my work. During that discussion I would expect to deduce if my line manager was happy with my work, if not, what areas I needed to inprove on. If this approach proved unsuccessful due to a number of reasons, which I may or may not be aware of, I would then seek the intervention of my mentor.
My point is that, the various racial perceptions and in some cases prejudices, amongst racial groups in South Africa, influence the ways in which actions that are appropriate in certain circumstances in the workplace are often-times misjudged.


Roy Blumenthal said...

Hiya Ijeoma...

Thanks for the response post.

You're making your point much more clearly. At the same time, you're not necessarily stating your central thesis very clearly.

In my reading of this response, you're saying that racial perceptions are what were illustrated by the story of your friend.

I think that might indeed be the case. But it's HER racial perceptions that we're looking at. Noone else's.

This is because SHE is the one who's jumped to the conclusion that race is at the heart of her troubles at work.

Your formula for how to deal with her situation is spot-on. She does indeed need to self-evaluate, follow that up with a line-manager chat, and only THEN start investigating race issues.

The reality, though, is that she's already played the race card, which is a terrible card to play.

Can you imagine if I stood up on a table at a graduation ceremony and said, 'The only reason you guys are all laughing at me is cos I'm white.'

There'd be an outcry.

The reason you were laughing at me was cos I was standing on the table, tearing an envelope open for a minute and a half.

Just because something corresponds doesn't mean it correlates. In other words, just cos she's black, doesn't make the way she's being treated a racial issue.

Ijeoma... I'd like to make a few stylistic notes about this post.

o State your thesis. It's not enough to say, 'It's about racial perceptions.' You need to say something like, 'In this case, racial perceptions have resulted in my friend believing she has been treated in a racist way, and, in voicing this belief, she has effectively made this into a racist issue. I believe that racial perceptions are present in South Africa, and pervade. The effect is low self-esteem on the part of employees. And estrangement for employers.'

Once you've stated your thesis, build upon it. Illustrate it. Contradict it.

In this piece, and the previous one, you SAY you're illustrating one thing, but you aren't. You're illustrating it almost between the lines.

I'm not saying your posts are unreadable, nor that they don't communicate. I'm saying that they can do so more clearly.

One last thing... It would be a good thing for you (and everyone else in the WoW group) to break things into MUCH smaller paragraphs.

There are several 'rules' to follow in this regard.

o One point equals one paragraph. As soon as the point changes, shift to a new paragraph.

o The more white space or air, the better. Particularly on the web.

(You have lines between paragraphs, and that's great. Many of your colleagues have no lines. That is not only incorrect in terms of style. It's also a bad mistake in terms of readability.)

Thanks for engaging in these issues.

Blue skies

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

Thanks Roy,
This really helps. What often happens to me (and no excuses intended) in my current circumstance, is that I am trying to do 50 things at once (terrible time management). At the same time I want to keep up my blog posting and I end up doing a shabby job. The truth is that I didn't really take time to think this particular piece through. Though I knew what I wanted to say.

I want to engage in these 'burning' issues, at the same time I want to strike a balance between expressing my views and not being seen as opinionated in an unconstructive way. I am not afraid of expressing my views but I do try to see all sides of the coin. As a foreigner, I am constantly battling to understand the society I am in. It's not black or white to me, there are a lot of grey areas. I must say some of the issues that weigh 'heavily' on South Africans sometimes amaze, fascinate and on accasion horrify me.

Anyway....... Have a good evening and a blast over the weekend. I must visit your blog(s).

Thomas Blaser said...

I do find Roy's critique of the race blog a bit too deconstructionist. I mean, as true sophists, we can poke holes into any story, we can doubt any narrative. While indeed people of any race can play the race card quite quickly (who has not had such an experience?), we want to be careful not to write race away, especially when you are on the receiving end. Often, white people lack a complete understanding of their whiteness. Their assumptions, the way they do things, how they think and perceive other people and how they act is the norm, and the other is always different and does not quite fit in.

Susan Arthur said...

Yes, the race card.. I agree it's a terrible card to play. On the question of politics in the workplace, I think it's got much more to do with things other than race (as Roy commented on the last post). I think that being an intern in the workplace comes with it's own politics... this evening I posted on my blog : "Never say 'I'm just an intern' ". People might see the intern as the lowest rung on the ladder and treat them accordingly. Some people may abuse the intern (make me tea, answer my calls, fetch and carry things for me)... or not give them enough work- as in your friend's case. I think the key is not to undervalue your own role in the organisation and you'll find that others will start to see the value in you.

Your advice for dealing with a problem in the workplace is very good, Ije. I'll come back to it if I need it.

But, at the same time, I would say that for SAfrican's race is still an issue - we aren't yet 'colour blind', although we're getting there. Also, we have perceptions about foreigners, esp Nigerians who have a reputation here (as you know). I presume your friend was Nigerian? The battle to influence and CHANGE people's perceptions is ongoing- some of that we discussed during WOW.

Thanks for the style tips, Roy. They help.

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

I agree with both of you about the 'race card' being played to white and black people's advantages quite a lot of the time. I quite like your frankness Thomas, about white folks not really understanding the race issue. This might be because (my view)racism is not usually directed towards them. That is one of the things that struck me about America, most young white kids don't understand what black youth say when they talk about being racially discriminated against. I think white kids are cushioned from these kinds of 'realities' if you like. It's a very complex subject and very emotive too. Before I moved to SA, I never really engaged with the issue. Living here, I have to engage with it every other day. I have to consciously stop myself from thinking 'am I being racially discriminated against' on ocassion. Heavy stuff.

Adam N. Mukendi said...

Hi Ije,
I can feel you in your defensive. What Roy says if not wrong. We should consider always others approaches many as we can. I know that you could react differently if that situation should happen to you. I don't have any problem with other races but I am not agreeing with any body who will try to put in my brain that such problem doesn't exist or exists only on one side. We all know the history, we should go forward now. Peace to everyone.

Thomas Blaser said...

It is a very complex issue and it is difficut to grapple with it. In places, also black kids do not know racism. Organisations in Botswana stopped sending youngsters for training in Europe because they found it so hard to deal with the racism there. They are young and never experienced such a thing before! Overall, you will find 'white' and 'black' people acting in racist ways. Often, however, I find 'white' people totally unaware about their own background, their socio-cultural characteristics and hence ignorant about how others differ from them.

Ijeoma Uche-Okeke said...

Yes,I agree that the issue is quite complex. It's interesting that as children we don't really distinguish between colour or race, we're naturally accepting of one another. I would like to read your doctoral thesis Thomas,I'm sure there are some very interesting issues raised there, as well as interesting facts. I don't really agree with Adam's view that racial issues are in the 'past' in SA. As foreigners, we may not quite understand how damaging racism has been to the black psyche but we must respect the fact that it is not a medical 'condition' that can be 'cured' over a given period. It will take a long time, particularly since it is a way of life, a conditioned way of 'thinking' for both black and white South Africans. We should make a concerted effort to be more understanding of societal relations amongst South Africans. Like the Botswanans you mentioned Thomas, I was not brought up to feel that white people are superior to black people. Infact I do not make that demarcation. To me it's about individuality and character. Over here,I am learning new things about racial relations all the time. I met a white guy once that said to me that he dated black women even before it became 'allowed', like it was a badge of honor. In the same vein, I was out with a white male friend of mine and people were looking at us as if we were a strange species. Wow!! Another instance, my jewish girlfriend told me her black friend told her that she didn't need to work because her parents could afford to 'take care' of her. This arose because they went for a job interview at the same organisation and my friend got the job. I thought that was ridiculous, at some point you have to leave the 'nest' and go out and fend for yourself, even if your parents are multi-billionaires. I suppose it depends on what side of the fence you're on. Complex huh?