“Sometimes we are so steeped in what has been prescribed for us that we need to completely recreate ourselves. That takes guts. Standing against stereotypes sends you on a journey of learning and unlearning, which takes a long time” (Sephodi, 2017:29).
This quote from Malebo Sephodi’s Miss Behave best describes my life since 2013. A journey of self-discovery. A journey of unpacking who Tokiso is and what she is about. A journey of forgiveness. A journey of letting go. It hasn’t been an easy one. Hence reading Malebo’s book was so personal. It felt like she was talking about me as she walked us through her learnt experience as a black South African woman.
I went to the 2017 Abantu book festival in Soweto knowing that this would be one of the books I would walk away with. I thought that I would read it throughout my December break – but I found myself hooked to the book and done with it within two days. It was an emotional ride.
The chapter that spoke to me the most was Chapter 8, Beyond The Quotas. It led to me to tweet, “being a black woman in corporate SA is an extreme sport”. Unlike Malebo, I have never been blind to race and from my first job – I felt uncomfortable being the “token” Black. This meant, I was always on edge – always aware. Never surprised when I’d heard that a senior white male described me as “such a bitch” because I made him uncomfortable. Meanwhile – I am no Biko-lite, as the Twitter streets would describe it. I do not walk around with a Malcolm X quote at the tip of my tongue or start racially-fuelled debates in the work places. The reality is – sometimes when you are comfortable in your own (black) skin and do not go out of your way to ‘explain yourself’ – you will be called a “bitch” or whatever lovely description out there.
“When you disrupt the existing conditions and refuse to accept anything less than what you know you are worth, you start making those who oppress you so uncomfortable that they will try anything to discredit you,” (Sephodi, 2017: 125).
Yet similarly to Malebo you learn and unlearn. I once asked an MD of a company I worked for, “why are there so few black people here”. His response was that black people are expensive. Because we are in demand – we do not stay in jobs for long periods. He stated without blinking – “I’ve seen young black people leave us here for higher positions I know they are not adequately ready for”. This very same man had spent about 15 minutes trying to prove how not racist he was. The usual, “I’ve been trying to learn Zulu for the past ten years, I support my wife with her township out-reach programmes and I bought my maid a car”.
Anyway – that conversation was sparked by him thinking I would ease his concerns about what Economic Freedom Fighter’s Julius Malema had said about white people and the land issue – and ended with me asking what he had practically done to end racist thinking and behaviour amongst his peers. I asked if when he is having dinner with friends and someone makes racist remarks does he call them out; he promised to get back to me – he never did.
So, when Malebo writes about subtle discrimination – it reminded me of that conversation with that MD. The thinking that black people are not worthy of the positions they hold. I wanted to call and hug her and say, “You are not crazy, we are not crazy – it is there”. We are deemed unworthy. We do need PHDs and twenty years of experience to work the printer. We are never skilled enough.
This is not about fighting the system – our parents did that. It is about fighting a mind-set. I personally do not think that is possible. Black women will always be seen as – children by men and white women. It is a mind-set that they themselves need to unlearn. I remember saying to my mentor in the beginning of 2017 – I am tired of educating – let them teach themselves. Why must the oppressed also be the teacher and the change agent, whilst trying to make sense of this thing called life and make means end?
When do we, as black women, find that thing within us that makes our souls happy if we spend our days “educating” men of all races on how we must be treated and viewed and respected? “…being a Black woman is a nervous condition. So much is expected of you and those who expect it can’t see the strain” (Sephodi, 2017:147).
Every day – without fail black women on Twitter share their internalised struggles, it could be from family, partners or even work. Every day in those discussion there seems to be that narrative of “save you honey, because no one will”. One of my favourite black women shared on Facebook that she suffered from the imposter syndrome all her life – she just celebrated her 49th birthday. Some of my peers speak about this too. There is so much work we need to do with for ourselves – within ourselves. We work so hard daily, we break ceilings, we speak up against all forms of discrimination, we walk away from spaces that no longer serve our goals – but our souls gather dust.
So I agree with Malebo when she asserts, “we must actively participate in our own well-being. This means rejecting all notions that keep us afraid of being our true selves”.
This is where my heart is right now. Malebo’s book was necessary for my well-being. Recreating Tokiso has been a tough journey – but knowing that I am not alone on this journey or crazy was very important.