A Journo’s open letter to “white colleagues”

My favourite newswoman and former Mail & Guardian senior political reporter, Mmanaledi Mataboge – now working for the now controversial City Press which has of recently been speculating on news than reporting them as facts – wrote a brilliant piece on 23 September 2009 to her “white colleagues”, saying their intolerance of her and their disregard of her talents and accomplishments because she is black have resulted in both of them failing to “know and understand each other”.

My dear white colleagues …

Remember when I was introduced to you on my first day? Many of you had somehow managed to forget me after working with me for a year.

I failed to understand why only black people — from the cleaner right up to the chief executive — could remember me and you did not. I knew most of you by name but to you I was a total stranger.

It sounds like a small matter but it plays straight into perceptions I make about you. You are not interested in your black colleagues. In your eyes, we do not exist unless you want something from us.

You are probably not racist or intolerant; we are in this situation because both of us do not make time to know and understand each other.

But perhaps the bigger problem is the lack of acknowledgement of the contribution that I, as a black person, make. You are not open to some suggestions because you don’t know me. You refuse to know me. Sometimes I feel that you do not see my talents and accomplishments; these are overshadowed by the colour of my skin. I might walk with confidence and a bit of a smile sometimes, but I’m not entirely happy. I lose the desire to contribute fully because I am not sure if you believe in me. I have thought about the options I have, the options that my fellow black colleagues have. I’m still here because I want to be here and I’m hoping for change.

For people watching from outside, they probably envy the senior positions we occupy but it feels like window dressing to me. How much influence do I have in decision-making? You skip me and assign my team members work without my consent. How do you expect me to account for their performance if you make decisions without consulting me? Why are those colleagues reporting to me if you can simply jump over my head because you can?

You seem to be blind to the fact that your black colleague’s morale is low because she has to work extra hard to gain your trust. And that’s even before I get to impressing the big boss. It’s as though the bar is raised a bit higher to rate my work as compared with the work of my white colleagues.

I honestly believe that you do not realise how sceptical we, as your black colleagues, are, how we sometimes are reluctant to participate in decision-making forums because we think you will not take our contribution seriously anyway. But we give you time, over and over again, with hope that you will eventually wake up to reality.

It is already difficult for me to be the only black female at meetings. When one of the two black senior colleagues is absent, the boardroom feels like a country where I need to carry a passport.

You see, my dear white colleagues, I think you ignore the fact that we have a history of racial tension and it is still difficult to trust you. I aspire to excel in my career and work twice as hard to prove my competence. You don’t need to do that; you are automatically trusted. When you’re ill you drop everything and stay in bed. I work from home when the doctor has booked me off because I do not want to feed into the assumptions that black people are unproductive. I am wrong: I should also stay in bed instead of fearing your assumptions about me.

I’m probably suspecting you of things you’re not even aware you’re doing; they will remain my assumptions until we start talking about them. But before we start the talks, I want you to stop grinning every time we walk past each other. I hate it. I feel like you’re pretending. I don’t trust you and I always watch my mouth around you. That’s precisely why I did not speak to you when you thought I had problems.

It’s probably assumptions we make about each other that make us fail to understand one another. We sometimes bitch about you in private. It’s wrong, but I know you do the same.

If you think there is nothing wrong with our office, think about this: we divide ourselves along the racial line every time we have a social event. Remember how we sat at last year’s Christmas party? A table had to be extended to accommodate the black folks, while other tables stood half empty because you had already occupied some seats. The same happened at the 2003 Christmas party. In fact, it happens at all our social gatherings. It’s a complex situation.

I also fail to reach out sometimes. That’s why I did not invite you to a Women’s Day lunch at my house. I was tempted to, but simply did not think you would want to come, so I settled for black and coloured colleagues. I feel the same way about our sporting events. You do not support the football team — don’t expect me to support the softball or the cycling team. I will not do it. Until you come to join us — as a supporter or a player — you can keep your softball and bicycles and we will keep our football. We are not in the business of making you comfortable, especially when you are not trying to meet us halfway.

I guess you also have a few things you’d like to tell me and other black colleagues. Be fair and say them as honestly as you possibly can. Maybe then we can start some dialogue about things that make it difficult for us to work together.

I struggle to build relationships with you, my dear white colleagues, because of the walls you have built around yourselves. Until those walls are torn down, we will continue to misunderstand each other. Or maybe, just maybe, black colleagues should take it upon themselves to break those walls down. As one colleague said: “We have to work on them, one white colleague at a time.”

This is one of the most frank and sincere open letter I have ever come across, one written by a journalist, nogal, whose opinions on her colleagues of another race was, fortunately, never censored by an editor. That is the spirit of freedom of opinion and expression in South Africa– one that is not only threatened here at home but in many other parts of the world.

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