Updated: Sep 15, 2020
An exclusive interview with author Sihle Bolani by Myesha Layne
Intersectional discrimination in the workplace is nothing new to black women across the diaspora. We are encouraged to speak differently because our natural tone is too aggressive. We are pressured to change our hair so that we align with the European aesthetic. We are paid less than our white, male colleagues who have the same role and experience as us; we are typically paid the least of every demographic.
In her book, We Are The Ones We Need: The War on Black Professionals in Corporate South Africa, Sihle Bolani shares her personal experiences as a black woman in a white, male-dominated corporate environment. As a communications and brand management specialist, Bolani worked for major corporations up until 2015 when she decided to work as a consultant on her terms. Bolani recalls the transition to self-employment as consisting of “many broke days.” Though as difficult as the change was, she now, looks back and appreciates the journey of discovering her purpose.
Bolani was driven to part ways with her corporate employer because of its toxic nature. She describes the environment as “predominantly white, predominantly men” with “black women at the bottom.” When asked about how the demographics of a workplace can affect the minority employees, Bolani says, “Those disparities show themselves up in so many ways… who gets promoted and who doesn’t, who gets paid more and who doesn’t, who gets away with behaving badly.”
Bolani recounts a situation that triggered her exodus from her corporate employer, “She was a white woman [and] became very aggressive and verbally abusive because I did not allow her to walk all over me.” Up until that point, Bolani had never been confrontational in the workplace. She also did not play into office politics, believing that “my work will speak for itself. [I] shouldn’t have to play games.”
However, when her manager began to taint Bolani’s professional reputation by propagating to colleagues that she did not add value to the company, she says she knew she had to “dig deep within myself and start fighting.” Bolani says she asked herself, “How do you find the balance of protecting yourself and defending yourself, but also not being too pliable in the workplace?” Burdened with the stereotype of the angry black woman, she began to explore ways to successfully set up boundaries.
Issues like moral licensing and tokenism make it difficult to set these boundaries. Bolani defines moral licensing as “the thinking that says because I’ve done something good I can get away with doing something bad.” She uses black women as an example to further explain this concept: “If [a company] hire[s] a black woman, that’s a great thing so then [they] don’t have to pay her what [they’re] paying white people. Because, isn’t it good enough that I’ve got her here?” Bolani laughs at this ideology, exclaiming, “It’s not even doing a good thing – it’s the right thing!”
On tokenism, she says, “It happens all the time. Several different narratives come into play.” One of these being exceptionalism, the idea that black professionals have to be different from the rest of their community or assimilate to white culture to succeed. White people perpetuate this idea with comments on speech or appearance like “you speak really well” or “your hair looks nice when it is straight.”
“Tokenism for me is… damaging to the progress of black people in the workplace because it’s a farce. It’s a show to make it appear that your organization has transformed and it’s so diverse.” Additionally, Bolani affirms that tokenism encourages “black professionals [to] believe that there’s only space for one or two… and then we start competing against one another.” This hinders unity, which is necessary for any movement seeking to make a change. Workplace policies cannot be amended by one or two voices and diversity is not just having “one or two black people on the executive level.”
Bolani revealed: “When I quit my job I left and did not have any job lined up. All I knew was that I had to get out.” Bolani had no intention of writing a book; it was at the suggestion of a family friend that she began writing about her experience. Bolani remembers thinking, “If I’m struggling with these [conflicts] then someone else might be feeling the same.” Tired of allowing other people to direct the narrative of diversity and discrimination in the corporate world, she felt “there aren’t enough black voices speaking about these issues” and that it was important to “tell our story as black professionals” ourselves.
Bolani went on to say, “In South Africa specifically, the people who are considered specialists when it comes to issues of diversity are generally white consultants. [This] has always been the craziest thing to me because [they’ve] already gotten it wrong.” She believes a key element of resolving these issues is “getting the language right about what these experiences are [so that] we can start changing them.” According to Bolani, the people causing the problem should not determine the language. It is those who suffer from these issues that deserve to have their voices and concerns heard.
Being the woman of action that she is, Bolani created a space for black professionals to express their issues and concerns with working while black (which is the name of the website). In her words, Bolani “created [this platform]… with the idea behind it [being] to have content that is eye-opening, that is affirming, that is sharing knowledge and insights related to the workplace, related to labor law, related to HR issues…”
Bolani is a proponent of transparency amongst colleagues, saying “We can’t fix it until we know what we’re dealing with. If everybody is silent about it how are we going to challenge it?” She advises that black professionals speak up and fully understand their rights. She’s launched a podcast, The Workplace Revolution, where she discusses these issues and different paths to resolution.Episodes are available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
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