/ 29 January 2020

Let’s talk about workplace racism

For the few black people who ‘make it’ to justice, there are many more who struggle to access their basic human rights. (John McCann/M&G)


Young professionals continue to be confronted by discrimination based on their age, gender or race. Respect for fellow colleagues is important, but there is a tendency for older people to demand it but not to reciprocate it. The shutting down of young people’s views leads to a fall in productivity. 

Young black women are more likely to be discriminated against than young black men. And all black people, whether men or women, continue to endure subtle and overt forms of racism in the workplace. 

Too many young black people silently endure racism and discrimination at work, leading to them being sidelined, bullied and overwhelmed, which can lead to depression. 

Linda Ronnie, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, says: “While overt forms of racism are becoming increasingly uncommon in the workplace, thanks to legislation, it is still pervasive — ask any person of colour working in this country.” 

Eusebius McKaiser stresses this argument in his book Run Racist Run, saying: “Despite key pieces of legislation declaring black people legally entitled to substantive equality, racism remains alive and well.” 

I have spoken to my peers about their experiences at work and, to be honest, it seems no young black professional is spared from racism and discrimination. Examples include shouting, deliberately refusing to assist young black colleagues when they seek help, passing belittling and condescending remarks, not giving constructive criticism and making them do work but refusing to credit them. The list goes on and on. 

Too often organisations promote employees into managerial positions who do not have the skills to deal with discrimination and racist behaviour. Sometimes, it is direct line managers who maintain racist attitudes in the workplace, rendering attempts to tackle racism futile. In many institutions, the human resources personnel are often ready to cover up for racist tendencies. HR is almost always ready to side with powers that be, and we all know who has the real power in any institution. Ronnie says: “Educating employees, especially management, in terms of how to deal with racism and racist incidents, rather than sweep these under the rug, is critical.” 

Strong institutions should be institutions of ideas, spaces in which “social justice must be attained and experienced by everyone who enters it”, according to McKaiser. But it seems there are no “safe spaces” for young black professionals. 

Many young black people are sitting on street corners with their qualifications. Those who do manage to find employment have to deal with issues that a university degree does not prepare them for. Many companies that employ young black people expect them to silently endure whatever is thrown at them, making them feel as though their appointment was a “favour”, despite having qualifications that match the job description. 

Condescending attitudes and comments are slowly eating the life out of young black professionals. Instead of using our energies to advance, we have to deal with people who refuse to acknowledge our worth and the work we do. Racism struggles are suffocating; they drain the enthusiasm and drive out of us.

Many of us stay in toxic positions because we are the breadwinners in our families. We find ourselves in a dilemma. Having a job is better than not having one, therefore the only solution is to suck up the nonsense and suffer in silence. While life is about trade-offs and making difficult decisions, some of the experiences that young black people endure on a day-to-day basis at work place our sanity and mental health at risk. 

We constantly have to justify and explain. There is a tendency by white colleagues of assuming they know what you want to say when you have not even finished your train of thought. How many young black people have sat down after a conversation with a white colleague and thought: How did we get here? A simple conversation or request turns into a messed-up misunderstanding. 

Many senior black people continue to fail to protect and shield young people from racism and discrimination at work. We see that they too are discriminated against, but we also have noted that many of them do not hold any real power to take action against their white colleagues. They are expected to deal with the bad behaviour of junior black employees, but they remain powerless when they have to deal with junior white colleagues. 

It cannot be that, 25 years after democracy, young black professionals still have to deal with racism. We owe it to the next generation of young black professionals to expose even the subtlest forms of discrimination and racism. 

Tshidiso Tolla is a PhD candidate in public health at the University of Cape Town