Nobody knows my name

Mar 18, 2021 | Diversity & Inclusion

“Mum, I know everyone’s name in my class, but no one knows mine. They tell me to move out of their way and I don’t know who they are speaking to”

My daughter had been at this dance school for over a year. She was the only brown girl in her class.

My heart broke. Tears streamed down my face before I had the chance to gather myself. When my daughter started at the dance school fourteen months ago, one of her first observations was that she was the only brown girl in a class of twelve. We had used that opportunity to reaffirm positive messages of “you are perfect just as you are” and “our differences make us unique”. But naively we did not realize that we were sending our little girl unarmed into a world that was not designed for her, with the hope that thirty years later, that world would have changed so much that our child would not experience the same heartbreaks we had at her age.

Let’s talk about the color of your skin

As the tears streamed down my face, and hers, I knew that it was time to have “the talk.” She is only ten and I was not much older than her when my aunt, an accomplished educator and an empowered activist told me, “no matter what you achieve in your life, there will always be some who will hate you because of the color of your skin”. I did not know then what that meant, until much later in life. I certainly did not think that over three decades later, I would have to say the same thing to my own child.

“No matter what you achieve in your life, there will always be some who will hate you because of the color of your skin”

My tears flowed in sadness for my child, and in sadness for the inevitable reality that I was about to tell her the hard truth — that the color of her skin would mean that she would experience the world differently. My tears flowed because I was about to prepare a ten year old for battle with an army the equivalent of the Game of Thrones White Walkers, a mounting unstoppable force that just never dies. Until a little girl drove a dagger through its heart.

So, I started the only way I knew how. I told her a story.

Surely if my parents told me that the world was fair, then it was.

I had just moved up to the “big city” after finishing university. I was eager to leave my small town and start my first steps towards financial freedom. My parents told me that if I worked hard and kept my head down, I would go far. I believed them; I knew no different. Surely if my parents told me that the world was fair, then it was.

I applied for numerous jobs and secured interviews quickly. South Africa was a fledgling democracy, and I was one of the young little chicks entering the lion’s den. I had secured an interview at a telecommunications company.

I recall that morning vividly. I took a taxi into the city from a relative’s house, where I was crashing on their couch until I could find a job. I put on my best clothes, the only blouse and skirt I owned which I had bought with money I earned working a part time holiday job. I rehearsed and practiced what I would say all the way in the taxi ride.

I was met by a receptionist who asked me to sit outside the door of the executives who would be interviewing me. I walked in and was greeted by two women. Neither shook my outstretched hand. They gestured to a chair.

I thought that my personal story mattered because surely stories matter when humans connect

“I’m Karen and this is Tracey. So, tell us about yourself” the one woman began.

I started off by introducing myself as neither of them had referred to me by my name. “Well, firstly my name is Sharita.” I giggled thinking that perhaps they had just forgotten to ask. I was met with a glaring stare. I felt a hot flush creep up my neck, and I started to ramble on, talking about myself, my background and what had brought me up to the city. I thought that my personal story mattered because surely stories matter when humans connect.

But their eyes were glazing over, I was losing them. “Tell us about your skills.” She drew out and emphasized that last word. When I was done Tracey said, “Good. Prepare a presentation, a mock-up of an internal newsletter. In PowerPoint please. Come back tomorrow at three for your second interview.”

They nodded me out. Neither shook my hand nor said my name.

I went back to my cousin’s apartment and asked her if I could use her laptop. “Do you know this thing called PowerPoint?” She shrugged nonchalantly. She was a journalist. I don’t think she even registered what I was asking. I sat at her makeshift dining room table and got down to work. I had never used PowerPoint before. How hard can it be, I thought. I can learn this. It took me an entire night and most of the morning, but I pulled it together. I had what I considered to be a pretty good presentation.

My interview slot was delayed. Someone was in before me and was taking up more time. She burst out the room laughing with the two interviewers. They had their hands on her back and were giggling. Karen was flushed, looking excited and energized. “Great job, see you soon Susan!”

Darn I thought, I’ve lost this. I pulled myself together and reminded myself that failure was not an option for me. So, I gave it everything I could, and I knew instinctively that I had nailed it. I finished my presentation and there was an awkward silence.

“That was impressive”. Tracey was clearly surprised. “You are clearly quite proficient in PowerPoint”. Of course, I have eight hours experience, I thought.

“Our time is up. We will be in touch”. Karen remained silent, not looking up.

“You smell bad”

Two days later I received a call that I got the job. I accepted. The money was good, and I needed to get off my cousin’s couch. On my first day I walked into my on-boarding meeting with Tracey, who I was to report directly into. She started off looking flushed and awkward.

“Look I must say that I am sorry about Karen. Its just her personality, she is not friendly. But I really fought for you, you must know that. Your presentation was the best. I mean really good!”

I was confused. If I was the best why would Karen not want to hire me? I think she mistook the confusion in my eyes for the need for an explanation. She rambled on nervously. “She is old school you know. A bit…well. She’s not used to people like you. You know what I mean.”

‘No,” I said. I genuinely didn’t. No one prepared me for this. My parents told me that I just had to work hard and keep my head down. That’s all.

Tracey was getting increasingly agitated with me. I think she thought I was being insolent, provoking her.

“She said you smelt bad” she blurted out.

As she said it, I think she saw the genuine shock on my face. “But like I said, she is old school,” she said dismissively. “Just do a good job, don’t let me down now!” She said that last bit in a high-pitched sing song voice with a big smile.

I walked out the room, my face hot, tears burning in my eyes. I couldn’t believe she had just told me that. I found myself in the bathroom, sobbing quietly.

No one looked like me

Tracey did the office tour with me. No one looked like me. I felt eyes piercing my brown skin. I felt what they were thinking. Why is she here? She doesn’t belong here. My brownness was starting to feel piercingly hot. I was aware of my skin now like never before. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was alone, unarmed, vulnerable and Brown.

I spent a long excruciating year there. I didn’t make friends. I wasn’t invited to the after-work socials. I stayed out of the canteen because no one invited me to sit with them. I was given a desk at the far end of the office. I was told to do the photocopying, get the coffee and take minutes, even though I was a cum laude graduate with an Economics major.

I silently walked in and out of rooms, floating around the office, brown and invisible. I tried to impress them. I worked harder than my peers. I tried to be what they wanted me to be just to fit in. Nothing worked. In fact, the harder I worked, the more I showed them that I was smart and capable, the further away from me they moved.

My name was rarely used, other than on e-mail. Our CEO referred to me as “Tracey’s girl.” My boss called me “my assistant.” Others just said, “the new Indian girl”, even though I been there a year. Karen never spoke to me at all and directed her instructions to me via her assistant.

I learnt everyone’s name. I looked them in the eye and greeted everyone by name every day. I waited for them to afford me the same respect. It never came.

Because you are not White

I was at a golf tournament, which I was asked to organise, but not to participate in. I was stacking books signed by a golfer called Ernie Els. I didn’t know him. Apparently, he was famous. Golf was certainly not a sport I was exposed to. I had to research the basics when I was asked to organise the event.

A man walked past. “Hello Crew!” he laughed. He was gesturing at my name tag. I was the only person, other than the sound and lighting people who had a name tag that said Crew.

“Well it’s my undercover name,” I laughed. “If I told you my real name, I’d have to kill you.” We both laughed and he sat down with me, helping me stack the books.

“It’s harder for people like you”

Not long into the conversation we were sitting by the fire, sipping Irish coffees and talking freely. “How did you find yourself here?” he asked. I considered the question.

“Out of necessity, I suppose. But its not my world.” I let that sink it, and he considered it.

“Where do you want to be?”

“Well, I feel like the business world is easy for me, I get it. But it feels harder than it needs to be. And I don’t know why it has to be that way”

He looked surprised. “Because you are not White”, he shrugged. I was taken aback. Coming from him, a White man, it was startling. My parents never explained to me that life was not fair. I thought that if I worked hard, I would progress. Simple.

“It’s harder for people like you. Especially at this time in this country. I’m sorry that it is. But…” He shrugged again.

My cloak of invisibility had become my amour

I didn’t know then that he was our incoming CEO. He was not South African. I think in some ways he felt like an outsider like me. He became an ally and a confidant. I had gotten to know the business intimately well in the twelve months I was there. My cloak of invisibility had become my amour.

I silently floated around absorbing knowledge. When I poured the coffee, I would linger just a little longer, memorizing the terminologies they would use, leaning the language, understanding the context and researching what I didn’t know. When I stood by the photocopier, I listened to office chatter, phone calls, and corridor meetings. No one noticed me. No one knew I was constantly and silently observing. I learnt then that silence is powerful, and it’s not always the loudest who are the smartest. Listening and learning is powerful.

I helped him transition into the company, sharing my knowledge of the South African market, the changing customer base, what I had learnt from my intimate observations of our weaknesses and how to adapt and transform. He listened and learned and leaned on my knowledge. In return, he shared his network with me, giving me access to people and places I could not access on my own. Through those networks I carefully planned and navigated my way to the largest mobile network operator in the country, launching my long successful career in the ICT industry.

Say my name

At my farewell, he asked me what I wanted him to say on my behalf. I simply said, “say my name. Acknowledge me.” And he did.

When I ventured into the world outside my community, I was not prepared for the hard reality that the world would not be fair to people who looked like me. For a long time, I presumed that it was me, that I was not smart enough or good enough and that I needed to prove myself more. I learnt the hard way that the world is simply not designed for me and others like me.

I grew up dancing at our community school and riding horses bareback on my family farm. Like many little girls, I watched Fame and dreamed of one day training at Julliard. I watched riding shows on the television and hoped that one day I could compete at international shows. But back then, there were no equestrian schools that would accept me or dance schools that would prepare me for international competitions. So, my dreams remained just that. As talented as I was, I could only dream.

Now my children are able to access that world. They play golf, tennis, ride horses, dance, and attend private schools. Naively I had hoped that by being able to participate they would be able to belong. But they still cannot. As much as things have changed, they remain the same.

That is their privilege. This is our burden.

As I told my daughter my own story, in a way she could understand, I reminded her that it was not about her. It is about people like her. And that she is not alone. Even now as a grown woman of 44, I am often still the only woman and person of color in a room. I still experience exclusion because of the color of my skin. I still feel the hurt and rejection of a little girl when I am excluded, when others who look different from me are automatically respected, included, given authority and trusted because of the color of their skin.

The reality is that the little girls in that dance class will never have to feel like there are spaces they don’t belong in because of the color of their skin. Their mothers never have to have the conversation with them, that I must have with my daughter of color. That is their privilege. This is our burden.

To tell my child that she needs to fight for the very basic right to have her name acknowledged, and hence her very existence acknowledged, is heart breaking beyond any words I could ever pen.

I knew that I was placing an enormous burden on a young girl’s shoulders. I was telling her that her life would be hard at times, and that the world would not always be fair to her. I was telling her that the color of her skin meant that she will have different experiences, ones that will be painful and confusing. I was telling her that she had to teach people how to treat her and demand respect and acknowledgment, because it will not be automatically afforded to her. To tell my child that she needs to fight for the very basic right to have her name acknowledged, and hence her very existence acknowledged, is heart breaking beyond any words I could ever pen.

This is our burden.

As much as my heart breaks with her, I am preparing her for her world. She will not go unarmed as I had — learning through being broken.

As the tears streamed down her face, she looked at me with wide sad eyes and asked, “But why mum?”

“Because a long time ago baby, a big lie was told, that because of the color of your skin, some people are better than others. But it is a lie. And many people in the world are working hard to change that lie”

“Lies are bad mum, I want to be one of those people to change it” My heart burst wide open.

“So, let’s do it baby!” And then we pinkie swore on it, sealing the deal forever.