Because I am not the only black person in the world.
I can never sleep the night before a big client meeting or a job interview, and it’s not because I’m not well prepared. It is because I am black. You might wonder what that has to do with anything, but the reality is that some white people have unexpected and sometimes even violent reactions to blackness.
So the night before a big day, I often worry about how the customer or job interviewer is going to react upon seeing me. Will I make them feel uncomfortable? Will they quickly and wrongly judge me based on negative stereotypes i.e the angry black woman, without getting to know me? Will they be unconsciously or consciously racist? Will I carry the burden of representing all the black people in the world when in reality, the only person I represent is myself?
You see all these questions go through my mind because while I have had good experiences, I have also had numerous racist experiences that have colored my worldview. You see, once you’ve been a victim of racism, you can’t unsee or unfeel how much it stings, and how terrible it makes you feel. You can’t just forget it — it stays in your heart and mind, it hurts.
I remember going for a job interview at Bvlgari — the Italian watch and jewelry company. I’d barely sat down when the interviewer said:
“Sorry, you’re black, we can’t continue this interview. I’ll never hire you.”
I sat there stunned, the words couldn’t even come out of my mouth. I gathered my stuff and left. I wandered aimlessly around the city for hours, as though to wash off the filth of his words. I couldn’t. To this day, I still remember the exact setting, those painful words. I haven’t gotten over the event — I have just learned to live with it. A bit like you do with grief, and in a way, like grief, the pain of racism, like death, still remains.
So yes, I don’t sleep well the night before these important meetings because I am never sure if my skin color will negatively affect the meeting’s outcome. And that’s a reality that I have to live with day in day out.
Having worked in global health in Africa for years, I often get approached by non-for-profit organizations looking to get me on their boards. I feel humbled to get these opportunities given the great work many of these organizations are doing or want to do. But what always surprises me is to see that many of these organizations have only white board members.
It always seems strange to me that many work in sub-Saharan Africa, but don’t have a single black person on their boards. Why is that? And don’t tell me that there is no brown or black person competent enough. There certainly are, but somehow such and such organizations didn’t see having diversity at the board level as a necessity, and that in my view is a challenge.
So now, my prerequisite for being on a board is that it must be a diverse one. I am done with being the only black person in the room — I am done with being a token.
And let me also say that being the only black person in the room is a lonely thing. When you are in a meeting with only white people, they can feel comfortable because wherever they look, they see themselves represented. When you are the lone black person in the room, you don’t have that same comfort. It can sometimes feel overwhelming to be in the minority, to be the only person that sticks out, the only person that is different. And while I may have accepted to be the only black person in the room in the past, now I can no longer do so.
I want to spend the rest of my life in places that value true diversity. I want to be in places where I see myself represented. I want to be a part of building a world where we are all free to be ourselves — where white supremacy no longer has a grip on society.
Thank you for reading my perspective.