“Representation serves many purposes. It’s a subtle permissive nod that you belong. It’s a tangible manifestation that says it’s possible and that you are not smoking your socks by wanting to realize those dreams of yours” -Tshepiso Gouwer
When I started modeling, check I had no idea whether I would be eligible to be taken seriously because I like so many women in this world did not fit the typical modeling criteria of being a certain height, weight, or skin colour, things that were not in my control. I decided to focus on Accounting and get my degree so I could work in an industry that I thought would reward a person based on hard work, something that was in my control. In 2014 I started at an accounting firm that looked nothing like me, at least at the top. Much of the managers and partners were white and male, which is incredibly abnormal when the backdrop in South Africa (where I’m from) is approximately 80% black and just over half are women.
To be in a space that looks nothing like you is extremely intimidating even when everyone is well meaning because not only do you feel you should prove your stay but you constantly need to go the extra mile to feel part of the organization. For instance, the universal go to social event in the corporate world is golf, which would be great if 1) I understood golf and 2) I played golf. It’s an elite sport by nature and it unsurprisingly selects that most of the players would be male and white. Another representation matter would be how a dress code forgets to understand that our afros are actually very tidy and we aren’t being unprofessional by keeping it that way. Or that you need to keep explaining to your manager why you use public transport (which can be unreliable in South Africa) because your hypothetical car installments are used to support family members. One must go above and beyond because we all know that one’s performance review is not solely based on what is done in the office but on a whole host of uncontrollable things.
When I moved to the United States just 4 months ago, I thought that perhaps a country that’s had a little more time than South Africa to integrate would be a margin better. On the contrary, it’s proven to be the exact same. Most days I’ll walk into the boardroom where the minority are women and I’m almost always the only black woman. This is even more disturbing to me because I’m not technically African American, so if I’m not here who is making up the numbers for them? Who is speaking on their behalf, hearing matters from their perspective?
Some people may put it down to a simple disinterest that black women have in finance or that companies are offering them more attractive positions hence a high employee turnover, but not only is this a lazy argument but a destructive one at that. It comforts companies into believing that they are already doing enough and that the problem lies with black women. A lot of black women shuffle in and out of companies because they don’t have anyone who looks like them at the top. Some of the hardest working women either end up peaking in middle management or don’t bother going into the industry at all because seriously what’s the point? When you’re thinking of a financial advisor or an accountant you’re rarely going to imagine me, a black woman. This stereotype is further perpetuated by companies that constantly overlook black female candidates because people do business with the people they like.
Many organizations still undermine the importance of representation. To so many black women representation makes all the difference. To be mentored by a senior person who identifies with you and understands your challenges provides a more holistic approach to your development. Diversity in leadership means that the organization will make decisions considering a variety of views. It’s becoming less and less of an achievement for organization to have a “first black this” or “only woman that” because it highlights just how long it’s taken them to realize our greatness. With that in mind, representation is in a centuries long backlog and needs to immediate redress not only in the entertainment industry, as it most notably gets attention, but in the corporate world too.
My advice for a young black woman whether you are in the arts, on the runway, in the corporate world or in a laboratory, is to push to have our faces there. Do not give up. There are days when you will be completely misunderstood or undermined but keep going anyway. It’s not an individual effort but one that is carried by women who look like you every day. “I go forth alone and stand as ten thousand” those are the words I keep drumming in my head because Maya Angelou was right, I may be a black woman handling what seen as “white money” but truthfully our presence realizes the dreams of the women who came before us and the dreams of the women who will come after us.
Written by Khanya Modipa