Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 17 May 2013

Fifty shades of affirmative action

As the debate about affirmative action continues to rage, it has become increasingly apparent that few people are willing to acknowledge the extent of their own power and privilege. The discussion is being framed in absolutist terms: it benefits all or it benefits none. The truth, as it is with all policy implementation in South Africa, is far more complicated. However, what is not in doubt is the need for us to deepen our commitment to removing the barriers to employment of race, gender and class.

For five years I headed up a large foundation and managed a multi-million rand budget. Other than having two children in an incredibly short space of time, it was the hardest and most exhausting thing I have ever done. And, like rearing children, it was filled with ambivalence. There were many aspects of the role that I was totally under-prepared for and that I did badly, but there were many others that I did well and that I grew to love.

Was I an affirmative action CEO? Absolutely. Am I embarrassed about that? Certainly not. I went to excellent schools and universities, have lived all over the world, and have been good at every job I have ever held. So in many ways, I am the ideal affirmative action candidate. I am firmly middle class. In fact, in the South African context, I am part of a tiny elite – and my elitism cuts across gender, race and class. I studied at a prestigious private high school and then attended a small, wealthy college in the US.  I hold a master’s degree, and I have worked for excellent global organisations, including a stint at the United Nations in New York. I regularly publish articles, and I belong to a number of international professional networks.

None of these accomplishments were handed to me on a silver platter. I worked hard for the scholarship that made the elite college in the US possible, and I certainly worked my guts out in the various positions I held as I gained experience in the workplace. For a long time I was the youngest person in the room in any work setting, and when I became the head of the organisation I was far younger than most of those whom I supervised. Invariably I was also outnumbered by men.

There is no question that I “earned” the top spot in some ways, and would have been competitive in any pool. But it is also true that I did not have much management experience when I got the role. So an undeniable part of what clinched the job for me was the fact that I am both black and female. That doesn’t embarrass me. I was capable of many aspects of the role that I was stepping into (and after I stopped being petrified I grew into the other parts quite quickly) but I am also realistic enough to know that part of what worked in my favour was the growing recognition globally that leadership has to be more diverse than it has been in the past. The organisation had to take a gamble, and I was the perfect black woman for the spot.

To a large degree this was because I was able to understand the local context and environment, and I could relate to colleagues in the US. Thus, my days were spent in two shifts – first the nine-to-five here in Joburg managing a busy team, and then around four pm, when New York was awake, I would begin to look at emails and get on the phone for telecons on the other side of the ocean. I could joke about the latest episode of The Wire, with a colleague in the New York office, with as much ease as I could tease a junior staff member here about her love of Generations.

I felt equally comfortable in either domain, and in both worlds my blackness and femaleness were seen as valuable commodities. But let’s make no mistake, if I hadn’t been so “legible” to those in power, if I had had been a riskier bet – more politically radical, less “polished” – then affirmative action or no affirmative action, I wouldn’t have got the job.

And this is where the problem with affirmative action lies. It works best for people who already have some form of privilege. Affirmative action latches on to the knowable parts of the “other”, and rewards these. In today’s South Africa, my class privilege is a significant advantage, and it is one that will allow me to land on my feet even when affirmative action is not at play. In this way I differ significantly from the vast majority of black South African women.

Gender inequality is alive and well in South Africa, but so is class privilege. Often, class trumps other factors in the oppression stakes. My personal experience is that often when I have been on the receiving end of overtly identifiable sexism, my class privilege has served as a buffer. And of course the most difficult experiences of racism and sexism for me have been veiled, harder to discern but palpable in their texture, and always, at the hands of white males whose class privilege is exponentially higher than mine.

I have wondered in recent weeks, as the debate about transformation and affirmative action has raged in the public sphere, why so few people are willing to be honest about how much power and privilege they have. It is as though the conversation about affirmative action has to be framed in absolutist terms: we are all winners or we are all losers. As with everything else in life, the truth is far more complicated. We are all complicit in systems that oppress others, just as most of us can tell stories in which we have suffered heartbreaking cruelties at the hands of the same systems.

It would be ridiculous to pretend that I don’t possess oodles of social capital because of my personal and familial history. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need a helping affirmative action hand – I am all too aware that sexism and racism affect us all – but it does mean that I benefit more from this lift than someone who doesn’t have my access to networks, education, and an economically secure nuclear family.

This doesn’t take away the importance of having an entry point into leadership for the thousands of elite black people and women like me for whom racism and gender inequality continue to be obstacles to progress.

It does mean that the policy approach we require might best be described as affirmative action “lite”. The support and accompaniment required for young black managers or university entrants who have clipped, posh accents and parents with deep pockets is similar to the support needed for anyone who is young in the workplace. But there are some important differences. While young black and brown people in this cohort will be just as educated as their white friends, and in the case of young women, will probably have accomplished more than their male peers, they will be more likely to suffer from confidence deficits than their elite white and male peers for all kinds of reasons we know too well.

Even more importantly, elite black and female candidates are less likely than their white male peers to see themselves represented in the panels that interview them (at least in the private sector) and in the workplaces that they join.

I am not suggesting that panels that consist predominantly of white men and/or women that choose white and/or male candidates because they are racist. That would be too simple, and too easy to address. In real life it isn’t about bad white people trying to subvert heroic black folks (not anymore). Overt racism is still a factor in our society, but what is more commonplace, and in some ways more pernicious, are the other less formal, seemingly innocuous way in which racism is kept alive.

In a recent conversation a black woman friend of mine, who has held a series of senior leadership positions here and in the US, reminded me that the real problem is that “We all hire ourselves”. We recruit people who share our strengths, and whom we can relate to, and very often, these people look like us.

In a country still fraught with racial divisions this continues to result in white men with power defaulting into hiring bright young men who went to the same schools they did, who are eager to learn, who remind them of themselves at that age. These men are less likely to recognise that spark in a young black woman from Mitchells Plain.

When I sit on interview panels I try hard to ensure that organisations are looking to place skills, personalities and leadership and followership traits that round out a team. I often differ with managers who want to hire mini-mes. If you are trying to build an institution that avoids groupthink, that rejects obsequiousness and rewards drive and difference as much as it does team building, then this is the only way to go.

I understand how it happens that gender and racial inequality are reproduced by perfectly reasonable and well-meaning people every day. In part, it is because we are a long way from the day when empathy is entirely devoid of race and gender content.

We have begun to make inroads into addressing affirmative action in the public sector. We have often done this badly – but there are few examples of any type of policy in South Africa that has been well managed at the implementation stage so affirmative action is no different in this regard.

We haven’t begun to look in more meaningful ways at why affirmative action is good for companies, beyond its importance as a principle. We haven’t begun to recognise its value in diversifying not just who gets to be a leader but what leadership does, how it operates differently if you cast the net wider.

More importantly, I fear that we are many years away from leaving affirmative action “lite” behind us. The heavy lifting will only begin once we address class and its intersections with gender and race.

Instead of ditching affirmative action, South Africans must deepen the commitment to it. We must insist on an affirmative action agenda that shifts the barriers to entry for the sprinkling of white people and the large number of black people and women who are born, live and die poor and unemployed in South Africa.

Imagine the outcry when the country starts on that project? DM


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