Marketing Executive, Henley Business School, Africa.
In my MBA group I met an excellent man. He runs a large HR department for a South African corporation currently navigating turbulence. I was struck by his high level of self-awareness, and his ability to care for people. His eloquent and impassioned defence of HR was convincing whenever the class discussed it.
One day he invited me for coffee off-line. I was intrigued and went along. Shortly after arriving, he blurted out that he hated me. From my privileged white perspective, being told in public by someone of another race that they hate me fired an old neural pathway and I felt the knee-jerk reactions of a poorly developed white mind. I fully appreciate that saying “white mind” may trigger some reaction. But that’s okay, these patterns are exactly why I left comedy. I’ve spent decades leading crowds to the lowest common denominator. Shame on me.
I have worked hard on myself since the flaws in my own upbringing started to show. I’m a sociopath, the result of 80’s South Africa, where every law, every nuance and every social heuristic taught me that black people were apparently dangerous and inferior and inherently evil. And yet, my parents went to work every single day and left me with one. As I enter the generative phase of my life, I acknowledge that my wiring is bad.
Let’s call it faulty programming. I realised in the moment that the problem was my inability to compute with my colleague was really saying. And therefore, before reacting with my own stung pride, I decided to adopt an attitude of non-judgemental enquiry. Disengaged from the nonsensical algorithms of my past, I smiled at my colleague and said to him: “That’s interesting, may I ask why?”
My colleague told me he grew up in Soweto. He had an older brother whom he idolised. Big brother got into politics at around the age of 14, became radicalised at 16, and sometime after that was murdered by a white policeman.
I told my colleague that I didn’t blame him for feeling hatred. I wouldn’t know, perhaps I would hate someone if my brother was murdered by someone who looked like them too. “Now what?” I let the question hang over the table. He said: “When I first saw you at the school, I thought you might be crazy enough to work through this with me over the next few years.” Suddenly, I wasn’t a white guy talking to a black guy in the binary world we’ve all perpetuated. I was looking at my new brother.
He’d reached out across the bullshit coding we’ve all been conditioned to believe is the truth. It’s not. This man had taken a calculated risk that I’d catch his hatred comment and hold it for him and not throw it back in his face. I felt the old wiring light up at first, but I’m learning to question my motives before I respond these days.
Why am I telling this story in a business publication? Because we need a safe space in every business in this country to say “I hate you”, where your team are caring enough to understand that what you’re really saying is – “I’m in pain,” and not turn your own words back on you.
We need to allow each other to be different and scarred and bruised and damaged and divided by an appalling past, where we trust each other enough to let our wounds show, not pretend they don’t exist. Where we can be individuals shaped by injustice and inequity and hardship, where we can share stories of resilience and resourcefulness and luck and privilege and guilt and shame, and where we can forge something honest from diversity – not a flimsy fiction based on optics.
I have been told by many clients that this is almost impossible to achieve, and it will be, as long as we allow that mindset to prevail. Be brave leaders, test your own frameworks. They’ll only break if they lack integrity. Trust me. Sbu* did.