I’m pretty sure you’re as outraged and stunned as I am by the recent hair product advertisement that “lacked sensitivity” – actually, it was outright discriminatory! I recently came across the expression “my hair is tired” which is just a different way of expressing genuine fatigue without negatively affirming it to your psyche. I think it is a fitting expression, reflecting on the TRESemmé /Unilever/ Clicks debacle. Essentially, as many agree “our hair is tired” of how individuals of questionable competence, ethics, or backbone become decision-makers. We’re tired of witnessing ongoing occurrences of discrimination and wondering whether decision-makers are aware of the impact of their actions and choices – or maybe it’s their inaction and apathy.
The base of the problem is likely much deeper than racial discrimination. Eloquently described by a colleague, what we are missing is the diversity in thought; not just skin colour – and this is true in all aspects of business and politics. For example, one can have black representatives making decisions, without raising any red flags on racially discriminatory issues. This reflects an entrenched response of glancing the other way because that is what’s common in a particular ethos, company, or group. Or perhaps it is that you fear for your reputation—that disrupting a prevailing sense of peace prevents us from calling out what is blatantly wrong. If the latter, then really… you shouldn’t be a decision-maker in the first instance. Leaders and decision-makers cannot afford to look the other way or be blasé about issues that can so seriously affect others and society in general.
So, the ‘White versus African hair’ incident was out in the media for all of us to scrutinise, but what about those incidences that take place away from the public eye?
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign took centre stage this year and entered our personal spaces. It pitted our sports heroes against one another, mostly on the basis of race. How does sanity prevail when we cannot see beyond a privileged position that has been yours since birth? How do you understand what discrimination is when that has never been your reality? According to the Native American proverb, the answer is ‘empathy’.
Never judge another man [or woman] until you’ve walked a mile in his [or her] moccasins.
It is not enough to simply believe that you stand against something. It is not enough to sit on the fence and be passive– we are way beyond that. A line has been drawn and we are on either side of it. I am not advocating for thinking we are above the law and acting outside of it. But, when we witness or hear something offensive, we need to act. That is the only way we start challenging ourselves and those around us to think differently and do better.
If this kind of indifference can pass at a company level, what about at governing levels?
Of course, some institutions put legislative measures to ensure checks and balances. It then begs the question whether these are being used effectively. From a government perspective, policy decisions made at national, provincial and regional level require effective leadership to ensure the right policies are implemented that cater to all, ensuring equality. This leadership is effectively stewardship. It is on loan to decision makers to serve the citizenry. However, abusing this leadership privilege is a well-sung chorus in the African space. All too often we are confronted with leaders and decision-makers who have positional authority but lack moral authority. The right processes must be in place to select the correct leaders so that we don’t perpetuate a more of the same mantra. Leaders that embody moral authority, those who are accountable, will help society cross the line.
So, the old adage that “time cures all ills” means that transformation will just happen, right? Sorry, no! Hoping for a long-term culture shift is … well…not an adequate strategy. There comes a point that we must address insensitivities, tactlessness, and lack of accountable leadership, instead of waiting for a cultural shift. For example, black women have been subjected to the Caucasian standards of aesthetics for beauty for centuries. We cannot expect to continue constantly proving that black women’s beauty has equal worth or show that they too, equally deserve respect. Time too has consequences, perhaps action is much more urgent to pivot towards a more inclusive and mutually respectful society.
As we look to transform as a nation, we must look to transformation in diversity in our thinking that ensures mutual respect. It takes a conscious effort to challenge our own positions, to change our mindsets, and to choose to speak out rather than look the other way. We too have a responsibility and a measure of influence, as individuals, by what we perpetuate. Let’s respond to what is not working, finding solutions within each of our spaces – let us be true leaders. If not, our society teeters on the brink.