This month’s piece is about something that I feel very passionately about to the point that I sometimes feel a deep sense of frustration. I’ll use a recent discussion between someone I know and a colleague as an illustration to set the tone.
A: Hey my Naija sister, how are you?
B: Fine. Can’t complain.
A: How is work?
B: Same old, same old.
A: So, I saw you having lunch with oyinbo, was that your boss? [with a look that kind of said “You sellout”]
B: Male or female?
B: [Short laugh] Oh, I’m his boss!!
A: [Shocked]. How?
B: I’m the supervisor for that section and he happens to be one of the employees.
A: But he’s old.
B: Yes. He actually just joined the team and I’ve been training him.
A: Wow!! I can’t believe these oyinbos allowed you to get to such a position!
If you want to know why Africa as a continent does not seem to be reaching its full potentials, if you want to understand why people of African descent in Europe and the Americas seem to be held back, that last line is a big clue.
You see, this kind of dialogue is something that I’ve actually heard countless times in various quarters and the fundamental question that crosses my mind is-Why would we inherently think that another race is better than we are?
That question has some obvious answers- Slavery and colonialization. I’m not much of an expert on history but I’m sure that there is hardly any part of the Black race that did not experience either form of oppression and as such, we could argue that such events in history may have had a lasting effect. Could it be that even though we have been “free” for at least a few decades, our oppressors still exert some measure of psychological or even metaphysical control over us?
Even though I may not have a definitive answer to the point raised in the previous paragraph, I’d still like to disagree with it at least a little bit.
Afterall, it is from amongst us that the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Haile Selassie and Dr. Martin Luther King came about. Do you want to now tell me that the race which has produced such fighters, such achievers, would now find it hard to produce a manager at a hospital in Texas? I don’t think so. Our people have suffered through any manner of oppression/brutality that you can think of and still been able to come out on the other side. Why then should we be afraid of some “workplace politics”?
I get that we have suffered oppression in the past (some of which still goes on today) but we have proven that we are tough and resilient and even though we often need to work twice as hard to achieve the same things as our melanin deficient relatives (scientists say we all evolve from a single ancestor); we are highly capable of doing just that. Besides, we are dealing with people of whom a significant percentage still think Africa is a country. How hard can that be?
Let’s be honest here. Things have been tough for us as Black people as a whole. Just look at the largest companies in the united States for instance. Among the Fortune 500 companies, only 5 of them have Black CEOs and according to reports, the boardrooms also reflect such racial disparities.
When I look at people like Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, Carnival’s Arnold W. Donald, Marvin Ellison of J.C. Penney and Ursula Burns of Xerox, I feel a sense of pride and hope that people of African descent can actually achieve big things but then a small feeling of depression overcomes me when I consider the fact that there are just 5 of them in the midst of 500.
Now, there is a saying in my Native Yoruba that goes- “Mi ko wa bi wa ta epa” which translates to “I’m not here to sell peanuts” which I think is self explanatory. Living in America (or any other part of the West) means that there are way too many opportunities out there for me to not use some of them to my advantage. The 5 CEOs named above have proven that it is possible.
Even if you live on the African continent where infrastructure and opportunities on ground might be limited, globalization and widespread access to technology has ensured that opportunities which in the past may have been far fetched are now literally within reach.
So how exactly do we take advantage of these opportunities?
As individuals, we need to be strategic and deliberate and proactive about our careers. We need to free ourselves of the shackles of self doubt and allow ourselves to dream….Of course , upon waking up from such dreams, there is work to be done so they can become reality.
Do some self discovery. Find out what you are good at, what you’re passionate about and then allow yourself to be driven by these factors. Just make sure that these passions and skills align with areas of need because it is only then that you can have a truly fulfilling situation. Don’t get caught in the trap of doing something just because “it pays well”. You will never reach your potential if you do this.
Read books that inspire. Watch/listen to TED talks that educate. Always keep your eyes out for information. Any kind of information. You never know when you’ll stumble on something that could change your life.
Get yourself out there. Grow your network. You never know if that person you strike a conversation with at a conference is someone who could land you a position at your dream employer (this has happened to me).
In addition to all of that, what we really need to do is have belief in ourselves. That is the most important thing. Couple that with the right training and hard work and I don’t see why we can’t achieve whatever we want. Teamwork is also important here. It is very important, that we look out for and help each other.
Before I conclude this piece, , I’d like to do something I haven’t done before on Ezibota.
As much as I’ve talked about all these issues, I think it might also help to have examples we should do collectively. Here’s what I’d like to do.
As I approach graduation from my PhD program this year, I have started actively searching for a job and hope to have one secured by the time I graduate in December. I have done some research and used a salary calculator to determine what I’m worth on the market so I know what kind of roles are for me and what kind of compensation is acceptable for my level of education. I will also use some of the career development tools provided by my professional association during this process.
After graduation, I’d like to participate in programs where I can go into predominantly black schools and talk to them about careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) just to help them expand their horizon and help them realize how much they can achieve if they believe in their own potential. I also plan on going to my native country, Nigeria, and setting up (or partnering with) an organization that teaches young people leadership skills with the hope of helping them become productive citizens.
So, that is part of my plan. What is yours?