I am quite coy when it comes to sharing my experience as a black female. There is a reason behind it; I was born and raised in Africa. I grew up seeing black CEOs and my identity as a black female was never questioned. Beyond the privatization issues threatening national heritage, and our history as a colonized country, the language in my household was deprived of oppressive insinuations. I knew I could become anything I put my mind to if I worked hard.
I understand sharing stories is a powerful tool to impact communities, and tapping into it is the right thing to do.
When I moved to Canada for school, a predominantly white environment, I had no idea my self-confidence would be challenged in profound and subconscious ways. Being the or playing a victim is foreign to me. I don’t make excuses as I have an accountability mindset. My motto is I show up and get things done. That work ethic has always ushered my doings. The City Capital, Ottawa, where I landed in this foreign environment, was very white. As a student, I have never faced direct prejudice or perhaps I was ignorant of the fact for the most part. Another explanation would be my ability to downplay any form of hostility because my mind was inundated with positivity. In the workplace, that changed completely. I was the only black person in many contexts, and I became aware of my difference - I am black. During my time in the retail banking space, some clients would openly refuse to be serviced by me as a front liner and in the office. In one instance, a client stated: "I need someone with more experience". I looked as young then as I am now because "Black don't crack". It wasn't the words that were uttered, but the discomfort in the room I felt from their energy. For someone recognized as providing exceptional customer service, that was surely an odd feeling. Though puzzled, I rationalized and moved on. I decided not to dwell on it as always. The experience that stayed with me during that point in time as an Account Manager was when I declined a personal loan to a couple, which led them to say, and I quote: “I don’t understand why the government keeps helping these “immigrants” and can’t support their own people" right to my face. I froze at first. After a heated exchange of words, I got my manager involved. I rationalized it and told myself it was a reaction to the loan application outcome. Upon moving to Toronto, prejudice became more and more blatant. Most people think of Toronto as this diverse hub, which it is to an extent. I remember a friend visited my first summer in the city and said, "Wow this got to be the first time I see this many black people in Canada ''. I looked at her and said, "Don't judge the book by its cover - there is more to it". It takes more than colored streets to attest to that diversity. The reality is different when you are in the corporate space. In other words, the financial district, as was my case. As a black female, I saw fewer people who looked like me: so much for a Mosaic, one would say. In addition to the microaggressions, a client cornered me by expressing discomfort dealing with me because of my accent. That sure left a bitter space and made me feel unfit. I had a “wake up call”, and brushed depression. The same girl who left her country full of confidence for the first time was challenged by an existential matter: it was not adapting to her new environment or learning about the Canadian workforce but her identity. I decided to contribute to the solution instead of rationalizing the problem. I started actively searching for support from the black community and joined organizations that helped navigate racial and professional hurdles: CAUFP being one of them. Being black in Canada has some emotional and physical repercussions. It is not as "in your face" as is the case in the U.S, but it is very present. I will take it up a notch and say being a black female is a bigger setback. But this is a topic for another day.
What has helped navigate the uncertainty of my deserving career and future has been a strong support system composed of emerging and successful black professionals and entrepreneurs paving the way for others. They encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, make myself visible, and speak up. I learned to see my difference as a strength and not a disadvantage. I also learned that "working twice as hard", a phrase justifiably used within the black community, and my mantra, is the recipe to stand out. Mothers to Daughters has been a space for me to muster and connect women from all backgrounds and walks of life. I have learned indispensable life lessons from the Mothers in my life I will always cherish. But I can't forget that I am black. I wear it as a crown to push myself and pave the way for the generation of women seeking people to look up to as I once was. Our community is strong thanks to its diversity, but we can not be oblivious to the issues Black and People of Color in general experience.
I highly encourage you to engage in uncomfortable conversations with black people in your life and learn about their experience and offer to support them. Ignorance is not an excuse in today’s world. And sometimes, it starts with having uncomfortable conversations with our entourage that looks different than us. The goal is to educate ourselves. It has to be intentional and not fabricated to reach quotas.
I was recognized last year by ELN as a Black Rising Leader and asked to share my thoughts on the responsibility bestowed on me and my response was: “I want to use my voice and embrace my identity to unlock doors I am unable to access. A rising leader is hopeful, brave, and does not stand back in the face of challenges. The stakes are too high. The time is NOW.” You can read the rest of the piece here.
I will continue to support the black cause unapologetically and work harder to have a seat at the table. I want tomorrow to be better for the generations of black women that will take over when I am no more.
Happy Black History month!
Post by Francine, Founder of M2D