OPINION: Workplace racism is real; how should you respond to it?

Thursday September 10 2020

Charles Makakala

Charles Makakala 

By Charles Makakala

Life is stranger than fiction.

If not, how do you explain the action of one of your colleagues, a Chinese, pointing you to his bag so that you can carry it for him?

The year was 2010. I had just finished my master’s degree and I was fired up – confident that I could tackle anything that life would throw at me. Oh, youth!

I got the privilege of being employed by a big Chinese corporation. I heard that they were about to close a certain deal and I felt that they could use my services, and the MD was kind enough to oblige me.

We had a team of possibly 40, six locals and the rest Chinese. There were three Swahili engineers and one Asian (a highly capable young man). The Swahili guys were not applying themselves enough and they set the tone for the low expectation that the team had of us.

The Chinese team was mixed – with a few brilliant individuals, and many quite average ones. After a while I started to figure out the regions they were coming from, whether they had spent enough time abroad or not, and their financial positions. Those who were freely mingling with locals usually had cosmopolitan backgrounds and their English was more polished too.


On the fateful day, my colleague and I had an appointment somewhere. Just after we had stepped out of the office, as we were waiting for the lift, my colleague motioned me towards his laptop bag for me to carry it!

I have always wondered what is it that I did to signal to him that I was moonlighting as a porter! As a young man, fresh from a ‘British’ university, I held myself to an exceedingly high level of professional discipline then. How could anybody mistake me for a khalasi?

Now, to be clear, I hold that any kind of work is honourable. But, surely, no one needs an advanced degree to carry some luggage, do they? As a person, I am never comfortable being served, even with those under my employ. So, how did this guy feel not only so entitled to be served but also to conclude that a professional of my calibre was fit to carry his stuff?

In Tanzania it is a taboo to speak about race issues. As a result, the status quo is perpetuated by our silence.

I once had a client, an organisation with dozens of employees, where only two – a janitor and a clerk – were African! Imagine that! How about a group of 20-plus companies employing thousands, yet no African is managing even one company? Or an NGO with offices in eight East African nations where all the country heads and directors are white! You can’t find leaders in an African population of 200 million but can find them relatively fresh from American universities – this is surely a joke, isn’t it? Sadly, it isn’t.

You probably work in one of these organisations. You know that regardless of your qualifications, certain positions will be filled by people from China, India, or the US. So, how do you address that?

Firstly, what not to do. Keep the ‘Rhodes must fall’ nonsense out. You are not an activist; you are a professional, so don’t position yourself as an outlaw if you want to belong. Find creative ways to address the situation without causing trouble.

Secondly, you must be better than your colleagues. There are no shortcuts – a shared experience among ‘people of colour’ worldwide is that they have had to work twice as hard to be considered fitting. Swallow that bitter pill.

Thirdly, learn the rules of the game. One of the rules is – make your boss shine. But if the bastard’s whole purpose in life is to keep you down, then solve him. Always document your work and announce your presence whenever necessary. Don’t allow unscrupulous people to misappropriate your record. So, your ingenuity made the organisation reduce OPEX by 30 percent? Great, write an internal paper showing how others can get similar results!

Fourthly, be strategic. Racism is usually an unconscious bias, the sin of low expectation. The perpetrators usually consider themselves to be quite cool. Excellent. Push for competitive HR policies. If implemented, the best people will slowly make their way to the top.

Finally, be assertive and make your ambitions known. In Arusha, one fellow asked for an opportunity to undertake an exercise which the whole management assumed could only be done by a team from India. The boss agreed and gave him a team to assist him. He responded: Thank you, I didn’t ask for a team, sir! He ended up replacing his boss when he retired. Be that guy.

Now, for those who are curious – let’s just say that I managed my situation. One of the highest points was when three of my colleagues who had hardly talked to me before took me out for lunch to ask how I managed to deliver a certain presentation the way I did!

It is said that those who can, demonstrate. People might not like you, but they desire what you bring on the table. Raise the stakes.