Being The Black Face In A Predominantly White Space

Back when rose-tinted glasses were considered “chic”, I was thoroughly optimistic about being part of the advertising industry in this country. I had this unrelenting urge that grew even more during my tertiary years. There was something quite glamourous about the industry and the lifestyle that fed it. The idea of the ‘agency life’ and the rock star culture that surrounded it appealed to my young creative mind.

It could have also been the fast-paced nature of the beast, or the ad folk’s inclination to drink excessively (I’ll find any excuse to drink, to be honest) while somehow managing to come up with rad campaigns that I gravitated towards. Either way, in the back of my mind I knew that this space was where I belonged. Who would've known that the very same industry I so badly wanted to be a part of, was averse to the likes of me and what I represent! My being black, a woman and disruptive was something the industry was never ready for. I have found that being all these three things in a predominantly white space is almost always met with some hostility and disapproval. The reality is that woke black people pose a significant threat to a space where white male patriarchy continues to thrive, it’s a threat to a system that privileges people merely on their gender and race.

My illusion about the industry was first shattered in 2013 when I was faced with the reality of being an underpaid junior at a digital agency where I was the only black copywriter. My very white, very arrogant and very mediocre line manager believed he could demean and speak to me the way he did with my other black colleagues (I’ll touch on the ‘lekgoa laka’ conditioning in the black community some other time). When he didn't get the desired response or reaction, he resorted to making me look incapable to the rest of the management teams. Until that point, the concept of white male privilege felt too far removed from my reality. This reality doesn’t infuriate me as much as it did back then. Now I’m too exhausted and lazy to outwardly confront the lack of transformation in most ad agencies, especially when doing so has proved to be fruitless in the past. I used to be more passionate about being one of the people to propel the tranformation cause, but I now see no point in investing my energy in an environment that is toxic to my mental and conscious well-being. I’ve decided to opt for a feeling that requires less exertion from me - nonchalance. If you haven’t yet been acquainted with the nature of things, know that being woke is taxing.

Having been in the industry for a little over four years has made me realise that the ‘promise to deliver more transformation in the workplace’ by some of SA’s top agency execs is invalid BS. While this sentiment may have been reassuring when I first started out in the industry, I now see past the lip service. As I write this, I’m currently the only Senior Copywriter at my place of work who is black and female. Before you think about giving me a round of applause, let me highlight what is problematic about this faux achievement. Firstly, it’s 2017 – there should be more black bodies occupying these positions, considering that black creatives have proven that they are more than competent. Instead, I sometimes fight the urge to flag the fact that I’m the only black face in a meeting with a client who’s mostly selling to people who look like me. Secondly, I didn’t tirelessly work my butt off for years, trying to prove to ‘Baas’ that I'm deserving of a promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I am a dedicated employee but I’m also fucking good at what I do and I know my worth. When I felt the latter wasn’t of any significance, I resigned. A few months later I was given the position and salary I deserve. I’m not indebted to anyone because nobody was doing me any favours. More of us brownies need to realise the power we possess.

Thirdly, to fully grasp why the lack of representation isn’t being addressed with the urgency it deserves, one needs to simply take one look at who occupies the seats in ExCo. Top-level management is almost always an all-white affair. They say addressing the lack of diversity is of paramount importance, but the truth of the matter is that they’re dragging their feet (considering that they have the influence to make white spaces more inclusive) because they're not losing money, yet.

"Well, if we make it so hard for you to integrate with us, why not leave and form your own, "representative" agencies?". This is usually the arrogant rebuttal we (woke black creatives) are met with whenever we spark a conversation around representation with the powers that be (wypipo – aka, white people - and their fragile egos, shem). The short answer is, we’re planning to, so bear with us.

In the meantime, we need South Africa’s white advertising industry to admit that it needs us as much as we need it. Agencies need us for the BEE score, they need us to acquire more clients (and to make more money in general), and they need our insight to sell to the more conscious black consumer. In case you missed it, the latter has become hostile and impervious to the old method of advertising. Candid conversations need to take place, by