An AHRI member talks about her long battle against racism in her professional life.

I watched the global Black Lives Matter marches on the TV. Then the Australian protests around the treatment of Indigenous people followed. There was a sense of momentum in the air; people were finally starting to pay attention to the systemic racism packed tightly into the nooks and crannies of our society. Maybe this would make people think twice about their own racist behaviours, I thought. Then I read this article from the Huffington Post.

It was about a Sydney barista named Ayokunle Oluwalana who was fired from his job at a Bondi cafe because he was black and the cafe’s customers were “a bit racist”, according to Oluwalana’s manager. His termination was veiled behind supposed complaints about the quality of his coffee. Customers just preferred the coffees made by the other barista (a white person), he was told.

I was appalled but not surprised. I have been through similar experiences. I know exactly what it feels like being subjected to countless micro-aggressions and overt slurs, such as “Go back to where you came from!” in a country that prides itself on its tolerance and love of equality.

Climbing to the top

Let me start by sharing my story. I arrived in Australia in 1973 as a young woman with a baby. I became a single parent soon after due to family violence. I went looking for support from community services, police and other agencies, but I received no help. These were the days before women’s refuges were established. The experiences and effects of domestic violence were denied or swept under the rug.

I found a flat, put my daughter into school, got her aftercare with a neighbour, and then found myself a job as a typist. I was receiving the lowest rate of pay, but I was thankful for the safety and peace of mind that employment offered me.

I was doing the work of three people in my lowly administrative job, but my value was not acknowledged. I faced the twin currents of racism and sexism. Promotions to supervisory roles were denied on the basis of the argument that “workers only respected Anglo bosses” and “I don’t want a woman ‘bossing’ around men”.

My degree from an overseas university wasn’t valued, so I decided to get higher education in Australia. This was to be my key to success. I went to university part-time at night while working full-time by day. I got my first post-graduate degree in Australia at age thirty-five despite comments by male classmates who said I would never get a professional job. 

Thanks to a couple of fair-minded men in high positions, I got my first professional job and soon stepped onto the managerial ladder. In the mid-eighties, I became the first ethnic, female manager at the multinational organisation I was working for. I worked to bring in new policies and equitable processes for women and men. I continued my studies, gaining two post-graduate degrees – a Masters in Commerce and a Masters in Applied Psychotherapy – which helped me to add value to my future roles within the executive suite of ASX-100 and multinational organisations.

I point all this out not to simply relay my history, but to give you a sense of my experience and qualifications before I share some of the most offensive experiences of my life.

Pushing through barriers

While my career was off and running, it was not without barriers and obstacles from racist and misogynistic people. I was determined not to let them hold me back. I was resolute in my aims, strong in my performance and wanted to make sense of my life by helping people who I met on my journey.

One of the biggest challenges for me was getting into executive teams. Discriminatory hurdles were put up by recruiters, managers, colleagues, employees, clubs, retailers – you name it. 

Here are just a few of the discriminatory moments I’ve experienced in my life:

  • At a company sales conference, I was introduced with the words: “Just look for a black face with white teeth”. 
  • Airport lounge staff refused to serve me a drink.
  • On a company ‘family day’ I was introduced as “the little black typist”.
  • At a ‘posh’ hotel, I got the mouldy room overlooking the dumpsters. When I asked to change rooms, I was told to show my credit card first, even though I was hosting the conference.

While the twenty-first century has brought about some positive changes, it’s been at a glacial pace. Workplaces might celebrate Harmony day, for example, and the buzzwords of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are everywhere, but we’re still only inching towards true integration, equality and acceptance when we need to be charging towards this.

Stereotypes and assumptions

I retired ten years ago and, hoping to be in charge of my own destiny, I started two new businesses and became a tertiary-level educator. I also found my purpose and voice by becoming active in groups dedicated to women’s empowerment and education, specifically around sharing advice around employment and voting rights and supporting survivors of domestic violence.

But despite my life-long efforts, I’ve not been able to escape the clutches of racism. Neither have all the other Black, Brown, Yellow and Indigenous people in our country.

Racist behaviours continued in my life in various forms, ranging from covert or veiled comments to overt discrimination. It came in the form of patronisation, condescension and often being completely dismissed. Many of these behaviours came from well-meaning people who didn’t understand that their words and attitudes camouflaged their deep, unconscious beliefs. They’d say things like: “you’ve got a funny name”, “where do you come from?”, “you’re wearing gaudy clothing and strange jewellery” and “how often do you go home?” (as if Australia is not my home).

These preconceived ideas were also encountered in my professional life. Even though I’ve got skills, qualifications and experience on various topics, I’m still often met with disbelief when I relay my knowledge. I know I’m not the only person of colour to feel this way.

We seem to be judged by our looks or skin colour before dialogue even begins. The people making these assumptions have kind but dismissive gazes that sweep over us in a way that makes us believe we are invisible. I believe condescension, disdain and ‘invisibilization’ are currently the most common visible forms of racism – the unconscious or barely hidden bias, the stereotyping that says ethnic and Indigenous people are not as capable and knowledgeable as white people. 

Racism has ‘morphed’ into new forms, ranging from covert to subterranean. It is entrenched in organisational systems, in racial stereotyping and biases (conscious and unconscious) and deeply held beliefs and unspoken attitudes. 

Few of us will ever get apologies for the racist slurs we have experienced. Instead we grow a thick skin like the proverbial elephant, becoming impervious to such behaviour. Sometimes, if the comment or behaviour feels egregious enough, we call it out and condemn it. Why? Because racism constitutes a waste of human potential and nullifies the combined efforts of First Peoples and all migrants into making this country great.

Menaka Iyengar Cooke is a coach, consultant and psychotherapist.  Now retired from the workforce, she is a social activist and commentator on political and social issues.

Take an active stance against racism with AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion resources.

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