Black mentees, Non-white mentors

As a young black woman in the workplace, I am fascinated by my intersectional positionality in relation to senior women ‘of colour’ or, to borrow from Black Consciousness terminology, women who are non-white.

Biko made a distinction between blacks and non-whites - people of colour that have aspirations of being white. The Black Consciousness movement (re)appropriated the category “Black” (which had been used to shame Africans) and used it as a tool of and for resistance.

Under the Black Consciousness Movement “Black” found a new meaning. It denoted someone who “committed [themselves] to fight against all forces that seek to use [their] blackness as a stamp that marks [them] out as a subservient being”. Those that wear their Blackness as a token of resistance and self-love are regarded as Black. Those that see the colour of their skin as a badge of shame and aspire to whiteness, are non-white.

Non-white seniors often relate to their black juniors from the premise that they have gifted them an opportunity, one that has to be guarded against squandering at all costs. This is much like the ‘colonial gift’ whiteness claims to have given Africa by colonising her. Africans are expected to be eternally grateful to the master, lest they forget where Africa would be without his ‘grace’. Black junior staff enter the workplace with “fountains of potential”, desperate to be honed by the master, or so the story goes. Although this sounds like something noble, the danger is that you are ultimately someone else’s project, not your own person.

This is a very hellish position to be in because at some point, one must decide whether they want to be ‘groomable’ or not. This is also particularly difficult when one is being groomed to become a ‘magical negro’, a term popularised by Spike Lee to denote a black that uses their powers to serve the interests of their white master and never their own.

Blacks and whites occupy very different worlds in the workplace. Whites are mentored to lead, blacks are mentored to serve. Whites are assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise. Blacks are assumed to be incompetent and have the responsibility to prove their competence.

They are expected to eagerly perform the most mundane tasks such as making copies, tea, sending emails and ordering stationery, all in the name of ‘proving themselves’ to their superior. They can only graduate to doing meaningful tasks once their superior ‘feels’ they are ready. Even then, they have to be readily available at the master’s request.

Such relationships have either one of two endings. The black mentee either becomes a successful project or failed one.

The successful project is one with which the master is pleased, the ultimate magical negro. Their progress is forever tied to the master; it is the master that made them and they are forever indebted to them. Throughout their career, in one form or another, they are expected to pay tax to the master.

Alternatively there is the unsuccessful project; the black mentee that dares to claim their humanity, one that rejects the notion that they have to constantly prove themselves. They are a disappointment to the mentor whose intentions, or at least they claim, are to make the mentee an exceptional black, an idea that is problematic in itself.

The challenge then is resolving the inextricable link that often exists between exceptional blackness and magical negritude; that is, both ultimately serve whiteness. By attempting to “rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude” (Biko, 1971), the mentee is seen to be lazy and arrogant.

Uhuru is not yet.