In South Africa we live in a very racialized and race aware country. Everything is defined in black and white, and there is a mountain of pain, rejection, fear and lack of acknowledgement that falls on fragile, hurt people. It is a humanitarian tragedy that has found some, but little healing in the years since the country’s democracy in 1994.
Before 1994, many educational institutions were not open to black people, and those people who were accepted were faced with institutionalized racism. I want to tell you the story of one person who could have been broken by the system, but chose not to be, but nonetheless carried a lifelong wound.
It was the late 80’s, she was registered to do a Sciences degree, of course, the only black woman in her class. In the early days, her professor walked up to her and rudely said, “What are you doing here? People like you shouldn’t be in this class”.
At a university renowned for drugs, sex and rock n roll, she put her head down and graduated with honours. Thirty years later she is at the top of the commercial tree, close to god, a vice president for a major multinational. By every external metric, she is a massive success.
I have been privileged to coach this remarkable woman.
And yet, her tears live just below the surface, the cut of that passing remark has plagued her insecurity. It has fueled a chip on her shoulder and encouraged her to box people in an equally racialized manner. It has caused her to find hurts and slights where there weren’t any, to be over sensitive and overly judgmental. None of which has served her. It has kept her stuck in an old story, trapped in negativity and resentment.
I needed her to reframe the experience and to find a different story, a liberating story, a story more suited to her intellect and success and to the present. “What was the gift in his cruel comment?” I asked.
Silence. Long silence. And then slowly the tears poured down her cheeks.
Without that comment, she may not have worked as hard as she did, reached the levels she has, been as committed to learning as she has, been committed to achievement that way she has. Her whole life may have been different. For the first time in decades, she could re-look her story, change the narrative, and claim her power. She could acknowledge the gift in his ignorant and unforgivable statement. She could be grateful for having received it.