I remember landing in Perth on a hot February afternoon. I wondered how I would survive Australia. I have lived all my life on the African continent. Most people looked like me and for the first time, I felt the sting of being a minority.
I wondered why people stared at me when I entered public places. It was the stares in stores and public transport that made me aware of my difference. I understood then that in this land there would always be something that made me stand out.
I shocked myself when I got angry because someone complimented how good my English was. I failed to understand why it was a compliment for a person like me to speak good English. I started to speak in what I imagined were clearer tones. I stopped rolling my words like I used to, lest people confuse it for not knowing English.
Later I understood that some people here had not had encounters with a variety of people like me. We all had different stories but in this land, we all had lived the same lives and spoke the same language. Here all we were, was forever grateful for opportunities that were not in our lands.
I loathed the “poor you” looks people gave me. They pitied me, as they thought of the poverty and hard life I had come from. Some people were happy that their country could pull me out of that hardship. Others were fearful that I would bring violence to their quiet neighbourhoods.
It took me a long time to understand that the fear came from what they saw and heard in the media. They did not know any better or want to know any better. I made it my mission not to notice their uneasiness. Now my mission is to break that ignorance.
In most of my professional roles, it was the norm for me to be the only person of African heritage in the workplace. I remember a few years back asking someone who was on my hiring panel why they hired me? He said my African heritage was a major factor. They needed diversity in their organisation. The reply disappointed me. He did add that I was a very capable candidate, but I could not shake off the token feeling.
When my workplace all over sudden had more people like me, it was weird and uncomfortable. Why did this diversity that I had longed for, become weird and uncomfortable?
I felt if we hang out together at work, it looked as if we were segregating ourselves. I remember the “how are you brother/sister” looks we gave each other in the streets. I wanted to do that instead of having a proper conversation like everyone else. It was ok for us to socialise outside work but at work, people would find it weird.
I had become attached to being the token person of African heritage. Being around other people of African heritage in the office took away my specialness. I did not know what to do but feel uneasy about this change in the same way the locals were uneasy about my existence.
The problems I have found with token persons are:
• Accepting your specialness. There is no glory in being the first unless others join you
• Organisations thinking they have diversity when they have a few people they point to
• Others in the organisation feeling the tokens do not deserve to be there.