Executive Insights

Things some South Africans think are fine to say at work — but are actually racist and offensive

Business Insider SA

The concept of racial disparity in promotion. Mini
  • Discrimination is still rife in many workplaces - often through seemingly innocuous comments by people who are expressing their prejudices.
  • Many black people have to constantly contend with the mispronouncing or complete disregard for their names.
  • We list some examples of unthinking, hurtful comments that South Africans have experienced.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Every day, many South Africans experience painful microaggressions in the workplace - often seemingly innocuous comments by people who might be well-intentioned, but who are actually expressing their own racism, sexism, or ableism. 

“Treating people with care and respect should be an automatic response. But this is not always the case. Particularly in the workplace, with people from all walks of life who come from a whole host of diverse backgrounds and cultures," says Hayley Gillman, CEO of Business Optimisation Training Institute, which does diversity training in SA.

“The sad reality is that even in this day and age, discrimination, whether it be racism or sexism, is still rife in the workplace,” said Gillman.

Here are some examples of unthinking, hurtful comments that South Africans have experienced, and shared with Business Insider: 

'Your name is so hard to pronounce'

When *Anathi started as an intern at a company, her manager asked whether he could call her "Athi" because it was easier to pronounce.

"This was someone I was supposed to report to and work with. After I told him that I prefer Anathi, because 'Athi' isn’t my name, he stopped paying any attention to me." He was supposed to show her the ropes at her new workplace, instead she was stuck without any guidance. 

“This might have not been an issue to someone else but we know history and how our black names were replaced with names that were easier on the tongue to make other people feel comfortable but completely removes our identity. My name has meaning,” she said.

*Tshegofatso says her white colleagues call her "my friend" to avoid pronouncing her name. "I just shut down."

In one instance, a black colleague was asked whether he has an "English" name because his name was deemed too difficult to pronounce.  

'You must know Soweto'

The only black journalist in a newsroom, *Thandi was approached by a colleague for the name of any headmaster in Soweto. "That time I lived in Randburg and I'm not even from Joburg, let alone Gauteng. I gave her the education spokesperson's phone number.” 

'All black people support the ANC'

“Once I was told 'you people continue to vote for the ANC', when I was talking about corruption. That, to me, felt as if we can’t think for ourselves and as if we are condoning the behaviour of the ruling party. And in all honesty that felt so wrong considering our chequered past as a country and the relationship that South Africans have with the ruling party,” said Tshegofatso.

'Oh, sorry, wrong person'

If you're an underrepresented minority in an office, and there's one other person of your identity in the room, there's a chance that the majority group will confuse your names.

'You're so articulate'

"When a white colleague tells a black person 'You're so articulate' or 'You speak so well,' the remark suggests that they assumed the person in question would be less articulate - and are surprised to find out they aren't," Christine Mallinson, professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told Business Insider.

'Oh, you're gay? You should meet my friend Nthandoyenkosi. She's gay, too!'

Adi Barreto wrote for The Muse about a few issues she's faced in the workplace as a queer woman in tech.

One of the things she's encountered: that classic suggestion that many well-intentioned straight people pull out for LGBTQ friends and family - offering to set them up with another LGBTQ person they know.

"Just because two people you know have one thing in common, doesn't mean they'd be a match," Barreto wrote. "Yes, there are fewer people we can date, but that doesn't mean we don't have standards in personality type, values, and everything else you care about, too."

'Let me explain'

Mansplaining continues to be a very demeaning experience for women. "This usually happens when male colleagues over-explain things as though women have absolutely no knowledge or expertise,  thus making women feel as though their views and opinions have little sway or value and ultimately go ‘unheard’ unless they are backed up by the man’s expertise,” said Gillman.

'Wear something sexy for the client'

We've all heard it: a male colleague suggesting - as a joke - that his female co-worker wear revealing clothing when seeing a client to ensure a better chance of sealing a deal.  "This is not only completely demeaning to the woman concerned, but also infers that the only way to secure the outcome is to do so by using one’s ‘womenly wiles’ as it were,” said Gillman.

'My boss is crazy'

Calling your female boss "crazy" or "hysterical" has sexist undertones, because these words have a long, problematic history.

"In the past, especially in 19th century Europe, women who had anxiety or who were seen as troublemakers were often diagnosed as being 'hysterical,'" Mallinson told Business Insider. "The word 'hysterical' comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus, signifying that the so-called disease was specific to women."

So, when you call a woman "crazy," it suggests that her concerns or actions are illogical, rather than the result of critical thinking.

'The way you've overcome your disability is so inspiring'

"Too often do we forget that people with disabilities, too, have to deal with microaggressions on the regular," wrote Wendy Lu, who has a tracheostomy tube, on Bustle. "They can take place in everyday conversations, making them hard to call out unless you want to be looked down upon for making a big deal out of 'nothing.'"

If you have a coworker who has a disability, avoid tropes like telling them their disability is "inspiring," or tip-toeing around it by referring to their disability as a "special need."

"I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning," comedian and activist Stella Young said at TEDxSydney.

In other words, you shouldn't be shocked when your coworker with a disability is able to accomplish just as much as their able-bodied peers.

* Not their real names.

Additional reporting by Marguerite Ward 

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