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Make room for the strong Black woman

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Make room for the strong Black woman

Meghan Markle’s shocking disclosure of deep-seated racism in Britain’s royal family is just another example of why Black women are still at the bottom of the social heap. It is time this changed, says Moky Makura.

One of my oldest friends is White, female and lives in the UK. Recently we tiptoed delicately around the subject of Meghan Markle and the bombshell interview she gave to Oprah Winfrey in March.

My friend believed the interview was unwarranted, sensationalist and deliberate in its intention to paint the royal family in a negative light.

The same could be said of the late Princess Diana, who like Meghan, also chose to use the media as a platform to air personal and family grievances, 26 years earlier. My friend said that this was different – of course, it was. Princess Diana was White, Meghan is Black and both are judged very differently.

As a Black woman I could understand Meghan’s experience at the hands of the Royal family or ‘the firm’. I too have experienced judgement and racism, the difference being my ‘firm’ was where I worked.

Similar to Meghan’s situation, as a Black woman in a leadership position, I was in the minority and the place was dominated by White (and male) people. The narrative about me became the stereotypical one that many working, confident Black women face, especially in the diaspora – the narrative of the angry Black woman.

It’s a world where you are held to a different standard, where your confidence and being articulate means you’re angry; and where your blackness means you’re intimidating.

Black women who are confident, smart and not afraid to voice their opinions are often seen in a negative light. A YouGov poll in the UK, taken shortly after Meghan’s interview, confirmed this – 58% of those polled viewed her negatively.

The reality is that strong, Black, articulate women are judged more harshly. Sadly, regardless of their talent, they don’t always get ahead because they don’t conform to the view we have of a Black woman’s place in the world order.

In order to succeed, Black women, ironically, are often encouraged to make themselves smaller and less intimidating to fit the mould made for them. An African  female friend, who holds a senior position in a global financial institution on the continent, told me how she dropped her voice, and softened her tone in meetings after she was told by a male boss that she came across very aggressively. She had to be less than who she was to stay ahead.

Gender equality for African women has largely focused on where the world is comfortable seeing African women – usually as victims and rarely as heroes or leaders. In this global framing, African women are typically seen through the lens of child marriage, of gender-based violence. They hold no economic power, no rights over their bodies and reproductive choices and have no agency.

Few role models in Africa

It’s not surprising we are seen this way because there are few role models to highlight in a continent of 500m women. Africa has only had 12 elected female Prime Ministers and four female Presidents: earlier this month Samia Suluhu Hassan became Africa’s latest national leader – although not elected, she joins a short list of women on the continent to have run their countries. The list includes: Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Mauritius), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), Joyce Banda (Malawi) and Sahle-Work Zewde (Ethiopia).

Only six of Africa’s 54 countries have a high percentage of women in Ministerial positions, with Rwanda leading the way at 51.9%. Countries with fewer than 10% include Nigeria (8%), Mauritius (8.7%), Sudan (9.5%) and Morocco (5.6%). In business, 2019 research from The Boardroom shows that most African companies have few women on their boards – once again, Rwanda leads the way at 33% while Egypt, with just 7%, has the least. The situation is similar with female CEOs across Africa.

A few African women have slipped through; we all applauded when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was finally appointed as head of the WTO.

But in a Brookings Institution interview on the book she co-wrote with Julia Gillard, the ex-PM of Australia, on Women and Leadership, she said: “Everything a white woman feels in terms of sexism, women of colour go through much more than that.” She went on to list the leadership pecking order; White males first, followed by Black males, then White females and finally, Black women.

I am adding African women to the bottom of that list. The world has to get used to seeing Black, especially African women in positions of power and leadership, because it is just that diversity, that confidence to articulate different perspectives and speak truth to power that will create the change we need on this continent.

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