12 March 2012

Colour Focussed

I love being able to work and live all over the world. Because of it, I get to meet many interesting people, and am constantly learning about new cultures. Imagine: discussions about voodoo over lunch, getting to know - and understand! - the Ethiopian calendar, being a translator between a Canadian and a Brit (you guys really do talk differently, you know), being able to understand what the Indian head shake really means. 

These are all things I would never have known, had I not worked abroad! 

In my previous position here in Haiti, I loved the diversity of my department - in the expat team, there we 2 Zimbabweans, a Cameroonian, a Sierra Leonean, and a Sri Lankan. As well as plenty of Haitians who contributed to our madness. I felt like I was learning something new everyday - including a lot from them about our team's work! They were quite the intelligent, and funny, bunch! 

But one of the things that has arisen while working with many nationalities for an international organisation is the relationship between white and non-white staff - even white and non-white expat staff. 

When I was discussing my previous role and its responsibilities with my last manager, a Sri Lankan, he asked me how I felt about reporting to a non-white. I, slightly incredulous to be asked that question, thought for a second and responded, "Fine. Why, are some people not?"

He had to explain to me that actually many white people have trouble working and supporting someone who is not the same colour as they are. I could comprehend what he was saying at the time, and even see how it would work in reality, but at the same time, I was also shocked, dismayed and very embarrassed on behalf of my colour. I confirmed this statement with the rest of my team, who were also not white, with them verifying that most of them had, in fact, experienced this sort of difficult working relationship in the past. 

Sadly, my dismay quickly subsided when it became apparent to me that this is in fact true. You see, on my team, I was rightfully the lowest on the totem pole - at least among the expat portion -, in terms of experience and knowledge around the sector. I was also the only white person on the team. 

The office that our team functioned out of existed more as a corridor than an office - a corridor that held up to 20 people at one point or another. Constantly, throughout the day, I would observe as people would walk through the office, their eyes skimming past all the darker faces, focussing on mine alone. And then there were the multiple times when I was approached to answer a question about the team as a whole, whether it was to add input to a greater strategy, or to be introduced to a new staff. That was always a nice awkward moment of: "Well, I am not actually the best person to answer that - how about you talk to my manager?" or, "Oh, it is very nice to meet you. Let me introduce you to my manager as well; he will be your best point of contact here." 

I found this particularly frustrating. Not only did it put a lot of pressure on me, I was embarrassed to be the one white person; I was frustrated that people would automatically assume that I held the knowledge of the team, when I most decidedly did not. I think it might have annoyed my manager as well. 

What is the best response to this? I don't know. All I know is that in my experience, colours permeate our interactions more than we realise. And maybe as an expat in a developing country, I notice it more, because I am very much a minority here, and the expat staff force is actually quite diverse.

Have you had any experiences like this? How would you respond? If you are white, how would you feel if your manager was a black African, who spoke with an accent? Or what about someone who didn't speak much English at all?

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