The twice-black bind

Maimouna Youssef, aka Mumu Fresh, an American singer-songwriter and rapper, wrote and performed the feminist anthem Never Bring Me Down in 2017, in resistance to the industry’s disempowerment of women. She raps, “Sometimes being a woman is like being black twice”, a lyric that went viral as women across the globe identified with the sentiment. In this article, social studies form the foundation for understanding the double bind black South African women experience in the power relations of today’s workplace.

The lyrics of Mumu Fresh echo the words of Senegalese author Awa Thiam(1):

‘Women are the Blacks of the human race.’ Can they tell us then what or who are Black Women? The Blacks of the Blacks of the human race?

The suggestion in both instances is that being a woman is a shade of blackness in a racist world, and that being a black woman is the darkest hue — one where race discrimination intersects with gender discrimination. Understanding this double-bind provides a lens through which we could review the invisible barriers black women face in the workplace.

Political power was lost to black people in 1994, but, normatively, the social power white men historically possessed remained intact. This is particularly evident in organisations’ structures and operations showing little consideration for the realities of women, making it very difficult for women to build a long and successful career. Add to this the undertones of racism in interpersonal interactions, and the extent of the double bind black women have to operate under becomes evident.

Post-apartheid South Africa was supposed to be the era of equality. However, it has become clear that equality is neither immune to power relations, nor disconnected from history, and that white male domination did not simply vanish the day South Africa became a democracy. There is still much evidence today of South Africa’s history of white domination and black subordination, and patriarchy rather than gender equality.

Historically normalised subordination of black women

To make sense of the double-black bind, it is important to understand the historical context. Kwamwangamalu(2) outlined four eras in South Africa’s history: Dutchification or Dutch colonisation (1652–1795), British Anglicisation or British colonisation (1795–1948), Afrikanerisation or Apartheid (1948–1994), and democratisation (from 1994 to the present). All these eras involved oppressive, violent, and painful social processes, which resulted in groups of people conceptualising and constructing their identities over time. Colonialism had one major consequence in the form of cultural appropriation.

Rogers reconceptualised cultural appropriation as more than just the exploitation or ‘stealing’ of stereotypical cultural activities or artefacts, and outlines four categories of cultural appropriation, namely Cultural exchange, Dominance, Exploitation, and Transculturation (cultural transformation through an influx of new cultural elements and the loss or changing of existing ones), which can easily be located in each of South Africa’s historical eras of social change. It could be argued that each era of change was imposed through dominance structures, but not to better society. Rather, it imposed power struggles that would last for generations.

Discrimination hidden in plain sight

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility(3), explains that supremacy is more than the idea that one group of people is superior. It is also the notion that the norms associated with those persons are the standard, and that anything different is a deviation. This is applicable to both race and gender, and the manifestation or expression of these feelings is sometimes very subtle or disguised.

DiAngelo(4) quotes Omowale Akintunde, African-American scholar and filmmaker:

Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.

In his study, titled Non-conformity Among Four Contemporary Black Female Managers in South Africa, Hugo Canham(5) states, “Standards and competence is a recurring theme in contexts where employment equity is discussed.” This was the case in most of the interviews he conducted. He notes, “Many black people feel under constant scrutiny of the white gaze”.

This feeling is explored in Jennifer Harding and E. Deidre Pribram’s paper “The power of feeling: Locating emotions in culture”(6), in which they use Alison Jaggar’s concept of emotional hegemony — dominance by one group in viewing emotions. Jaggar argues that ideology-based discourses on emotion keep members of the dominant political, social, and cultural groups in dominance, where they are almost invariably considered reasonable, while subordinate groups are associated with irrational emotions(7).

Through this association, people of colour, and especially women, are viewed as more subjective, biased, and irrational while, at the same time, as an ideology-conforming practice, they may be culturally and socially required to express emotions more openly, as it is considered ‘feminine.’ This ‘assignment of reason and emotion’, as Jagger(8) calls it, “bolsters the authority of dominant groups and discredits subordinate groups, constituting a process of emotional hegemony. However, as in other hegemonic systems, the possibility of resistance is always present”.

BEE statistics do not reflect the lived experiences of black women. They usually relate their experiences outside the presence of dominance, creating a false sense of ‘relative discursive freedom’ for themselves. Canham(9) would agree. His study included testimonies from participants whom he considered “outsiders within”.

By non-conforming in this context, I refer to those black women who identify themselves as located outside the organisational culture and who see themselves as unassimilable or unable to integrate to the dominant culture. Even though these women do not seek to be radicals, the act of being themselves at work marks them as radical and non-conforming and leads to their further marginalisation. While not necessarily identifying as feminist, they might also exhibit feminist sensibilities.”

Lived experiences of women being black twice

Tinyiko Ngwenya(10), a young, black, female chartered accountant, related her personal experience on LinkedIn, after resigning from her workplace in 2018. She detailed her reasons for leaving Cape Town’s boardrooms for those of Johannesburg in an emotional post that garnered widespread media attention in South Africa. She described “a tragic sense of loneliness” and “an identity crisis” in her former workplace. Read from the perspective of cultural studies, Tinyiko was negotiating her place in the workplace in the face of systemic racism. Incidences ranged from colleagues constantly mispronouncing her name — to the point where she hated introducing herself — to being the only black person in her investment group, a clear sign of the slow progress of transformation. Her name was also reduced from Tinyiko to ‘Tiny’, which could be read as micro-aggression, metaphorically reducing her to a lesser-than.

To understand why she represents the growing number of young black female professionals, we can again turn to Harding and Pribram’s paper:

Our cultural analysis of emotions attempts to show how power, as a web of unequal relations, works through specific articulations of emotion. We view emotions as culturally constructed and permeating all levels of personal and social experience and, in this sense, as undermining any clear and fixed division between the public and the private”.

Tinyiko’s story reflects instances of systemic racist practices, an invisible force that is difficult to prove, but enough to push black women out of the organisation. Canham’s study provides evidence through similar testimonies. He criticises traditional organisational theory for its limitations, and locates the women’s testimonies “within a paradigm of work which centres the body’s expression of emotions and affect”, which is a concept in psychology that deals with the nuances and productive outcomes emotion can have on a social process. “Seen in this light, emotions are not solely for reading the subject, but are capable of generating new relations and worlds(11).”

‘Sarah’, a participant in Canham’s study(12), related her origins and formative experiences, including the loss of her son and father, and her divorce — each an occurrence that had shaped how she experienced her work environment. The subject of Sarah’s testimony was a poor performance appraisal riddled with criticism about her emotional expression and lack of resilience, and innuendos of her having poor leadership skills. Sarah’s tears were seen by her superiors as her expression of non-conformity. Yet, Canham notes that Sarah’s narrative appears to be one of compromised dignity and loss of meaning:

The tears streamed down Sarah’s face. These were in part a manifestation of her humiliation… Later she told me a story of healing but in that moment, it was her pain that was important for her... She seemed to be telling me that her work identity is not bound up in time and space. If I am to hear her… I have to read her sobs, pauses and her voice, references to books and emails that she will send me. These co-constitute her story.”

Sarah’s tears made her white colleagues uncomfortable, and “cast a shade of unhappiness.” To explain this reaction to Sarah’s tears, Canham quotes Johnson(13), who argues that “white bodies have been corporeally and discursively normalised as the universal standard. Thus, it is white rules that govern the everyday life of black women”.

Sarah’s white colleagues’ complete disregard for her emotional expressions is indicative of emotional hegemony(14) in the workplace. This is evident in her colleagues politicising rather than attempting to understand her emotions. Canham notes the following about women like Sarah in the workplace:

They are submissive and unable to play by the aggressive rules that their counterparts appear to thrive in. At the other extreme, they are cast as oversensitive and shrews that see abuse, racism, and sexism everywhere.

Until South Africa truly transforms, heals, and overcomes racial inequality, emotional hegemony will continually fuel resistance. For parity to be realised, systemic racism, domination, and the associated imperceptible hindrances to social cohesion need to be addressed. This calls for a cultural approach(15) to organisational matters and orienting efforts specifically to enhance communication in the workplace, especially where black women are concerned.

Cultural approaches help us locate individuals in a social context in which their values, aspirations and associations are formed and in which their choices are given meaning. It also allows us to bring in emotional forms of action not easily explicable in the calculating language of rational choice.

If emotions are not addressed, the affected woman will seek work elsewhere, and the organisation will have lost one of the too few professional black women. The women would give a vague reason for their departure, while the truth is concealed, for fear of being typecast as described above.

This may have been the case for one of Canham’s key participants, ‘Lulu’, who was seen as the “champion of transformation” at the company. She left abruptly, under a cloud, before Canham could interview her and after signing a non-disclosure agreement with the company(16). Because she could not participate, her experience was described through the testimonies of five others. She was the most senior of all the participants and also the line manager of some. “Lulu left an indelible mark on her former division. In some ways, she lives on in the division in the form of disappointed dreams, aspirations, and silences”. It seems she was typecast as ‘an angry black woman’(17) who relied heavily on her subordinates, but, due to pressures from the top, was typecast as pushing her own agendas on transformation, to the detriment of the organisation, and as having succumbed to hostile means to achieve her desired ends.

Other participants’ stories revealed an underlying need to belong. ‘Nomonde’, one of only about 100 chartered accountants in the country at the time and the most senior black woman in her department, was considered to be in need of diplomacy training. Canham deduced that this was the result of her managers succumbing to “Colonial tropes of success, moderation, and restraint, [which] elevate this type of diplomacy to global competence”. It is therefore no surprise that “she saw herself as a visitor in a white world in which she [had come] to be tolerated”. It appears as if Nomonde wanted to escape the white gaze when she expressed her desire to return to a black company, where her competence would not be questioned and where she could ask “the most stupid question to anyone, knowing that the person is not going to judge you for your stupidity.”(18)

Other participants shared how they exercised their non-conformity. ‘Lerato’ explained how she disengaged at social gatherings, although, “To some degree then, Lerato plays along with the script of displays of goodwill at the expense of her true feelings”. In analysing this behaviour, Canham(19) says:

The moderate, measured, polite, competent, liberal, black professional who can leverage white capital and is able to make friends with white people is the preferred black of corporate South Africa.”
How discrimination is perpetuated

Acculturation occurs in both passive and active ways. In the workplace, it would take some form of appropriation. Exchange, the first of Rogers’s(20) categories of cultural appropriation, involves “the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artefacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power”. Incoming employees are forced to exchange their knowledge with the company, and their years of experience essentially become an asset of the company, while new structures, rituals, and technologies are adopted by the new employee. In the accounts related earlier, this ideal was not pursued, resulting in unequal power and Cultural dominance, the second category.

Cultural dominance “is characterised by the unidirectional imposition of elements of a dominant culture onto a subordinated culture”. The way Sarah’s tears were interpreted by colleagues is an apt example. Rogers(21) asserts that “this does not mean that members of subordinated cultures do not negotiate this imposition in a variety of ways, manifesting at least limited forms of agency in how they appropriate the imposed cultural elements”. Black women’s refusal to attend social gatherings, i.e. non-conformity, is one such form of resistance to dominance. Rogers(22) notes that dominance disturbs the ideal conditions for exchange, which are “ethical standards by which other types of appropriation should be judged (i.e. reciprocal, balanced, and voluntary)”.

The women’s experiences could be interpreted in terms of racism being viewed as binary, rather than systemically acculturated and socialised into the workplace. DiAngelo constructs racism in terms of the good/bad binary(23), which, in its simplest form, applies judgement as a good or bad person as measured by racism — “You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist,” she says. Against the backdrop of the apartheid era, it seems reasonable for South Africans to view the world this way. People, upon hearing these accounts, may classify themselves, as DiAngelo(24) did herself, as non-racist, which then manifests in an internal dialogue such as DiAngelo’s(25):

…what further action is required of me? No action is required because I am not racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further for me to do.

Outwardly, this manifests as inaction, which ultimately supports systemic racism, because, as DiAngelo explains(26), “the good/bad binary certainly obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for [people] to see or understand.”

The inaction caused by the good/bad binary also creates a false sense of harmony in the workplace by subverting the appropriative effects that conflict and openness can have on organisational culture. By making topics of emotions, race, gender, and inequality taboo, miscommunication, hidden means of resistance, and tension prevail.

Ultimately, the good/bad binary prevents the positive impact that appropriation could have on a workplace. Rogers(27) views Transculturation, his final category, as the long-term outcome of cultural appropriation. It is that which “points to culture as a relational phenomenon that itself is constituted by acts of appropriation”, a direct contradiction to the resulting inaction caused by the good/bad binary. Transcultural processes thus involve “a variety of potentially effective agencies”, which means that positive outcomes can be reached if exchange, dominance, and exploitation are managed.

In the South African workplace, it is precisely because the idea that racism is something that must happen to a person, or that it is “limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people” that it is “at the root of virtually all-white defensiveness on this topic(28)” and the reason why systemically racist practices are reinforced and preserved. Furthermore, in reference to the difficulties workplaces have in championing more inclusive recruitment practices, Carrim(29) found that black employees(30) are undermined by gossip in the workplace, an occurrence that would validate the feelings of scrutiny that the black women in Canham’s study intimated.

It is therefore plausible that challenging the good/bad binary belief system while eradicating white defensiveness on the issue of race would improve social processes in the workplace dramatically. This requires engagement in reciprocal communication. Canham’s study(31), for example, showed the importance of seeing, reading, and listening to that which is not being expressed by black women in one’s own workplace. In other words, instead of invalidating uncomfortable topics, emotions, and conflict as ‘anti-rainbow’ and therefore anti-progress, be receptive to the what, how, and why of a view being expressed.

Inaction ultimately supports systemic racism, because, as DiAngelo(32) explains, “the good/bad binary certainly obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand. Equally problematic is the impact of such a worldview on our actions.”

Systemic racism

From the aforegoing, it is safe to say that, unlike overt forms of racism and sexism, such as the use of derogatory terms, systemic incidences are hard to prove. The experience is subjective, complex, and nuanced, because it is culturally, historically, and emotionally constructed. Systemic racism and gender discrimination are deeply personal and painful experiences for black women. These women are still subjected to apartheid-era systems and social norms that are yet to be fully dismantled.

Joubert notes that, when there is lack of diversity in the workplace, “Employees cannot reach their optimal work potential”, which is counterproductive to performance. Conversely, positive diversity management recognises diverse resources within diverse demographics, and may lead to “improved organisational health and well-being”, as it “enhances organisation competitiveness, primarily by reducing conflict”, allowing for “fresh viewpoints to advance the organisation’s market performance”.


Providing mechanisms for opening up conversations about race, systemic racism, and the twice-black bind, while practising positive conflict management and creating a feedback loop to measure the success of these mechanisms, should be a priority in creating a socially well organisation. This will prevent black women employees suffering in silence and eventually exiting the company. Companies should also promote awareness and sensitivity around these issues, and encourage self-reflection by every individual within the organisation.

To counter emotional hegemony in the workplace, organisations should be aware of social interactions in the workplace, manage normalised covert or hidden resistive practices, and facilitate meaningful communication among culturally diverse people, to protect the interests of all, to build trust among colleagues by legitimising their lived experiences, to promote understanding, engagement, and social cohesion, and to eradicate invisible powers exerted by dominant social identities(33).

Until South African organisations transform by actively dismantling inequality in the workplace, the damaging effects of dominance will continue to erode their social cohesion and the retention of talented black women. If organisations want to realise true parity, they will have to actively address systemic racism and the associated imperceptible hindrances to the empowerment of black women through a cultural approach.


Nastassja Wessels

Nastassja holds a Master of Arts (MA) in Culture Studies: Global Communication Stream from Tilburg University (Netherlands); BA Honours: English from Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape and a BA General in English and Language & Communication from the University of the Western Cape (South Africa).