As Nigeria’s economy globalises, we need to talk about workplace racism

There is a popular video that made the rounds on social media in 2019. In the video, Super Eagles legend Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha revealed in an interview, that early in his European football career while playing for Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany, he realised for the first time that he was “black.” While this is a common experience for those of us who leave Nigeria for the first time as self-aware adults, it was what he said next that really got my attention.

“If I dribble hard enough, they will respect me.” A.k.a the quest for individual exception.

According to Jay Jay, his experience with overt racism made him determined to prove a point to the hostile German audiences and opposing players. In his view, if he could “make them eat grass” after falling victim to his famously outrageous skill moves, he would have proven to them that he is “also a racist.” Anyone who grew up in Nigeria will immediately recognise the uniquely Nigerian cultural logic there — when hit, ask no questions and do nothing except hit back, preferably with interest.

In Jay Jay’s opinion, if enough white players ate enough grass at his feet, then the overtly racist society of early 1990s Europe would make an exception for him because they would recognise that not only is this guy human, but he is actually their superior . This was no mere footballer after all — he was the undisputed king of extravagant African footballing talents blessing the pitches of Germany with his presence.

As a Nigerian, this approach of course resonated with me on a level. Throughout my career spanning two continents, I have done similar things to try to gain the respect that I felt I was entitled to. In 2013, when I got a job at an insurance company in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, I was the only black face in the entire company, and one of 10 graduate recruits brought in at the same time to staff a new team dedicated to young drivers’ car insurance.

One of the conditions for getting confirmed after the one month probationary period was going through a week-long training program and writing an exam at the end of it. Anyone who scored less than 70 percent would not be retained. I suppose the other team members were not particularly used to the idea of a book-smart black man, because during the initial one-week period, there was a litany of micro-aggressions and a certain energy in the room whenever I spoke that clearly said “Does this one imagine that he deserves to be here?”

To compensate for this, I went into full-on Nigerian student mode. Whenever the instructor asked a question, my hand would be the first to go up. During a group practical session, I always volunteered to go first and absolutely smash whatever I was to do, after which I would sit and watch the others struggle with what I breezed through with a smirk on my face. Despite missing two days of the training program with an illness, I came back on the day of the test and scored a perfect 100% — one of only two people to do so. I don’t think I have ever smirked that much in my life ever since then.

When the job started proper, I faced it in the competitive fashion of a born and bred Nigerian. From January when we started till March when I left the UK and came back to Nigeria, my name never left the top of the leaderboard, and the gap between first and second was greater than the gap between second and tenth.

I was on my Jay Jay Okocha business, determined to prove to this bunch of racist heffers that “I am David Hundeyin and I am way smarter than you or anyone in your family — you will respect me!”

Does this approach work though?

The thing with this approach to dealing with workplace racism is that it is unsustainable and overly individualistic. For one thing, not every black person who might have joined that insurance company later would have had the ability to step on everybody’s heads effortlessly. Different people are gifted differently, and everyone deserves respect that is not contingent on how well they score on a test or how much better they are at football than their opposition.

Any strategy for fighting racism that attempts to do so without the context of a wider struggle is doomed to fail. Those who — on account of his ethnicity — disrespect a janitor who can only afford cheap clothing and isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed cannot respect a black senior manager of the same ethnicity who wears Christian Dior and has a MENSA IQ. They may temporarily pretend to, but you can be sure that in the evening at the bar after work when he is not around, their real feelings will come tumbling out.

That incidentally, is exactly what happened to me at the insurance company. I became Office Enemy Number 1 — the arrogant, uppity Nigerian whose mission was to make everybody else look bad by hogging the top of the leaderboard while looking like I wasn’t even trying. Someone even started spreading rumours in the office that I was achieving my leaderboard rank by breaching company protocol and breaking the rules. Despite there being no evidence about this, and no official complaint even filed, I was nevertheless investigated — of course — before being cleared.

Read also: ‘Workplace culture determines employee behaviour and productivity’

The racists knew that my self esteem was tied to my work, so if they could do something to jeopardise my work, they would have a broken black man to feel superior to, as they felt was their entitlement. This ties in with the second thing that is fundamentally wrong-headed about the ‘Jay Jay approach’ — it only works when you are at the top of your game. If people’s willingness to respect you as a human being is tied to being the most talented footballer of your generation on the planet, or being the best at your job, or being otherwise extraordinary, the day when you are merely ordinary will be the day your feet of clay are broken. It is not sustainable, and its results are facile and ephemeral.

We’re all going to have to deal with it soon

Some people are reading this article going “Well how does this concern me, a Nigerian living in Nigeria, working with Nigerians who all look just like me?” Well here’s the thing — the world is converging. If you work in the tech, finance, creative and civil society sectors among many others, you will at some point find yourself working personally or remotely within a team of people who are not used to dealing with the intelligent, self-confident kind of black people that Nigeria has in excess.

I personally have worked on at least four such teams over the past three years, and here’s a hint — people outside Africa really struggle to deal with the concept of an African/black person who is as good as or even better than them. At this stage in my career, with my long list of international bylines, awards and recognition, I still occasionally get racist remarks tossed my way. It doesn’t matter whether I am 12 levels above everyone else on such teams — I will only ever be the “black African” to them. Kind of like how despite being significantly more gifted than any footballer Europe produced in the 90s, Jay Jay never got the respect he deserved.

The strategy for dealing with this problem therefore, has to be a group strategy. Nigerians plugging into the global economy and the 4th industrial revolution either through remote collaboration or emigration need to create a consistent group narrative that is firm and unyielding, but friendly. Instead of inefficient, energy-wasting battles in boardrooms and on football pitches to prove our purported individual African supremacy, we need to create a group narrative that the world will recognise as something along the lines of:

“Hello guys, you may not know much about us, but we are good at what we do, and we are here to stay. Whether you respect us or not will not stop us from doing the things we want, but it will be easier for all of us if you do.”

And then we need to go out there and kill it as usual.

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