The Collective Experience: Surviving An Anti-Black Space


I wrote today about leaving a toxic space with a broken heart. I wrote this because I was feeling nostalgic for evenings spent after work in the office, with amazing people. Evenings where we relished basking in one another’s magic and just, being. Those evenings were important when you felt like shrinking at many intervals throughout the day. I wrote this because many moons later, I can finally look back and reflect, broken heart healed, on how we survived a toxic environment. Ad agencies generally aren’t very healthy spaces, but we managed to create a space for ourselves despite it all.

We managed to do such a great things at [this place]. We created a space that was safe, and kind, in the midst of such a toxic and anti-black space. We created magic.

Here’s how we did it:

We pursued greatness and excellence in our work, persistently. So no-one could ever, ever call any of us out for not being the best.

We had each other’s backs. Always. Especially when the person being thrown under the bus/trashed wasn’t in the room to defend themselves. We protected one another from the violence that whiteness so often forces you to deal with, even on the days that you can’t bring yourself to deal with even yourself.

We laughed. We laughed so often. Sometimes we laughed because we were incredulous at the ludicrous goings-on around us. Sometimes we laughed because it’s so great knowing that you’re black, and great, regardless of being under-mined by people not even half as brilliant as you. Boy oh boy, sahleka bo. I remember how we all sat and laughed after that meeting. Hahaha! Ah. Even the memory of that moment has me giggling to myself as I write this. When we were told to “have some grit”, remember how collectively we cringed and laughed about how all that we do as black people living in this world, is have grit? He told us to have grit. When to be born black (and female) in this world requires you to master the art of “grit”. Every single day. I’m laughing to myself a little even as I think about that time in our collective experience.

We showed up. We showed up everyday. And on the days when one was too exhausted to show up, and all you could do was bring your body into the space, the others had your back.

We spent evenings reflecting on the greatness of black people in general, on the collateral beauty of the black experience — and the magic that comes from a place somewhere inside of us. The black people flourishing everyday across the way, were always a great reminder that it’s possible to be black and to thrive in the workplace. So we dreamt, collective dreaming is like sipping from the spring of life. We dreamt of the days when we would not be ensconced in whiteness, we imagined a new world for ourselves and a world where the next generation would step into spaces that released them to flourish. We imagined spaces where we set the tone, where black kids didn’t have to shrink themselves to fit in. I enjoyed that, the dreaming.

I also really enjoyed the safety of the space that we were able to create. Those evenings spent reflecting on the violence of whiteness, in all it’s ways, and relishing the magic of being able to unapologetic-ally take up space. I miss those evenings. I think that space we created was a little like Narnia, it existed for us to take solace in it while we needed it. It was also so important for each of us, looking at where in our individual career journeys and paths are now. So much of it inspired by the traumas, bruises, cuts and lessons learnt from getting burnt. But more importantly, inspired by our ability to “have some grit” and choose to pursue a different path than the one we were on.

A message to all the creatives, and ad execs and the rest who are finding the grit in themselves everyday, to show up and produce good work despite it all, it will all work out in the end. Maybe not in the space that you’re currently in, but kuzolunga ekugcineni. It has to.

P.S.: I am so glad we were all able to get out ❤. Every single one.

Illustration by Nicholle Kobi