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Updated: Jun 3, 2020

On the very first day of work, Divya was told that she did not earn that position. She was hired for two reasons: she was was Indian - a female person of colour, her predecessor was a white male, she held two college degrees, her predecessor none. On paper, she was the perfect candidate. It had been more than 10 years since Apartheid was abolished in South Africa and many corporates, like the one she was hired by, were looking to paint a picture of diversity in senior management positions.

Senior management, pfft. It was just a label. Divya hadn’t been invited to the Christmas party hosted for managers, she was told that she wasn’t a manager, however, her predecessor had attended these parties in the years past. Even if she tried to ignore this, she couldn’t ignore the fact that “senior management” deliberately gave an African manager the incorrect pick up time for the shared ride to the venue of the party thus ensuring she missed it. However, the admin assistant to the general manager attended this Christmas party - how exactly was she a manager? Why didn’t anyone else see this?

She was no stranger to discrimination, she was born a girl - many of her relatives believed that a girl was nothing but a burden, according to their culture. She wasn’t fair skinned, this counted against her so did the fact that she was very outspoken. Her relatives felt there was no hope for her, she broke all the rules and wasn’t quiet or even pretty enough to be married off.

Despite these obstacles, Divya fought tooth and nail to be where she was today. She wasn’t going to allow discrimination to stop her, it didn’t stop her before. However, she was totally unprepared for what happened next.

“Hey, Coolie” yelled the admin assistant, Divya turned around to look at her. A seemingly harmless term used to refer to porters at train stations in India. However, “Coolie” was a derogatory term used to refer to Indians in apartheid South Africa, an era that had allegedly ended decades ago.

“Excuse me?” Divya managed to blurt out, not sure if she had heard clearly.

“You heard me right, Coolie,” she replied, nonchalantly.

Divya was fuming, it took every ounce of her self control not to pounce on this lady.

“Don’t insult me, I won’t tolerate this, and I will lay a formal complaint against you.” Divya spat back at her.

“Oh, come on, we call Jeegna that and she finds it funny, we laugh about it. Don’t be so stuck up.” Jeegna was the other Indian lady who worked in the same office.

“Well I am not Jeegna so don’t ever call me that again!” With those words, Divya turned around and slammed the door on her way out. She was shocked, she couldn’t believe anyone would willingly allow themselves to be insulted and degraded in this way. She decided to talk to Jeegna about this, but her explanation left Divya dumbstruck.

“Divya, it is okay, we have to live and work with these people, they are just making jokes and you should be able to laugh with them. How else do you expect to climb up the corporate ladder?” Divya was speechless. How could she ever fight a system where those targeted feel it is okay to be victimised? She just didn’t understand Jeegna’s mentality - how was it okay to be insulted, degraded just in the name of being accepted, just to fit in? Why was it okay for her to pay such a huge price to be included by those around her who didn’t even respect her?

For months, Divya tried very hard to fight the system, she spoke to her bosses, she even took her complaints to the head office, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Her perpetrators made her working life so miserable that she had no choice but to resign from her job. When she left, the HR manager assured her that he would do his best to help her find another job especially because he felt responsible for being unable to help her.

She found some reassurance in this but no matter where she applied for a job, she was rejected for it. After investigating further, she found out that the HR manager consistently gave her bad references so she couldn’t find another job in that small town.

She had to move to another city to find employment, but the experience left a gaping hole in her heart - she always battled feelings of not being good enough. How does one overcome feelings of inadequacy when the entire world is screaming “You are not good enough?”

How do you overcome feelings of inadequacy caused by factors out of your control - your gender, your race, your skin tone?

Every action she took became a mission to validate herself, to validate her existence, to validate that she mattered, that her existence made a difference, no matter her race, no matter her gender. No human being should ever have to validate any of this which is a basic human right. All she wanted to hear were these words:

You are respected, you are loved, you are needed, your existence matters, your voice matters, you matter. You exist because you matter, because your existence makes a difference and you matter that is why you exist because the difference you make matters.

Despite all her struggles, Divya refused to harbour resentment in her heart, how would this make her any different from those who had brought so much misery in her life? Holding resentment wouldn’t change them but she had the power to change the future for so many by speaking out every time injustice was meted out. Keeping quiet about it was no longer an option.

Dedicated to any human being who has ever faced any form of discrimination. I stand united with you.

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