We were in Frankfurt for a seven-hour layover when I found my boss in the lounge—every blonde hair in place despite a 24-hour travail that began in Boston. We were bound for Johannesburg to attend a series of meetings, but something had gone wrong with her passport. The South African gate agents would not be moved, so I would need to carry our message—without her. I refreshed my curls, ate some very fine Senator Lounge mini-sausages, and boarded my flight to Johannesburg, ready for business.
The trip had two main purposes: supporting the opening of our university’s new South African field office and establishing our own set of relationships in the region. During the two years I’d been in my role, I had traveled many times under similar auspices—enough to be prepared for a certain amount of surprise from my colleagues at my youth, and occasionally, my race. I had a set of well-honed strategies to preempt and diffuse this awkwardness (Get your boss to introduce you! Assert yourself! Be charming!), but this was a solo trip and my first time in Africa. I was more anxious than usual about being respectful and appropriate.
But a fear of faux pas and latent impostor syndrome rendered my efforts limp and half-hearted.
And so it all began.
“Have you met Kamille? She is [blonde boss’s] assistant.”
Over and over again, ad infinitum.
I corrected the mistake the first few occasions—I was actually a program manager at the time—to the mostly male group, but a fear of faux pas and latent impostor syndrome rendered my efforts limp and half-hearted. The trip’s central meeting came and went. I sat on the side of the room along with many other ladies, quietly observing and taking notes, suppressing the white-hot fury of a woman made invisible.
It wasn’t a new feeling, but I had expected things to be different in South Africa—easier somehow. There had been, I thought, good reason to hope. When I landed at O.R. Tambo International Airport, the morning air was cool and crisp, like my favorite fall days back home. Everywhere I looked, people were shades of brown, and most had a smile and a kind word to share. And yet there I was, barely 12 hours later, for the first time in my professional life surrounded by a majority of people who looked like me, and I felt silenced and outraged. When my mom FaceTimed me that afternoon to ask how the trip was going, I promptly burst into tears.
And yet there I was, barely 12 hours later, for the first time in my professional life surrounded by a majority of people who looked like me, and I felt silenced and outraged.
Nothing had gone right, I said. I felt useless, I said. I should have just gone back to the States, I said. Maybe I really was just a glorified assistant, I said.
My mother, a Filipina with an innate impatience with first world problems, looked at me and sighed. “Anak, do you know what most people would do if they were you? They would just say ‘not my problem!’ and take the free vacation. But not you. So go fix your face, neh? You know what to do.”
Mom was right: my eyeliner was shot to shit. As I patted my face dry, I considered my own actions. I had allowed myself to be pushed around too easily. Yes, the men were sexist. Yes, their assumptions were disrespectful and wrong. But I was the one who accepted every belittlement without a fight. I was the one who stepped out of myself and into the small box chosen for me. I needed to consider why I was so easy to undermine—the entirety of my experience as a woman of color in America, probably. But for the moment, it would be enough to remember my own worth.
At the gala that evening, I sought out the women. Whether they were deans or assistants, alumni, wives, or some combination, I listened to their stories and shared my own in return. I spoke freely about my organization’s likely challenges in Africa, and asked their advice. They asked me for mine. I met with them one-on-one, over wine that night and over coffee the next morning. In short order, we had created our own agenda, one that centered on the needs and interests unmet (or flat-out ignored) by our male colleagues.
The next day, I invited myself to meetings and into cabs. Whenever I saw a man’s eyes glazing over mid-conversation, I cut my losses and moved on to someone more promising. When a senior official canceled a meeting with me, I spent the morning seeing the city instead. I educated myself about South Africa’s complicated history and soaked up all the culture I could.
In short order, we had created our own agenda, one that centered on the needs and interests unmet (or flat-out ignored) by our male colleagues.
I spent hours at the Apartheid Museum, struck by its rawness and honesty. Taped testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission left me horrified and awestruck—I wondered whether Americans would ever achieve such frank consideration of their own trauma and darkness. I took a moment to meditate in the garden outside the exhibits, the Gold Reef City’s rollercoasters rumbling nearby (“Only in Joburg!” chirped my handy audio guide). That night, I turned my daytime adventures into sparkling conversation. I made connections with potential donors and new friends. In other words: I killed it.
I spent my last day in Johannesburg at the home of Ambassador Zenani Mandela-Dlamini. Surrounded by artifacts of lives amazingly lived, I met Zenani’s mother, Winnie. Auntie Winnie spoke to our group for nearly an hour and a half. She told us about the old days—“I was a terrorist then,” she said, sipping iced tea—and about the challenges she saw for her country moving forward. I was introduced as an assistant on this day too. It didn’t upset me. I knew who I was. That was enough.
Besides, all that solo-schlepping meant a promotion when I came home. “Madam Director” sounds just fine to me.