The year is 2013. I’m staying at Washington DC’s luxurious Omni Shoreham Hotel. After breakfast, I listen to the audiobook of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. As Obama narrates his story, I feel like I am having a long overdue chat with the boy-next-door who grew up to be a visionary leader. His story is relatable and awe-inspiring.
Growing up, I can’t say I had any aspirations to visit the US–yet here I am, trying my hand at publishing my first novel. As a visitor, I find it extremely hard to reconcile how deep-set and systematic racism exists in a country where a member of a minority can rise up through the ranks and become president.
As the first African American nominee of the Democratic Party and then as president, Obama came into the office with unprecedented pressures and expectations. Sure, there were 43 presidents that had gone before him–but he was the first black president.
Any leader that comes from a minority group and has successfully defied the odds to reach a top leadership position–inevitably winds up with an identity label attached next to their job description. He wasn’t just a president. He was the country’s first black president.
“To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”
Minorities all over the world are trapped in a dichotomy. On one hand, you are too visible, because you are different. On the other hand, you are invisible, because your perspective doesn’t align or even matter to people who aren’t different. When we say who we truly are and what we feel–we make people feel uncomfortable.
After Obama’s inauguration, minority groups from all over the world who had spent their lives being excluded, found themselves filled with a sense of hope. Maybe, me too? Maybe I can soar to those heights? This is how Obama became a symbol of hope. An international icon to minorities like myself.
“My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.”
The year is now 2020. It has been seven years since I heard Obama narrate his debut novel in my Washington DC hotel. A lot has happened in my life since then. I am no longer a wide-eyed girl looking to publish my first novel. I’ve encountered heartbreak, turmoil and experienced things I’d rather erase from my memory than talk about.
In the midst of all that madness, there was a journey. A journey that was grooming me to become a leader. It was not something I learnt in an organisation that was moulding me to be a manager according to its metrics.
As I founded my first business Mith Books–I searched tirelessly for leaders as role models. It’s been difficult for me to find anyone to look up. The only people that come to mind are my great-grandfather and grandfather. They were both business leaders and entrepreneurs who didn’t mince their words and had a realistic outlook of the world and where it was headed. I grew up in the 90s. It was still a male-dominated patriarchal world–but even back then, my elders foresaw that what worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. My great-grandfather took me under his wing. I was the first woman to join the family business. He understood that the challenges I would face would be different to his.
Fast forward to modern times and leadership has become a jargon of ideals and outdated hierarchies. I’ve gone through the leadership manuals that get handed out to overpaid executives in the corporate world. They push their agenda and pretend issues don’t exist till they get out of hand and become a PR nightmare. By that time, it’s often too late to do anything.
Besides, I have different ideals. A different way of looking at the world. Coming from a minority means I understand diversity.
I am different. My life is different. I can’t and don’t want to be you because I am not you.
Over and over again, I’ve heard people talk about privilege as something they have and something minorities don’t. And because of that minorities are disadvantaged somehow. And yet, when we do achieve something–it’s a miracle that someone of that ethnicity or gender managed to do that.
I am capable. I am hardworking. I have fire in my belly and a fight in my soul. I love to learn and books are my best friends. I enjoy challenging the status quo–especially when it doesn’t make sense. You won’t know that simply by looking at me. To me, things like skin colour and gender are details–they often don’t reflect the person that lies within.
Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the world we live in. Race-relations is a big topic these days. With privilege comes both power and responsibility. People of privilege who speak on the topic of privilege make the conversation all about them and treat minorities like a charity case. I don’t think very many people enjoy being treated like a charity case. I know I don’t. Besides, I don’t believe that handouts work in the long run. It is simply unsustainable.
What we need to do is provide opportunities for self-development and growth based on merit, not mediocrity.
In either case, I have a business to run and work to do–whether there’s an identity label attached to my job description or not. To me, these things are just details. It’s a pity that to some others it is a definition.