I finally watched the Butler and although I know I shouldn’t, I compared it to 12 years a slave. But at least I can now articulate why 12 years a slave simply didn’t touch or move me like the Butler did.
I found the Butler more relevant to my experiences as a black working woman. Without meaning any disrespect, movies about slavery, as important and necessary as they are, have the capacity to delude some people into thinking that black people’s struggles are consigned to a dark time past.
I am uncomfortable with the knowledge that the more subtle and real stories of inequalities and lack of opportunities can’t compete with the sheer gore and brutality of slavery.
The story of the Butler is closer to my story. Cecil and his colleagues working in the Whitehouse often spoke about having two faces. If some black people are honest they may admit that there is still some element of truth in this. Sometimes we bend backwards so as not to appear “threatening, aggressive, feisty or diva -like”, negatives stereotypes often slung at black people- black women.
It took 20 years for Cecil to get a pay rise; pulling the lever of the president in the end. The truth about modern working life is that often white counterparts find it easier to find someone who believes in them. This is crucial for progression. If you don’t have a ‘godfather’ routing for you, believing in you, or encouraging you, it can take that bit longer, even with talent. There is nothing wrong with having a über mentor, if the same encouragement and support is readily available to black staff.
There are campaigns and attempts to redress the lack of equal opportunities in senior management in the UK today. But then you hear some people shouting that “black folks must be promoted on merit” indirectly and naively implying that the talent just isn’t out there, or implying that half of the white men in positions of power are talented or competent. The truth is that a lot senior managers are too complacent and lazy to see the talents of people who may not sound like them, come from similar backgrounds,went to the same university, dress like them and so on.
I also found the tension and discontent between Cecil and his son touching and sad. I see some of that struggle between an older black generation that insist that the younger generation of black people can attain anything BUT if they work twice as hard. It is bullshit advice. Working twice as hard to get exactly what your white friends have is not equality. It is another form of slavery. It is buy one get one free.
The Butler reminds me sadly of my reality at work, I am a minority. I sometimes have two faces, the one that wants to scream when the next senior manager waltz in talking about some half-hearted initiative to tackle or develop talent, because they only just found out that ethnic minorities are mostly consigned to junior roles or middle management. And the face that just wants to enjoy work, my colleagues and progress.