For my entire life, I have always a sense of being the ‘other’. I have always felt that I never truly belonged in the spaces that I occupied as a child, a teenager, and young adult or a grown man. These feelings have been built on the back of many life experiences, the effects of which have compounded one on top of the other over time.
I (Hamidi Sheriff*) was born in America to Ethiopian parents but grew up in Zimbabwe from a young age up until I finished high school. My parents fled Ethiopia when the communist revolution in Ethiopia was underway in the late 1970s. Being an Ethiopian immigrant in a country that had little to no other immigrant communities living in it was a confusing experience for a variety of reasons. The racial makeup of Zimbabwe is somewhat similar to South Africa’s. The Majority are black Zimbabweans, Zimbabweans, then there are white Zimbabweans, mostly descendants of British colonists, ‘coloureds’ that are a racial mix of black and while, and finally Indians who have lived in Zimbabwe for few generations. As a child growing up in Zimbabwe, I did not fit into any of those racial or ethnic categories. While I was able to make friends with all the different racial groups, it was only because I was not one or the other. Blacks and whites did not really socialise outside the class room, and I would typically hear from my white friends that I was’ ‘not like the other blacks’ and my black friends that I was ‘not like those whites’.
I constantly had to adjust to two completely different lives at home and at school. At home I would eat different foods and speak different languages, in fact, my mother stopped packing Ethiopian foods because other students would question and make fun of it, and it had a distinct aroma that would make me stick out at school. My parents subscribe to different religions, a rarity in Ethiopian marriages. My father is a devout Muslim and my mother a devout orthodox Christian. They believed it would be best to expose my siblings and I to both religions, therefore we were sent to Catholic boarding schools and then during the holidays we would learn Arabic and the Quran. While I understand why my parents did this, it only created more confusion in my understanding of the self-identity. Religiously, I felt I did not belong to either faith.
When I moved to America to start university, I was made to feel acutely aware of my African heritage by my first roommate. Prior to the start of university, the school administration informs all incoming students of their first-year roommates will be. Of course, my roommate had been given notice that he would have a roommate coming from Zimbabwe. Ignorance led him to truly believe that I would be coming to a campus in a loin cloth with a spear, and he even went as far as to buy Eddie Murphy movie ‘Coming to America’, to prepare himself for my arrival. While I am sure his intent was not malicious, it was an eye-opening experience that I did not expect to experience in America. I had been considered the ‘other’ in Zimbabwe, and now again I was considered the ‘other’ in America.
All of these experiences had built up my social sensitivity from a young age. I have been able to understand and appreciate different cultures and norms without much discomfort. But within this context of my own strong social sensitivity, was a lack of unique self- identification as well, which I believe us till a current stumbling block. I find myself sometimes feeling like a ‘jack of all trades, but a master of none’ when it comes to belonging and connectedness. There are times that I feel that I float from one social group to the next, without making the deep connections that are required to satisfy my deep emotional needs.
I believe that my lack of singular identity has led me to yearn to connect with my country of true origin, Ethiopia, where I look like everyone and I can speak like everyone else around me. I would be surrounded by cultures and history that would be my own. I would no longer have to feel that I was living and borrowing from other countries and cultures that are not my own. Despite this yearning for wanting to be connected with my mother country, I have lived by using a somewhat affable and self-deprecating character, and this has helped me be a good communicator and listener. I have always enjoyed listening to and learning from different people. As I have matured as a man, and progressed professionally, I have noticed how important these skill sets have been to my ability to connect with people and groups in different countries. Professionally, in the work I did as a lean Six Sigma Black Belt, communication was essential to ensure that the team members and affected stakeholders felt a sense of ownership and connectedness to the changes that were happening to their processes.
Another stumbling block that I feel gets in the way of my ability to create deep and meaningful connections is my propensity to isolate myself when I feel stressed. A vicious cycle plays out when I isolate myself when I feel under pressure or stressed, which negatively affects my social relationships by preventing deeper connections. These lack of deep social connections, in turn, additionally creates feelings of non-belonging and the lack of a singular identity. The positive attributes which individuals possess in dealing with uncertainty create serious issues with my sense of connectedness.
Currently I am in the process of filling the vacuum in my identity and therefore I will be moving to Ethiopia after graduation to immerse myself into my family’s history and traditions and finally get the feeling of belongingness.
*Hamdi Sheriff started his career in Washington DC in 2010 as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt where he specialized in the healthcare insurance space and worked for 6 years. In 2016, he moved to Harare in Zimbabwe to join and modernise his family’s business. He also graduated in 2018 from the Graduate School of Business completing his MBA degree.
1. Explain the difference between ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’.
2. Identify any two theories that you have studied during the last few weeks and then relate their relevance and applicability to the given case study.
3. From your own reading and understanding of the case study, what are the issues/challenges faced by Hamidi and other marginalised groups in workplaces of today? Your answers should focus on all the readings and materials covered during weeks 1-7
(a) Describe in your own words the meaning of the term ‘intersectionality’
(b) What are the specific identities that intersect to make individuals feel vulnerable and excluded in the workplace?
4. How much control do individuals have in shaping our own individual identities? Give examples from the case and how Hamidi is planning to address this?
5. What are some of the practices, organizations can put in place to ensure greater workforce engagement or inclusion of people who feel different and/or viewed as different in their workplace?
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