LINDA MTHENJANE: Can understanding racial identity help us thrive?


One’s identity is like a unique puzzle made of different pieces that include race, age, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied/differently abled and religion. The identity we choose at any given time is never a linear discussion in our minds, but rather a myriad of dimensions that together allow us to feel like we belong or not in each situation.

The term “intersectionality” refers to the way in which these social identities or puzzle pieces overlap and affect one another, creating interdependent systems of worth or discrimination or advantage or disadvantage.

Identity plays a significant role in how we move through the world, how we see ourselves, how the world sees and responds to us, how people and systems treat us and the opportunities that are available to us.

In South Africa race as a categorisation has played a significant role in determining one’s status, one’s educational opportunities, one’s ability to earn an income and the perceived weight of one’s opinion. Race has been the most important construct used to label people and define their lot in life.

For many years race has determined who enters certain professions and how large corporations are formed and their cultures established and perpetuated. Many graduates and young professionals come from humble beginnings and have, because of their exceptional cognitive abilities, found their way through privileged high schools or universities into largely white corporations to begin their work life. It is no wonder, then, that racial identity becomes an important topic of discussion when these young graduates enter a world that is in many ways foreign to them.

Social psychology, since the beginning of the century, has been exploring the meaning of race in our lives and identifying with one’s race. The research has largely come from North America and has tended to assert two almost opposing views.

Some researchers like Horowitz 1939, Steel & Aronson 1995 assert that African Americans who identify strongly with being black may be at a psychological risk because of the stigma society has assigned to their race.

Other researchers have tended to suggest that a strong identification with one's race can serve as a protective buffer to personal self-esteem, while many other studies have looked at the relationship between how you identify with your race, self-esteem, and your ability to succeed in the world.

What then is racial identity and why is it an important construct for young professionals to understand in their journey to success in corporate South Africa?

Racial identity, in essence, is the significance one attaches to belonging to a specific race. The connection one feels to a group or community, attaching to that a set of shared beliefs or ideals. As human beings we have an innate emotional need to belong as we do to breathe, eat, and sleep.

According to Boardman 2020, a sense of belonging is crucial to life satisfaction, happiness, mental and physical health and even longevity. It gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. The loss of belonging has been associated with stress, illness and decreased wellbeing and depression.

Given this deep sense of belonging together with our collective history of racial groups being kept apart, we may carry subconscious views about ourselves and our colleagues as racial beings. These preconceived notions, usually unsaid and unchallenged, impact both our self-esteem and the kind of relationships we can build with peers and managers across the colour line.


In order to maintain positive mental wellbeing in racist and prejudiced environments, it is important for individuals to take time to do some personal work.

Firstly, we need to examine our own racial identity, how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us and how these shape our world view and experience of the world of work. As young professionals your perception of power, whiteness, privilege, etc. can easily affect your performance negatively. You need to understand how racial identity develops, where you are at in the development process and have a plan regarding how you can move to the next stage.

Secondly, when one feels a constant pressure to assimilate and be someone they are not, it may lead to feeling isolated, excluded, anxious, uncomfortable, and frustrated. In some instances, this builds up to a point where one should seek the services of a professional therapist for advice, support, and help.

Thirdly, given South Africa’s violent past, many young people could have already been exposed to racial trauma before entering the workplace. Trauma debriefing is necessary to ensure realistic assessment of situations that one encounters in the workplace rather than seeing everything through the magnifying filter of past experiences.

You may ask what racial trauma is. According to Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University, "at its core, racial trauma is racism". She explains “racism takes three forms, each of which is a chronic stressor for the victim. Systemic racism is experienced when ideologies, institutions, and policies operate to produce racial and ethnic inequality. Interpersonal racism involves two or more people and can be manifested through bigotry, bias, prejudice, and microaggressions. Internalized racism is the acceptance of negative stereotypes and societal beliefs about one’s own racial group”. The ability to discern what is happening to you becomes critical in formulating a strategy to deal with racial trauma.


During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, most employers were forced to opt for remote working. This forced all of us to see people in their homes, at times with their children walking into meetings or dogs barking, but generally in very private spaces of employees.

As we ease back to a more hybrid workplace, the idea that people are whole human beings and not just employees has stuck. Human beings that are made up of multifaceted puzzle pieces or social identities. Feelings of non-belonging and lack of physical safety can trigger anxiety, stress, and depression. Individuals can feel like external situations are out of control and, as a result, can be in a state of constant vigilance and fight-or-flight.

When people repeatedly feel they do not belong, they can develop internalised beliefs that they are voiceless, invisible, do not have agency in creating change, and/or are not allowed to take up physical, intellectual, and emotional space. These factors may lead to a sense of learned helplessness and hopelessness. Unprocessed experiences with racism from an individual’s past and collective historical trauma can also have a direct impact on a person’s mental health.

Organisations who are to succeed and allow their people to thrive must create an inclusive workplace environment where all people feel comfortable bringing their whole selves, or identities, to work. Inclusivity means not only educating those previously disadvantaged but, equally important, to educate and sensitise those in historically privileged positions in corporates and elsewhere on what inclusivity, cultural and racial openness and non-microaggression entail and strategies on how to relate successfully with cultures and races different from your own. A place where employees feel understood, supported, and have a sense of belonging and can be productive and go the extra mile to achieving their personal and the company’s success.

Companies who want to retain high functioning whole individuals must pay attention to how they manage the diversity that young employees bring. As McKinsey & Company states, organisations’ dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion directly correlates to improved economic performance. No organisation can afford to look away from its employees’ various social identities, and how those identities affect individual and collective experiences within the organisation.

This article first appeared on The Space Between Us.

Linda Mthenjane is the managing director and founder of The Space Between Us, a human-centred digital mental health platform in tune with the African psyche. She has over 20 years’ experience in strategic human resources and as a clinical psychologist in private practice.

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