They say history has a way of repeating itself. While it may not happen in the same form, it sure brings with it lots of similarities and tough lessons.
I’ve been reading a lot of books on slavery lately, and have been especially fascinated by plantation life. In particular, how slaves survived in some of the worst conditions imaginable under a rigid and barbaric system designed to keep them docile and impotent.
The more I read, the more difficult it becomes to overlook the obvious parallels between life on the plantation hundreds of years ago and the corporate environment today.
Plantation economies were built solely on slave labour. Those robust economies allowed plantation owners to become very wealthy; their slaves, however, remained slaves. No matter how much they worked, they would always end right where they started. In the corporate environment, even if the worker advances, even if he makes more money, he will still be an employee and his earnings will be dependent on whether the boss decides to give him a promotion.
Hundreds of years have since passed. Slaves have been replaced with machines and workers, at least in this part of the world, are no longer legally forced to work for free. The only whips being cracked these days are proverbial ones.
However, many of the key figures and systems that existed in the past continue today.
On many plantations, white men were the designated overseers. But, what many people fail to remember is that enslaved blacks were often promoted to the role of slave driver. It was an unusual dichotomy, as the driver had authority over his fellow slaves, but was still a slave and thus, the property of his master.
Whether on the plantation or in the corporate environment, we’re all very familiar with these driving forces. Beyond pushing you to work hard, some have given themselves an even greater role: to break you, mold you and ultimately own you.
This is just one of the reasons why slaves were branded. While they often suffered that fate for attempting to run away, slave masters wanted to make a greater point – that they owned that individual. Ownership is crucial. It shows control – that the masters have it and you don’t. That power keeps today’s workers in check.
The Mindset Parallels
Unfortunately, many workers today still possess a plantation mindset.
Think about how many people at your job complain daily about disliking their boss or the company, but do nothing to escape their situation. They come to you in private sharing plans to leave, but both you and they know they won’t. Every time they come to you to vent, you want to scream, ‘go back to your desk and stop wasting my time because you know you ain’t leaving.” They are much like those slaves who hated being mistreated, but were too comfortable and scared to leave.
Right around the corner are those workers who have nowhere to go. They’ve been on their corporate plantation doing the same thing for so long that their skillsets and mindset have not advanced. The only thing they’ve managed to accumulate during their employment is years on the job. These workers don’t like to see others advancing. They are also typically the first to report you to the powers that be in hopes that their intel would get them closer to the main house. Sadly, it won’t.
Without a doubt, the most dangerous corporate slaves are the ones who play the field. These are your house slaves who have access to the higher ups. Once in a while, they take a cup of water out to the field slaves. They do it, not because they care about them, but because they want to earn their trust. The ultimate goal, however, is to learn of the field slaves’ plans so that they can report back to the masters. They don’t betray the field slave’s confidence immediately. Instead, they build a rapport. Then, all of a sudden, you see the overseer coming with the noose. Only then do you know you’ve been betrayed.
Naturally, every corporate entity has a few rebels. They’re the ones who challenge the system the most because they know it’s flawed. They refuse to conform. However, they are often targeted.
Every once in a while, the authority has to make an example out of one of these rebels to keep the others in line. In the South, some slave masters would either lynch slaves or engage in buck breaking (raping the strongest, most respected male slave in front of his family as a means of degrading him). The purpose was to scare the other slaves and prevent a groundswell.
Today, employers punish these rebel workers by either withholding promotions, excluding them from plans or firing them. Employees who ask questions or voice disapproval, even when it’s done respectfully, are seen as problematic and a challenge to the system. Therefore, they have to be removed.
When Anger Is Misdirected
A great deal of animosity was created on the plantation when lighter-skinned slaves were extended certain privileges. They worked in the main house where they did less strenuous work and had access to better food and clothes, whereas their darker-skinned counterparts were relegated to toiling in the fields in inhumane conditions. This is where colorism really took root.
Jealousy often reared its ugly head and the field slaves would resent the lighter skinned slaves. But, their anger was misdirected, as the lighter hued slaves didn’t promote themselves. The slave masters placed them in the main house and treated them differently.
In the corporate world, it’s not uncommon for employees to get angry at their coworkers when they get promoted. Rather than looking inward or getting angry at their boss, they get angry at their colleagues. They do this because much like that field slave who dared not confront his master, that employee cannot confront the boss. So, instead he spews hatred at an easier target.
Not all corporate environments are the same, just like not all plantations were the same. But, for some reason the mindset remains.