By Josephine Omashaye Itsheye Ajuyah
Pan-Africanism in the Australian workplace is a FAIL – I found this out the hard way when two of my placements for my degree in Social Work failed last semester. There were many reasons why my placements did not work out, but a major reason, and the one I shall be exploring here, was related to the issue of my appearance. Simply put, my body modifications (that is, tattoos, piercings and scars) were not seen as “professional”.
The reason I have body modifications is because it is who I am. Body modification makes me feel more present in my body, from the actual process which causes pain (and nothing puts you more in the present than physical pain), to the result, which reaffirms the possibilities that is my body. Body modification is control over my body, hence over my life; it is me reconfiguring normative standards of beauty. For me, body modification and my blackness are interrelated, because all my life I have felt shame for my dark skin, flat nose, big lips, bum and afro/nappy hair. Body modification has been a way for me to accept my body, to love it, and hence, by default, to embrace my African features – that is my blackness.
I identify as an Australian-Canadian of Nigerian descent. This is because my parents are from Nigeria, but I was born in Canada and raised mostly in Australia. My body modifications, as an acceptance and expression of my blackness, do not come solely from Nigerian culture. Instead, my piercings, tattoos and scars are appropriations from a variety of nations from all over Africa, such as the ear and lip stretching practised by some Ethiopian women, nose piercings popularised by the Berber and Beja peoples of North Africa (Agboh-Stroude, 2013, Body piercing: evolution or revolution, para. 1-3), and the “geometric facial features” of the Nuer people of Sudan (Greenberg, 2010, Scarification, para. 3) to name a few. In fact, it can be argued that the most popular form of body modification in Nigeria is skin lightening, where a 2012 World Health Organisation (WHO) report found that 77 per cent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products – “the world’s highest percentage”, according to the Economist (G.P, 2012, para.2). It can only be surmised that this popularity of skin-lightening products among Nigerian women is a manifestation of their want to appeal to Eurocentric ideals of beauty. However, I am done with the perpetual self-loathing that comes from wanting to look European. I want to embrace my body, my blackness.
It is because I have been raised in Canada and Australia, and by parents practising mostly western ideals, that I have very little insight into Nigerian culture. Thus, I have formed my own African/Black identity, one that homogenises cultures and aesthetics from all over the African continent and from African Americans. This identity can be referred to as a form of “Pan-Africanism”, a movement which calls for “African unity, nationalism, independence, political and economic cooperation and historical and cultural awareness”, according to African history academic Alistair Boddy-Evans (Boddy-Evans, 2014, What is Pan-Africanism?, para. 2). Hence, my appearance is a combination of the aesthetics and cultures from all over Africa, including from African Americans, and it is not specific to a particular country or tribe – only to Africa.
Within Australian society, however, it does not matter that my body modifications are an expression and acceptance of my blackness. Australia is a western country, and in the West, piercings, tattoos and other body modifications are stigmatised. There has been very little study within Australia on the impact of people having body modifications in the workplace, with the last national study occurring in 1998 through a National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which found that 10 per cent of Australians had tattoos (Urban, 2010, para. 4). According to Dr Mair Underwood from the University of Queensland, this percentage is “conservative by today’s standards” (Urban, 2010, para.5). Therefore, an inference on the treatment of people with body modifications in the Australian workforce must be taken from American research.
American research shows that people view those with piercings and tattoos less favourably than those without, even if said people have body modifications themselves. For example, a Forbes 2001 study found that college students with or without body modifications of their own viewed themselves as “being significantly different” from other bodily modded individuals “in all big five personality dimensions” (Digman 1990 in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure,2009, p.623). Hence, people with body modifications are very “othered”. In this same study, subjects also rated individuals with body modifications as being “lower in extraversion (enthusiasm, assertiveness etc.), openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness (thorough, careful, vigilant traits, in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009, p.623). Similarly, Chen (2007) found that even though 44 per cent of managers have tattoos or body piercings (other than in their ears), 42 per cent still said that their “opinion of someone would be lowered by the person’s visible body art” (cited in in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009, p.626). Also, within this study, 81 per cent of respondents thought piercings in places other than the ears was unprofessional, with 76 per cent saying the same about visible tattoos – therefore, 67 per cent of employees reported concealing their tattoos or piercings when at work (Chen, 2007, cited in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009, p.626).
There are many theories as to why people in the western workforce do not like those with piercings and tattoos, with one of them being that people prefer to work with those they perceive as having “affiliative personalities” (Tett & Murphy, 2002, p.238, cited in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009 p.627) – that is, people who are “friendly, sociable, helpful, skilful in dealing with people and open about their feelings” (Mehrabian, Affiliative Tendency Defined, para. 1). However, people with piercings and tattoos for whatever reason are stereotyped as not having affiliative personalities.
This is not just bad news for me, but for people of colour in general who have been found to have more body modifications than their Caucasian counterparts. For example, in the United States, 47 per cent of Hispanics, 33 per cent of African Americans and 28 per cent of Caucasians “currently have or have had tattoos or body piercings in the past” (Laumann & Demick 2006, cited in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009, p.623). This means that people of colour are at greater risk of being discriminated against in the western workforce. Such discrimination can take the form of “biases in performance evaluation”, only being offered “dead-end or low level jobs”, “lower pay and benefits” and “lower promotion rates”, to name a few (Ilgen & Youtz, 1986, cited in Miller, McGlashan Nicols & Eure, 2009 ,p.622).
So what is a person of colour such as myself to do but to take all my body piercings off so I have a chance in the Australian workforce? Of course there are jobs out there that permit body modifications, but the one for which I’ve spent all these years studying for – Social Work – has proven to not be one of them. My Pan-African identity disadvantages me in the Australian workforce, yet I refuse to give in to its demand that I take on a more Eurocentric appearance. There has to be another way, because I refuse to hide my blackness – I refuse to go backwards.
Agboh-Stroude, B. (2013). Body piercing: evolution or revolution. Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://www.afrostylemag.com/ASM9/afro_beauty.html
Boddy-Evans, A. (2014). What is Pan-Africanism? Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://africanhistory.about.com/od/politicalhistory/a/What-Is-Pan-Africanism.htm
G.P. (2012). Lighter shades of skin. Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2012/09/beauty-nigeria
Greenberg, R. (2010). OUCH! Extreme Ethnic Body Modifications Around the World. Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://www.nileguide.com/blog/2010/05/20/ouch-extreme-ethnic-body-modifications-around-the-world/
Mehrabian, A. (1995-2010). Personality Test: The Affiliative Tendency (or Affiliation, Sociability) Test & Software. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.kaaj.com/psych/scales/aff.html
Miller, BK., McGlashan Nicols, K., & Eure, J. (2009). Body art in the workplace: piercing the prejudice? Personnel Review. 38 (6), 621-640.
Urban, D. (2010). Think twice about displaying tattoos in the workplace. Retrieved July 2, 2014, from http://www.couriermail.com.au/business/think-twice-about-displaying-tattoos-in-the-workplace/story-e6freqmx-1225866954276?nk=913e4bb13473c92bfafcd4db6128e47f