Moving Back to Jamaica

A blog about my Move Back to Jamaica after 20+ years of living in the US. Most of the articles focus on the period from 2005-2009 when the transition was new, and at it's most challenging.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Muna on The Apprentice

I haven't watched The Apprentice in ages, but I was flipping around the channels one night with my wife and realized that one of the contestants was Jamaican.

Not even a kinda-sorta-Jamaican, who has become so American that the Jamaican picee of her is lost.

No sah... Muna is the real article, with an accent and attitude that is ALL Yardie.

I am now watching the ninth episode online, in which she was fired and I recommend it to anyone who has ever come from the Caribbean to work in corporate America (less so Canada.) (Luckily for us, the entire episode in available online at this link -- thank you NBC!)

I'll admit, it is a bit difficult to watch, and that is just from my personal experience as a Jamaican who kept most of his accent even after spending 20 years working in the U.S.

Why so?

Basically, Muna was fired by Trump... because of her accent.

Was it her fault that she spoke so differently that she could not be understood clearly? She happened to be the only person on the show who spoke with even a mild accent, which says a lot about what it is like to work in the U.S. as a foreigner, where studies have shown that people with regional and foreign accents are thought to be less intelligent.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the very difficult choices that Jamaicans living in the U.S. have to make... to become, essentially, white American or Black American or ultra-ethnic Jamaican/Fringe?

When I arrived at Cornell as a freshman, I saw all three groups and limed with Jamaicans who had chosen to be in all three groups... although rarely at the same time. Their choices had a lot to do with when they came to the US, and whether or not they came to the U.S. in high school.

From what I could tell, those of us who came straight from Jamaica as freshmen were very different than those who came from Jamaica just a year earlier. Many of those who came earlier were under a threat- they either adapted or got beaten up, called "coconuts" or "bananas" or were mercilessly teased, harassed or assaulted by other students. They deliberately lost their accents to avoid being hurt -- and this was something that very few of them could explain to their parents, who themselves undergoing a major own culture shock.

Muna clearly chose the option of being "ultra-ethnic," and it showed on the show. She just did not fit in, much in the way that those friends of mine in U.S. high schools didn't fit in.

In the episode, she had a major acting role in a short video-taped advertisement put together by her team. It was a mistake, judging by the fact that her own team-mates could not follow her accent.

They let it slide, and they lost the challenge, only to be sent to the boardroom where she was fired.

Unfortunately, Muna was at a disadvantage -- she could not listen with U.S. ears. When she thought that something was amiss she asked her team point-blank if they could understand, and they (probably trying to be politically correct and not piss her off) did not answer...

The answer finally did come from the judges, who said that they could not understand her accent. They also told Trump that the responsibility to decide what to include in the video lay with the director, and not the actor.

In the end, however, Muna was fired when Trump put it to her team-mates and asked who they would like to keep in their team going forward. He pushed, and pushed, until they relented and chose the Project Manager, Christine, instead of her.

Did it matter that Muna was a sharp, Black, young, pretty, heavily-accented Jamaican?

And that her teammates were all (what seemed to me) to be older white women?

I suspect that most Jamaicans who have been there, and played of Muna in their U.S. companies would say "Yes" while others might disagree.

I read a book once that described how Black managers, directors and above learned to adopt the most agreeable personalities, to smile and accept all sorts of nonsense in order to further their careers. They tended to have superior social skills, much better than those of their white counterparts. They knew how to fit in, and be inoffensive to the point that they were often accused of being Oreos or roast breadfruits -- black on the outside, but white on the inside.

I thought this was theoretically interesting until I, as a young Black employee, did a quick mental inventory and realized that ALL the Black executives I knew at AT&T fit the description precisely and exactly.

Muna, to her credit, wasn't playing that game, and that was what got her fired.

At first, it seemed as if Trump was taking the judges recommendation to look at who should have been directing the video, and who had the final say about who would play which part in the taping. That decision was clearly Christine's -- the Project Manager.

That is, until a word slipped into the conversation in the boardroom that many Black professionals have heard before -- a word that often signifies trouble in white corporate America: "difficult."

It was interesting to watch -- all of a sudden, Muna was being "difficult."

The story changed -- she was "difficult" when she supposedly insisted that she play a lead role in front of the camera. She was "difficult" in other projects prior to the one at hand. She was also "less experienced," and the combination of the two meant the end of Muna as her two friends professed a newfound preference for firing her.

In a way, she was less experienced -- she obviously did not know what it takes to be a successful sharp, Black, young, pretty, heavily-accented Jamaican in white corporate America. They knew it, and she didn't.

My experience has been that when Blacks in the U.S. don't play the soothing, non-confrontational role they are expected to play in the corporate world, words like "difficult" and "inexperienced" are among the specific phrases that start to be used to describe them.

(Another phrase used is "not a team player" which is code language for "not like us." I can't recall hearing the phrase in this episode, but someone else can go back and listen to the other episodes ;-) )

While this may not be a case of racism (in the sense of racial bias,) it definitely is a case of cultural difference, and the dramatic firing might have been a shock to Muna, but it seemed to follow a well-worn sequence of events in which Blacks as smart as she is, end up on the outside looking in, wonder what the hell just happened.

My advice to Muna (meant to be heard with Jamaican ears:) "Mih luv... mek haste com bak home. We need people like you bad bad."


At 3/22/2007 4:40 PM, Blogger Mushtaq said...

I have been meaning to write a blog of my own on this but seeing your post here leaves not much more to be said.

I did wonder about Trump's decision here which is clearly flwaed. Clearly Muna could not be watching the scene and acting in it at the same time. Why none of her teammates said anything is beyond me.

Essentially by keeping Christine he rewarded poor management and punished effort. I agree, I can understand that it was difficult to understand her but as the executives and the project manager of the winning team pointed out, this issue should have been spotted long before the final production took place. And in fact, if I remember correctly Chistine was not there for the start of the taping. In the past Project Managers have gotten in trouble for taking off at critical junctures. Clearly, there is a lack of consistency in deciding who gets fired.

At 3/23/2007 11:20 AM, Anonymous cayt said...

Muna was brilliant in the boardroom. Granted I never watch this programme, but I viewed it based on your article. The 2 other ladies were being COWARDS and just playing the clan game. I would fire ALL of them except Muna....they were kissing you know what!!!! Mr Trump was not objective based on leadership qualities...but it's his show.

At 3/23/2007 12:48 PM, Blogger fwade said...


I saw your other post - send me an email nuh!

I think it would be really something if you were start a blog on your side of the Move Back to Jamaica -- the "Move to America."

I recently heard a heart-breaking story of one person who had to wait a year for a social security number, and another who could net be certified in their profession and had to start all over.

I pain when I hear these stories because the information is available to those who are willing to look...

At 3/23/2007 2:40 PM, Blogger eemanee said...

granted i didn't watch the show, but how difficult is it to understand a Jamaican (or any other foreigner for that matter) speaking English??? or, how difficult is it to ask someone to speak slower, to repeat?? and these are managers working in a globalised economy???? stupse!

At 3/27/2007 8:40 AM, Anonymous trinisunshine said...

Great contender but the show isn't ready for such a Caribbean diva.
Off topic congrates to Miss Jamaica 2007 Zahra Redwood. Wonder how Mr. Trump feels about rasta beauty queens.

At 3/29/2007 12:40 PM, Blogger Jdid said...

you are so on point here. the other issue which goes along with the difficult comment is if you even appear to get slightly upset about anything sudenly people are afraid of you like they think you will beat them up or something. you have to fit this smiling, always happy profile minus the accent to get ahead.

At 3/29/2007 1:27 PM, Blogger fwade said...


Man, yuh lick de nail on de head...

I know exactly what you mean -- I had to laugh out aloud from the memory.

I remember seeing a part of a short diversity exercise that was done showing taped conversations between people of different ethnic groups. , just without the sound.

One interaction had two Black men talking, and there was a choice of words used to describe what they looked like they were talking about.

To non-Black groups it looked as if they were catching up on a picnic. They were actually discussing a very serious business matter, but to the non-Black observer it looked like nothing of the sort.

The research showed that non-Blacks were very weak at reading Black body-language and mannerisms, meaning that Black managers and employees were often given feedback that had nothing to do with them personally, but everything to do with the racial difference... Hmmm...

It was interesting to hear some of the interpretations of Muna's body-language in the episode.

At 4/02/2007 12:35 PM, Anonymous gela said...

Hey tell me how you watch it online nuh? Which site is it? Someone had sent me a link but the username and password that they sent me didn't seem to work.

At 4/03/2007 4:18 AM, Anonymous Nooni said...

Well, this is coming from a Jamaican, so maybe my comments might mean something?

Ijust saw Muna's episodes on Apprentice, and I thought that Mr. Trump was really nice to her. Muna was a scatter-brain. She was asking too many questions, and interrupting others while they were speaking. This was because she was way too intent on "proving" herself "worthy". I thought this was shocking, especially when she was clearly not in charge of a project.

I was really surprised at how often she interrupted the others (including Mr. Trump), and I thought that this was really rude.

She spoke too fast. It was really inconsiderate, seeing that she is NOT in Jamaica and not speaking to other Jamaicans. She is in the US and talking to people in the US. I think that some amount of flexibility is required in a new cultural situation. If she can't be flexible, then she can't lead. Simple as that. What kind of business woman would not consider her target audience?

Muna was overly self-conscious, and tried too hard to look "smart" and "competent" on camera. I thought this posturing was unnecessary. She needed to listen more than she spoke. You can't lead by talking. You have to be aware of what the others are thinking and feeling and adapt to them.

I actually thought that other girls were nice to her, when they should have told her to shut the **** up. I would have. I would have sent her outside, because unlike Mr. Trump, I don't suffer rude people, especially not on my team.

I do not believe that her race had anything to do with her firing. I think that a lot of dark-skinned people call out race, when it was always an insecurity at the beginning that THEY brought to the table. Her team leader said "I need 120% out of you" and pointed at her. I loved that stance, and I thought that it was quite appropriate for her to say that.

Now, I understand that I sound like an apologist for the "Americans", but I have never been to America. I am based in Doha, Hong-Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo and I am decidedly anti-US. So, where is my opinion coming from?

In business I would describe myself as manipulative, and extremely good at getting my own way. For example, I got 3 colleagues fired in a 2 year period without saying a single word to anyone about them. I did that by allowing the right people to see their glaring incompetence, by covering their backsides for a limited period, and then, at the critical moment, allow their glaring mistakes to show up. They didn't realise that the reason they "looked" good, was that I was sweeping up behind the scenes and smoothing over the rough edges.

My colleagues don't know that I'm a such bitch because I cooperate with whomever is in charge of a project, and I do exactly what is required of me. Everyone knows that I say what I think, but I shut up at meetings except where my opinion is solicited, especially when I know that decisions are already made prior to the meeting.

I am highly organised with my work, and my projects are always successful. I've gotten promoted faster than everyone else.

So, I'm Jamaican, black, and getting promoted in a shark eat shark corporate environment and very much a Jamaican. Am I white? Or am I just competent?

If I had someone like Muna on my team, I would end up making lots of mistakes (micro-managing masks insecurity and incompetence) and seeing that she doesn't listen, I would end up taking the blame for something she did. So, I would fire her in a heartbeat. I don't think she would have lasted longer than 8 weeks on any team of mine.

I think Muna's way too insecure, and she needs to learn to rule from within, instead of by controlling what others see.

At 4/11/2007 7:10 AM, Blogger Joya said...

Excellent post, Nooni! Sounds like something straight out of the 48 Laws of Power. You sound like just the kind of "bitch" I would like to know better.

As a Caribbean person, I appreciate the other comments. I recently had the discussion on the topic of maintaining or losing accents with a former school-mate of mine. I expressed that it is quite common for "first-world" persons to shed regional accents to fit in and rise faster. I referenced a successful friend of mine, a German entrepreneur, who quickly discarded his parochial Black Forest accent upon moving to big city Munich. My friend expressed that she thought this was "wrong".

My comment was that it is human nature to be threatened by what is different. When people are threatened by you, you immediately become a target. On a kids playground, it may mean sand in your face, or nasty names. In business and in life, it means people take longer to bond with you, it means being set up for failure.

Having watched only a few moments of the Apprentice with Muna, I hasten to say that your assessment of the situation is probably spot on.

Her accent and attitude were unmistakably Jamaican, but also arrestingly "different". Smoothing or losing an accent is a very personal decision. It goes deeper than just accent, though. One also has to look at body language, perspectives and other subtle means of communication. Standing out too much always makes one an easy target. She was not smart enough for her own good. But she did have a memorable run on a nationally televised show.

At 4/24/2007 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/21/2008 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Careful about making judgements about people based on an edited TV show. Apprentice is notorious for editing people unfavourably when they are beign set up for firing in that epdisode.


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