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The Apprentice: in defence of Joanna Riley


Joanna Riley


I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve been called aggressive during a discussion or a debate. But it’s a lot, an awful lot.

The Oxford dictionary meaning of the aggressive is, ‘ready to attack or confront’. It denotes that those subject to it might fear for their physical safety. Furthermore, it unequivocally implies that you are utterly unreasonable. As a result, not only can your arguments be thoroughly dismissed, but your character badly stained.

It is worse than shameful that far too often Black men and women, and women in general, who dare to seek a leadership role, defend a position, or be passionate about a particular subject they are labelled ‘aggressive’.

I only caught the last twenty minutes of the popular TV show The Apprentice, but during the formulaic grilling of the losing team one the women turned to Alan Sugar and claimed mixed race contestant, Joanna Riley, was aggressive. Another woman alongside her jumped on the theme to concur. The look on Joanna’s face was of utter devastation. She pleaded with Alan that she was passionate not aggressive.

Having been in Joanna’s shoes so many times I thought it best that I watch the whole programme on BBC iPlayer before passing comment.

Of course we only get the edited version, but we can be sure that if there were any moments that demonstrated Joanna’s intent to ‘attack or confront’ we would have seen it. Ultimately, conflict is what these programmes are about. Instead we saw a woman who is persuasive in her arguments and someone who sought to lead from the front. She probably lacked diplomacy, and might have won over her colleagues if she had shared that small moment of glory, instead of responding ‘me’, when asked by a potential buyer, whose idea was this.

But the real question is should we care? After all isn’t this just a reality TV show where, at times, it’s difficult to know where reality ends and fiction begins?

I believe we should care, because what was played out during that programme occurs often in the workplace and affects people’s lives. A white man displaying Joanna traits would not be labelled aggressive, and as such his pathway to success and positions of power becomes that much easier.

Like many before her businesswoman Joanna, 25, will have learnt that she will neither be accepted nor promoted if others feel unjustifiably threatened by her presence. It also begs the question, how do her and our talents get recognised if we are judged by a different standard?

By Simon Woolley

11 Responses

  1. “A white man displaying Joanna traits would not be labelled aggressive, and as such his pathway to success and positions of power becomes that much easier”

    For the record, last weeks Apprentice showed the firing of Dan Harris who Lord Sugar’s aide Karren Brady remarked that his management style consisted of “standing around, shouting orders”. Other candidates also remarked that he was an aggressive project manager.

    Alan Sugar then based his decision on the candidate who lost the task and who other candidate deemed as a bully.

    For me personally, based on what was aired, I thought that Joanna appeared to be confrontational in a hostile manner. I also agree with your point that had she been diplomatic in her response to ‘whose idea the product was’ -she may have just earned brownie points, but whether or not this would have worked in her benefit of not going into the boardroom – I have no idea.

    Until next week!

    • @Chandni, even if Lord Sugar did sack someone based of the fact that they were deemed a bully, we have seen time and time again on the Apprentice that playing this role may enable you to excel. A mirror some would say of the way of the reality of the corporate world. Yet, when a woman, particularly a Black woman is concerned this role manifests itself in a far more sinister fashion. The accounts on The Apprentice are not just presented as they occur, as Wolley outlines, they are subject to editing. The director and producers are ultimately creating a particular narrative- even if it is called reality TV. Considering this, we can then take note that general stereotypes have space to feed into the finished production whether consciously or unconsciously, and it is the responsibility of those that are able to highlight and speak against such stereotypes.

  2. Preach! this is a reality that Black women have to confront on a far too often basis. This article was urgent because it is a necessary rebuttal to the fallicious representation of the ‘dangerous black woman’ stereotype that infiltrates all aspects of modern culture. It is especially relevant when we consider the fact that this was played out on probably the most prestigious television network in the world, thus giving this stereotype added legitimacy.

  3. @R.S I think I’m in denial. Therefore I am.

    At university, I had a module titled- Anti-Discriminatory Practice, and to pass I had to evidence that I am not discriminating against service users. I found this module particularly difficult to evidence, because it mean that I HAD to think about the many different ways I ‘could’ have discriminated against someone based on their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, environment etc…. I cringe whenever I think about the day that the university realised that such modules need to be implemented.

    Since enrolling onto a scheme with OBV my eyes, ears and feelings have truly been astounded. I have been brought up in an environment where I attended ‘diverse’ educational establishments and workplaces(in respect of ethnicity). I just don’t have it in me to see any differences in peoples abilities and talents based on their skin colour.

    I always put up a fight with myself (and where my strength to challenge Simon Woolleys post came from only God knows!) to deny that television channels as such, and reality TV programmes as such, have any racial implications.

    I have a lot to learn and a lot to grow, and if anything, I dread the day that I realise the true extent of prejudice and discriminiation in our world…

  4. I think Chandni’s post is very brave and revealing. In many ways it characterizes a Black condition: we want to see the best in people. Even when a cup is less than half empty our narrative would be, ‘well, at least there’s some there ‘. My own view is that this demonstrates our survival mechanism. Imagine for a second if on daily basis we picked up on every race inequality moment. We’d probably go crazy.

    The danger of course is that if we ignore everything to survive then nothing changes. Our challenge, therefore, is to be strategic when and how we confront inequality, whilst always ensuring we keep sane.

    But this is our forum: a safe space that we can have these discussions. Thank you RS and Chandni for engaging in such an honest way.


  5. Thank God for this article!

    Poor Joanne was left with nowhere to turn but to concede and accept the judgement placed upon her by people who had no idea where she was coming from.

    I can relate this on so many levels and I’m tired of being labelled ‘aggressive’; I’m not! Like many of people like me; I am passionate and would hate to upset people by being ‘aggressive’.

    It’s a cultural feature of many African and Caribbean people to be louder than Europeans and full of expression vocally and physically. Surely, we’ve been here long enough for this to be recognised?

  6. I totally agree with your post Simon. Western society is full of double standards and contradictions that need to be addressed. I am very appreciative that there is a forum like this where constructive discussions can take place.

    It really does take one person to take a stand and make a difference!

  7. I’m a white guy and this really didn’t seem right to me either.

    Joanna was by far the most effective person in the group and it was really sad to see her getting labelled aggressive when in fact she was just being competent compared to the noisy, stupid behavior of everyone else in the group.

    I think Melissa in the first episode was much more confrontational than Joanna and in a far less polite and constructive manner. Joanna in fact dealt with Melissa’s behaviour very maturely as team leader for that task.

    It’s frustrating to see this inconsistency in the way people are perceived and on some level I think it could well be down to racial prejudice.

    This is something the BBC seem quite bad for in general. Does anyone remember when Obama got elected and Newsnight invited Dizzee Rascal to speak as a representative of Black Britain?

    If you imagine a white president being elected and Newsnight then inviting on somebody like Pixie Lott it would seem laughable. So why do it when a Black President is elected?

  8. I watched the apprectice too and thought it was peculiar that Joanna was labelled “aggressive” by some of her fellow contestants. It was obvious to me that those other contestants were jealous and sought to damage Joanna’s chances in the boardroom- very bitchy and- errm aggressive. But isn’t that just perfectly normal within business? Sir Sugar’s profile is aggressive and the whole reason why he was chosen to run the show. And what about Simon Cowell or Anne Robinson? Agressive can work if embraced and used cleverly.I don’t think Joanna was particularly aggressive though – merely assertive. She stubbornly repeated her suggestion about the beach book stand and was finally heard in the end. She got more bold and brash as the show progressed and her idea materialised. Most of her team didn’t like her but I’m sure she didn’t like them either. After all – most of them had no viable ideas and instead of looking at the overall outcome – to win the task- they were petty and incompetent – especially the useless team leader -who was more eager to “play boss” and aggressively tell Joanna to “schhhss” several times as Joanna tried to get her suggestion heard initially.Maybe it didn’t help that she was pretty too – more jealousy. Let’s face it – whereever there’s competition there will be fierce battling. The end result is what matters in this case: Joanna survived the underhand attack – the white candidate she attacked of being overly apologetic didn’t.
    And may I kindly and respectfully (not aggressively) remind you Simon that labels such as “mixed race” are utterly outdated – there is only one race which is the human race. If you or anyone else want to make references to a person with various cultural components please use the more sophisticated term- “of dual cultural heritage” or simply “dual heritage”.
    Regina Nyametscher

  9. i was fuming when i watched the apprentice, the way they treated poor joanna , calling her aggressive, she was the only one who put forward an idea regarding the bookstand, she help to win the first challenge, i was so shocked that stella sat in and heard what was said, and kept her mouth shut, she new that the so called team leader was indecisive, and in over her head…but oh sorry she is white

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