The Apprentice: in defence of 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 '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

Archived Comments

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Why was she labelled 'aggressive'?

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 Nyametsche

This really didn’t seem right

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?


Totally agree

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!

James Odoi

Thank God for this article!

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?

Rebbecca Hemmings

A brave and revealing post

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.

Simon Woolley

Thinking about discrimination...

@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…

Chandni Tanna

This article is urgent!

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.


Did Sugar sack based on fact?

@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.


Alan Sugar's decision

“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 Tanna

Joanna a bit of a fool.

To be honest I didnt like the label stuck on Joanna and so many sisters of colour by caucasian women who find themselves inapt against an articulate better educated, more clued up smart and beautiful black woman. They simply dont like it. They have to find something to say, when they are getting a verbally pulverised.However I do have a problem with Joanna's persistance. Firstly she wasnt the project manager she had already proven herself, she simply did not have to interfere in the proceedings this week, rather sit back on her laurels and let the others work to get their own recognition. She really has no strategy and she did not know when to back off. Do these young hopefuls not study previous series. Tim Campbell was elected by the team as the leader he did not have to push himself forward they called for him and that is what Joanna needed, to be consulted with, asked for her opinion. It would be no bad thing if they didnt. She almost got her stupid self eliminated when it wasnt her task or fight and in that respect she was aggressive in literally taking over the role of project manager. I dont agree she should have opened her mouth at all. She was exempt because of her previous victory and now the girls are going to be forever using her enthusiasm. Dont say a word, let them fail, let them take each other into the boardroom, you tow the party line do what your told and thats it! until the opportunity arises to be the project manager then you shine!

Susan Turing

Joanne Riley

I totally agree with Simon Wooley's comments about double standards in society, and the labelling of Black Men & Women as 'aggrssive' is part of the stereotype rasicts want to hear and see, but there was no need for Joanne to behave the way she did do, she could have been more diplomatic and stopped speaking, instead of repeating herself and annoying the others. She has a great deal to learn if she is to succeed in Alan Sugar's world, and to remember there will be many corporates watching the programme, and if she wants to work in this field,she will have to learn to be a better team player, be quiet and diplomatic in certain situations. I wish her well and hope she progresses to the finals!!
Marion Schumann

Plaese stop confusing subjective opinions with objective facts.

"To be honest I didnt like the label stuck on Joanna and so many sisters of colour by caucasian women who find themselves inapt against an articulate better educated, more clued up smart and beautiful black woman. They simply dont like it. They have to find something to say, when they are getting a verbally pulverised."

That notion is simply a racially motivated one, of which I cannot understand its purpose, and you are simply creating stereotypes rather than pursuing constructive criticism.

This article, including the subsequent comments, can be likened to using the concept of racism as if it were a military air-strike rather than planning an effective strategic defence.

The best defence is not always a good offence.

But she is the one with a conviction for racial aggression

It seems that Joanna really does not like the people of Pakistan, how can a full page of sympathy pop up for this woman (starting to think this is joanna's work) she is aggressive and has a conviction for racially aggressive behaviour in 2005.
unfortunately her chav behaviour and NOT her colour will count heavily against her, she will not win the apprentice because of this, Lord sugar's employees need to be squeeky clean and totally free from such convictions as Joanna's and rightly so.


I notice while watching the apprentice that there were a lot of female bitching and light bullying. When Joanna was accussed of being aggressive I was really shocked how everyone pointed their finger and I thought 'oh no here we go again'. I felt this for years that once a black woman has a voice you are always silenced and told why are you aggressvie or confrontational. I feel that people expect us (me, a black women) to be the little bow down your head and be a weak little thing that shouldn't have a voice. I have also noticed if a black woman goes against a white person, she usually loses or if left to the public vote she would have less votes and the list goes on. But hey if I mention more you might say I have a problem.


I cannot believe that Joanna was fired. She was without doubt the best and brightest of the lot. Sugar must be losing the plot. If I was a big business person I would be knocking on her door - I think she is the best candidate from any of the series. I don't think it matters what colour you are when you are watching the apprentice - I am caucasian - but Joanna was the best because she understood what needed to be done and got on and got it done. She was organised, intelligent and savvy. Now that she has been fired, I am not watching anymore of it - the other two are nonetities, IMHO.

Joanna - The Apprentice

It was very very sad to see Joanne be fired last night. I thought and still think that she was the best candidate on the series. She did make huge mistake of being unprepared but Alan Sugar should have used her past performances over the period of the show to judge her ability.

Each and everytime, she got on the task at hand and achieved what was needed. She was on the winning side, an amazing 7 times - more than everyone else (the last 5) left on the semi final show.

On the other hand, the advice for her to continue with her business shows that Alan Sugar has a great deal of respect and faith in her. In the end, it maybe the best option for her i.e. to continue to expand her business. If she puts as much effort into her business as she has during the show, she could be the next Alan Sugar.
Also the show has given her great exposure so I suspect that if she goes to get the big contracts for businesses, people will take her much more serious now.

Joanna Riley

I believe that she was a surrogate for a lot of candidates , in the sense that she had a lot of drive and seamed to carry a lot of the other candidates even to the finals. I was disappointed in her interviews. One of the interviewers tried to talk down to her by asking her business questions almost on the lines of academia (yet he did not ask any of the other candidates similar questions) and in the end even though she was more successful in her tasks than most candidates , she just did not believe enough in herself by accepting the fact that she felt least qualified. It is obvious that none of the finalists had anything on her, as one of the finalists admitted having no qualifications on leaving school and the other, although academic , did not seam to have business qualifications nor performed well in his tasks, by being more on the losing side. Conclusion . tell me something we dont already know about race and gender.