A guest post by my new friend, Thandi, that is worth taking a good listen to and sharing with your people… and i join her in the hope that her children will NEVER wish that they were white…
IF I WERE WHITE, I’D HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BREATHE
There my parents were, struggling in Apartheid South Africa on a small wage, doing the type of work only ‘they’ were created for-according to the architects of that system. There I was, in a private school with not only white children, but rich white children. The disparity could not have been greater.
Their lunchboxes would have delicious looking bread in it, with yummy fillings. Peanuts, raisins, chocolates, pies, tarts. I had a strange dark brown bread with chopped liver. No-one ever asked if they could swap their cupcakes or muffins with me. Why would they? Birthdays and Christmas were also designed to show how different I was to them. Never could I ever say to them, “My mom bought me… My dad got me…” We were struggling just to survive. Gifts were a luxury we could not afford. Even the requisite “Bring a cake to school for your birthday” didn’t happen for me. And sometimes, my chopped liver sandwiches, wrapped in foil because I could not afford a lunch box, was not enough. Being black meant hunger.
Our homes were so different. We had a small lounge/dining room in NY6, Guguletu where we were hidden far away from civilised eyes of those in the suburbs. Two bedrooms and a kitchen composed the sum total of our house. In the back yard stood the toilet and the bath. Outside. A place I feared going to at night when the trees cast eerie shadows and I feared the rustling of the leaves. No hot water. That was it. My mother, father and I in one bedroom, and my two brothers in the other. My sister later made her entrance into the world in 1985 and my brother got married so his wife joined us. But the house didn’t grow. And we couldn’t extend.
I’ll never forget visiting the house of a school mate in Newlands. She had a huge double storey house. She had her own bedroom and didn’t need to share with her parents. She had a sauna and they had a bidet. It was surreal. It felt like a palace. It was so big. A house in an area only for white people. Space. So much space. And a bath inside the house, with hot water!
My classmates in what was known as Sub A and Sub B didn’t seem to know that I was Black. Sometimes their ignorance was sweetly awkward, like the times they’d ask me how I achieved my tan, or how I got my hair to feel like soft cotton wool. At other times, it was painfully awkward, like the time one girl said her father was teaching their dog to bark at black men. The other girls giggled as they asked each other, “What does he mean? Are there men in black bags walking around?” I sat there, thinking, “Your dad is teaching your dog to bark at men like my Dad.” I knew then that I didn’t belong, there was something wrong with people like me. Another time, a girl spoke about how their uncle was visiting and he told a joke about Mandela and his wife. It likened them to primates. I felt so cold inside, while they laughed. Again, there was something wrong with having skin like mine.
Hair like mine was also bad. The TV adverts were full of long, flowing hair. Mine didn’t do that. It wasn’t like my classmates’. In Standard 2, our teacher used to give out prizes on Fridays for the girl with the neatest hair. I always felt mine, in its afro puff or in its cornrows and plaits was tidy. Nothing was ever out of place. But she never gave me a prize. A Muslim girl ended up asking her one day, “But how come you never give her a prize? Hers is neater than Moira’s.” The answer was devastating to me, a little girl who just wanted to belong.
“She’s not like us. Her hair is different. She doesn’t count.”
I couldn’t breathe. Because I was black. I’d leave my leafy, Rondebosch school to enter the township. There were frightening police men in their casspirs and huge guns at the ready. Scary. There’d be tear gas, choking, searing tear gas. One moment we’d be playing outside on the pavement, and then the smell would come. Somewhere, those scary policemen were flexing their muscles. They’d rumble past, there’d be running, screaming…And an inability to breathe as we’d close the windows and try use Vaseline under our nostrils.
Can I be blamed for voicing what so many other children voice through the ages? “I wish I was white.” Was what my relative had the ‘privilege’ of hearing one day. She asked why we said this, her daughter and I. The only thing she could tell us to take away the sting of being Black? “But black people’s skin ages nicely. You won’t get wrinkles as quickly.” There was nothing good about being black. Black meant hunger. Black meant being forced to live in tiny houses far away from work and shops. Black meant being different. Black meant being likened to monkeys and gorillas. Black meant violence and hatred against us. Black meant an inability to breathe.
How sad it is that because of racist estate agents and landlords, black still means being forced to live where you don’t want to live. How sad it is that black still means grinding poverty. And for my children, black means violence in this town we are leaving. I hope they NEVER end up wishing they were white. For that would mean my country has failed yet another generation.