A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of hanging out with these two extremely glamorous 9-year-olds who sit next to each other at school. They skinny-dipped, assured me that boys are stupid and re-applied their red lipstick with a dedication that would impress Dita Von Teese. But there was something poignant for me as I half-listened to their chatter and the casual way they argued, made up, continued playing. It was so effortless and natural the way they interacted with one another, untainted by the heavy pall of South African history which hangs over my own dealings with people of colour – the way I am conscious of everything I say and do, and my tendency to overcompensate because of way I grew up as a child of apartheid.
And I wondered how long it could continue, this neutral space they inhabit with each other. Because surely it is just a matter of time (if she hasn’t already) that the child on the left will begin to notice that most of the children in her class and her teachers and their doctor and the lady on the billboard are light-skinned, while the security guard and the cleaner and the assistant teacher are dark, like her; that the people who drive the luxury cars look like the girl on the right, while the people in buses and taxis look like her mom and dad. And maybe she’ll start to wonder – like my Facebook friend’s adoptive black daughter did – whether people who look like she does can also own nice cars and live in big houses or whether that privilege is reserved for white people. Because that is certainly how it appears.
The little girl on the right comes from a dual-language household, English and Danish. So does the little girl on the left. Her home languages are English and isiXhosa. But you won’t find people commenting on the blonde child’s enunciation; it’s a given that she’ll speak ‘good English’. For the one on the left, however, she will regularly receive compliments on how ‘well’ she speaks – and the implication, of course, is ‘for a black child.’ The one on the left lives by the sea in a more affluent suburb than the one on the right. Yet, she’ll have people quizzing her on where she comes from; what her parents do, and whether it’s her ‘first time on the beach.’ She’ll be patronised, talked about as if she’s not there and have strangers randomly touching her hair. And it’s hard to imagine that the relentlessness of this othering is not already making an impact; making her question her identity, her belonging, her worth in a society which – if we are to be honest – values all things white and disparages all things black.
In our brief conversation she confessed that a (blonde, popular) little girl in her class had deliberately trampled on her hand and thrown her sandwiches on the floor because they were ‘disgusting.’ Maybe this wasn’t a racial thing, but… it probably was. While the child on the right will benefit from the complex tiers of white privilege, her darker friend will be forced to fight many battles and clear many (often invisible) obstacles if she is to succeed in life. And it is inevitable that at times this bright-eyed, smart and lovely little girl creature is going to be made to feel not good enough for the world. And it makes me feel weary and powerless and sad.
When her parents showed up to collect her she gave me a big hug and thanked me politely for inviting her to come and play. And I have to consider the fact that maybe I’m just as bad as the white people I criticise because I can’t help feeling overjoyed that my kids have dark-skinned friends. That they are my proof that I did okay as a parent and managed not to pollute my children with the crazy things I was taught to believe when I was young and impressionable. My wish is that, of the white people consistently saying stupid things to black people, the ones I’ve raised will not be among them. At this point in our crazy history, where so little has changed for so many, that’s probably all I can hope for.
16 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Pretties”
Naaaah your article does not reflect my experience in Jozi – but maybe Cape Town is different.
I agree Agnes, East London seems to be further ahead in our acceptance of living together as the people of South Africa. (I am proud to write).
Durban is not like this either.
“the child on the left will begin to notice that most of the children in her class and her teachers and their doctor and the lady on the billboard are light-skinned, while the security guard and the cleaner and the assistant teacher are dark, like her; that the people who drive the luxury cars look like the girl on the right, while the people in buses and taxis look like her mom and dad”
I completely disagree with this part of your post. Take a drive through Umhlanga one day and look into the Range Rovers and Discoveries and Cayenne’s. They are not driven by white people. And I urge you to find a school here that has only white teachers or only white children. It seems the Republic of Cape Town needs to move on with the rest of us.
Susan you need to get out more and by that u mean beyond the Sir Lowries Pass! Away from your exclusively white neighborhood you’ll quickly see that the little girl on the right will be the odd one out. From enrolling at universities to applying for jobs in the formal business sector she will have to step aside for the little girl on the left. Sad but that’s how things are in SA once you leave the comforts of the Atlantic seaboard neighborhoods.
I agree Agnes and Jill. I think that integration in Johannesburg is far more effortless and, on the whole, advanced than it appears to be in Cape Town. My children attended a multiracial school here, twenty-five years ago and now, in their late twenties, early thirties, I am thrilled to say that they are just as comfortable ‘mixing’ as they ever have been. I am always a little surprised to see how different it is in the Cape.
Well said Susan… if I may make one comment. I believe the littlies… see no differences, however it is our projections as adults that create that divide. For a moment, perhaps we can allow the little ones to create their own realities.. free of our sensitivities to the past.
Thought provoking and intelligent as usual. Thank you.
Beautiful pic! And these two are on point with the red lippy!
Sent from my iPad
Thank you for this this powerful post. I am also often at awe of the innocence of children, the way they see each other as human instead of physical traits. Though it is unfortunately inevitable that children will one day see the world for what it is, and the many superficial delineations adults create, I’m glad to hear that you’re raising your daughter in love and awareness.
Yes, it´s a long long way for the human mindset to actually change and good role models certainly help it. Looking at the South African government, sadly enough there is no evidence either way. For me it feels way easier to cope with these topics being back in Europe, I have to admit. And it has a lot to do with the comfort of not having to be around black service people all over the place. My SA wife was shocked, seeing white service people everywhere when she arrived in Germany 3 years ago. It´s deeply rooted…
Yoh!! What do you mean by ” the comfort of not having to be around black service people all over the place”???
I’m inclined to agree with Agnes, even if I live in CT. I see people of all colours getting along just fine, restaurants, gym, movies, Waterfront, all over for that matter, as well as couples. I honestly cannot say that it is so much of a problem anymore. I see people being very polite in supermarkets and the service station and smiling or chatting. It is almost unreal that people of different ‘classes’ are friendly with each other instead of people of colour. Not too long ago it was more a class issue about who you associate or are ‘friendly’ with. The world is changing or is it SA and the rest of the world are lagging behind, given the reports we get from what is happening in Europe & the West. As confirmation I include this link;
If anyone can tell you about racism, the insolence and arrogance of the west, it is John Pilger and Ken o Keefe.
SA no longer need to be the scapegoat.
People are different, in colour, religion or culture and we cannot ignore that, but if we treat everyone with dignity, we can look past it, after all it is their right. My son’s are older than these two and they do not see colour.
I think it is personal and in the minority if anyone still feels that way, but one can bear in mind that it can be the same in reverse.
humanity trying to sprout through the shell of indoctrination…
Beautiful writing, Susan
Wow, you do live in a sheltered white environment! My now grown kids had the experience at school of being either the only white kid, or one of two or three in their entire class.
My son was tormented and picked on by all the little Indian boys for being “not one of them”. He had a miserable school life. I really should have allowed him to home school. My daughter was lucky enough to get there just a few crucial years earlier when there was a wider mix of races, and managed to make a handful of friends, of all colours.
At LEAST half of the fancy shmancy cars in all of Joburg are driven by black or Indian people. The neighbourhood that I grew up in and in which I still live, that used to be predominantly Jewish, is now about 80% Indian. Complete with Mosques. The Shul had to close down because all the Jews had moved out.
The experiences that I hear, regarding work, is that whites are struggling more and more to get jobs, no matter how qualified they are.
WE are the ones rapidly becoming the disadvantaged, it would seem.