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.