DISCLAIMER: I’ve used the featured image for this post in another post on this blog where I spoke about something else that girls with melanin often struggle with…hair. If you want that post click here and it’ll open in a new tab for your reading pleasure!
Growing up, I never thought much about race but when you’re growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, it doesn’t matter if you don’t think about race, other people will do that for you. My first 2 years of high school I had a massive crush on this guy called Paolo and as most crushes go, I didn’t say anything. It was simpler that way. Eventually, I grew in confidence and decided that this was it, sure he didn’t really know who I was, did he even know my name? There was enough time for us to become high school sweethearts and live happily ever after once we’d matriculated. Looking back on it I realize that I was a bat crazy teen. How had I constructed a future with someone I didn’t even know let alone had a conversation with? I’m twenty-eight now and while I wish the younger me had this sage wisdom, guess what? She didn’t! Fast forward to grade 10 and convincing myself that I had received enough signs from the universe that Paolo and I were meant to be, I decided to write him a 4-page letter. Just kidding, it wasn’t 4 pages, I just felt like putting in an Aaliyah reference. I wrote this boy (that I hardly knew) a letter chronically when I had first seen him. It was at prize-giving, I sat behind him and thought ‘wow he has a lovely head of curly hair. Gotta have him!’ Okay maybe that last phrase didn’t feature. I wouldn’t say I’m the smartest person in the world but I am a hard worker and in high school for a boy to have taken my attention away from the books, he had to be special.
He wasn’t special and neither were his friends. Teenage boys are not known for their maturity and Paolo and his friends were no different. He showed the letter I had written to him to all of his friends and they’d make comments here and there about my crush on Paolo. The more he behaved like a jerk, the easier it was to get over him. I would love to say teenage wisdom kicked in and I learned from that occasion BUT I didn’t. My next crush was on his friend Wayne. Wayne was different, I was convinced. For one I actually knew him properly and had exchanged more than just a word or two with him, in contrast to Paolo who was a lot more serious, Wayne was funny and made not just me, but the whole class laugh. He was different, and at a school where I wasn’t black enough for the black girls because I wasn’t South African black, and was too black for the white girls, he made me feel like I fitted in somewhere. It took a while for me to admit that I had a crush on him but when I was ready to, I was convinced it was reciprocal. I’d helped him with homework before, I had his number, who remembers the good old days of the pioneer to WhatsApp, Mxit? It never felt as though he was ashamed of being seen talking to me. I sometimes felt that way around certain people. I went back and forth with the decision to tell him how I felt, between that time he had a girlfriend, meanwhile, I waited in the shadows (…jk not really in the shadows because South Africa in summer will burn your skin off) for my turn. When he broke up with his girlfriend, we would speak a lot more frequently on Mxit, he would say that I meant a lot to him and that is all a teenage girl foolishly in love needs to hear to believe that her crush loves her too. I waited a couple more weeks before I made my move, after all, I didn’t want to be a rebound, rebounds are only cool when you’re doing ROMWOD.
I should have learnt from that incident with Paolo to stop with the letters BUT I didn’t. I wrote him a letter and gave it to him when school had ended. My friends and I watched as he read it, waited for a reaction and then watched in teenage shock and disbelief as he crumpled it and threw it in the bin Things were altered from that moment. We hardly spoke at school yet on Mxit, you’d swear we were the best of friends. I was happy to get anything from him but it felt as though I was living a lie (so many teenage dramatics). At least he hadn’t told his friends, right? WRONG! The fact that he didn’t show his friends the letter (mainly because I had salvaged the letter and tore it in a million pieces!) didn’t mean that he hadn’t told them about it. A couple of days later, the taunts began. The highlight was when my friends and I were walking past him and his friends and they threw banana peels at us. I am the biggest advocate of not using race as an excuse for my behavior or anyone else’s behavior. My last resort in any situation is to call someone racist and while my friends had warned me against Wayne. I didn’t want to believe them. I didn’t want to believe that in post-apartheid South Africa, there were people that existed who would draw closer to you, or keep away from you, based on the amount of melanin you had in your skin.
This incident opened my eyes to the reality of inter-race relations in South Africa. There was work yet to be done. On that day when the banana peels were thrown at my friends and me, it didn’t feel like a typical ‘stupid teenage boy’ thing to do. It felt racially motivated and an act that as I think of it now, sent the indirect message of who did I think I was? A black girl brave enough or perhaps in their eyes, foolish enough to think a white boy could ever be interested in her. I began to see things differently from that moment and thankfully it was my last year in South Africa before I started university in the UK.
London was different. There it felt as though while people saw my race, I wasn’t my race if that makes sense. Does it? I was lucky enough that for the most part when I encountered a rude person, it wasn’t because of my race that they were being rude to me, but because that person was honestly just a crummy person. The attention from the gorgeous Polish tennis players was also nice 😉 I could freely speak to people of all races and never once felt as though there were indirect/subtle jabs being made about my race and what anyone thought I deserved based on that. This time when I had a crush, I made sure that it was crystal clear that my crush was interested in me and I said goodbye to the letters. At that time, it felt as though my race didn’t matter and it was refreshing. Fast forward to 2019 and not too many other romantic or rather embarrassing escapades to write about, I find myself head over heels in love with the sweetest man who is not the same race as I am, yet makes an attempt at understanding and learning about the struggles of being a black foreigner…mostly because I rant a considerable but not unhealthy amount to him haha!
Globally, there is a wave of racism that is somewhat surging. The general sentiment is very much anti-immigrant/anti-foreigner/anti-anyone who is not like me. As someone who has never been a born & bred national of the countries I have lived in, it is something impossible for me to ignore. It is something that is painful to witness. On all sides, tensions are high and while we remain busy blaming the other side (whatever the other side looks like for you) for all the problems we have, we will never be able to see how we can move forward.
Through love, tribes have been intermixing colors to reveal a new rainbow world. And as more time passes, this racial and cultural blending will make it harder for humans to side with one race, nation or religion over another.
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
I have often heard the phrase ‘I don’t see race’, to which I say don’t be stupid! It is impossible to ignore someone’s race and in my eyes, I think it foolish. Openly transparent conversations need to happen where we say ‘I see your race but I will not define you by your race. I am willing to learn about your experiences.’ There needs to be a greater acceptance that some experiences will be limited to race. There are things that I have and will experience as a black female that my boyfriend will never have to. Some of them funny things like detangling my afro hair, and others less funny like having to deal with the suspicious glances or conversation that arises when someone sees your passport.
Differences are not meant to divide us, they should unite us in common thinking resulting in action on how we can make things better for each other, where we all benefit. We have to open to learning, understanding and realizing that maybe, just maybe: WE DON’T KNOW IT ALL!