It was 2007, I was in grade 11 at a historically Afrikaans High School in Mpumalanga. One day, I was late for school and one of the teachers, a white man, shouted at me and other black pupils rushing to get to our classes; “You should have gone to the township schools, there you can be late whenever you want.”
I proceeded to class where another teacher, also a white man, insisted on mispronouncing my surname to the amusement of the white kids. Unconscious bias and racism was a daily occurrence at the school. I don’t know how I passed Geography because the teacher refused to teach it in English, as I was one of two pupils who did English as their first language and chose the subject.
At home, there was talk of apartheid but not much about its legacies, and how they affected us so-called born frees. I believe my parents did not have the tools to discuss the subject with us and just wanted us to have a good education.
I went to six different schools as a child. This was due to multiple family matters that I won’t bore you with, but in all these different multi-racial schools I experienced racism, especially at the historically Afrikaans and white schools. Because we did not talk about it at home, nor did I and fellow black pupils discuss it at school, it was a very lonely and difficult process for me to experience racism without fully understanding it at that young age.
I was seven years old when I first encountered overt and explicit racism. I was in grade 1, at a boarding school in Limpopo, also historically Afrikaans with separate English and Afrikaans additional language classes. These pupils didn’t hide their racism much because the teachers and school management didn’t either.
One morning, I lost a tooth while walking from assembly to class and started bleeding. Some of the white kids saw the blood and started whispering about how I might have AIDS. I wondered, why me? Why AIDS? I didn’t understand AIDS either but I knew it was a disease. One kid later told me it was because AIDS came from black people.
I wondered if I had AIDS for a while at that school and started withdrawing from activities and becoming a loner. Being at a boarding school made it worse, I cried most nights. Whenever any form of discrimination came way, I just thought that’s how things ought to be and started hating my black skin, at that age, I just thought being black was a negative.
The racism in the form of bullying by both pupils and teachers followed me for most of my schooling career, it eroded my self-esteem severely. At home I was highly regarded and treated as one of the intelligent kids, despite not being an A student, but because I could speak English the way I did at my age- which was also another extension of the legacy of apartheid and racism.
I have a lot of memories of being called the k-word by fellow pupils, being told that to them I’m just like their maid who washes their underwear at home and that I and other black kids didn’t belong in their school.
It was in my first year at University that I started learning about the details of apartheid and colonisation. I remember once running out of a politics lecture hall with tears in my eyes after hearing about how black people were treated under apartheid that my healing started.
Being able to put racism into context and understand that there was nothing wrong with my blackness through the classes on Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, was a liberating experience for me.
That is why it is so important for me to talk to my children about racism because it’s a reality and the chances of them experiencing it are very high. Unpacking it with them is very critical for their own development while working to eradicate our society from this poison.
I have started talking to my seven-year-old about apartheid and its legacy and it breaks my heart to see him so confused, yet I get so proud when I hear him say “That is not fair, I cannot believe that”.
It is part of teaching him about his human rights and those of other people, it’s so that he knows that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them or the colour of his skin and anyone believes otherwise, they are violating his rights to exist as he is.
We recently went to a pizza place in Magaliesburg where a little girl, white, kept playing with my son and her parents kept hurling her back to sit with them because they were uncomfortable with the fact that she was playing with a black child- this still happens in 2022.
It was a very important conversation starter because my son didn’t understand why the parents were so adamant that their child shouldn’t play with him. In that moment, I got to connect with my child, teach my child and affirm him and remind him he matters.
I hope my story inspires you this Human Rights day to not only remember the 250 black people including youth who were killed in Sharpville, murdered for fighting for their human rights, but also to start talking to your children about racism.
It’s not teaching them to hate, it’s giving them knowledge and empowering them.
They are the future of this society and equipping them is integral for their own sense of self-love and respect for others.
However, the organisation says the science is clear that the earlier parents start the conversation with their children, the better.