I read a blog post by a friend’s sister about her experiences growing up biracial, and how they affected her outlook on herself along the way.
I was inspired to write about my own experience because even though my skin tone is worlds apart from hers, we had fairly similar experiences.
Like her, I was not the most racially and/or culturally aware person growing up. I played with other children not caring about what their race was, as long as I got to play and I made sure that I got home before the street lights came on. It was not until I was 10 years old that I realised not all people accept you for who/what you are, and some of that scrutiny comes from the very people you identify yourself with.
My father is Ugandan and my mother is South African (Xhosa). I grew up in a majority isiXhosa-speaking town, but I was raised speaking English at home. When I was in Grade 4, a girl (whose first name I still remember) began to bully me for numerous reasons: I was a “coconut”, I spoke English too often, I spoke English too well, I didn’t speak or understand isiXhosa at all, my father was dark but I was light(er than him), my father was a “kwerekwere” which made me one, I was a coconut and my natural hair was too long (imagine?!). Every day I had to wait for an hour after school for my father to pick me up, and in that hour, she would gather her minions and make it a point to ensure that I felt every single one of the above reasons… and it worked. For 3 years.
When I was in Grade 7, I pondered on ways I could avoid her onslaught of negativity. I decided that I would use the after school hour to walk home. In hindsight, that is probably how taking long walks became one of my methods for dealing with any kind of negativity. It literally took the entire hour to get home on foot, but it was better than being teased, and my nanny would occasionally walk to my school just to walk home with me, which made the journey a bit more bearable. At the end of that year, we moved to a predominantly Setswana-speaking city, and things began to feel a whole lot worse.
Having been raised in the Eastern Cape, I never got opportunities to hear any other South African languages being spoken apart from isiXhosa. Starting high school in a new city where everyone generally cliqued up with whoever they knew from primary school, was overwhelmingly lonely. In my home room on my first day, I met a girl who grew up where I did but she had been living in the city much longer than I had. She took it upon herself to help me navigate the school and make a few friends. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really accepted by her group of friends as they were all of the same opinions as my primary school bully (minus the xenophobia). I was disappointed but not too surprised. The language barrier in particular pushed me towards a group of white people, which I was judged for by black people throughout my time at that school, but I felt as though they were the only people who genuinely accepted me for who I was, which allowed me to form amazing friendships with them.
I did go to another school in the Eastern Cape after that, where I matriculated with some of my best friends to this day. Fortunately, black people there were generally inviting and open-minded, which helped me build my self-esteem in small steps.
When I got to university, I realised that I had to start the journey with people all over again. I cried for 2 days at the thought of being asked the same inane questions I had been asked by various people my entire life:
“Why do you have an English name?”
“Do you have an African name?”
“Why do you use your English name?”
“Why don’t you speak vernac?”
“Don’t you feel embarrassed that you can’t speak vernac?”
… and that isn’t even all of them. Throughout university, I was mainly drawn to black foreign nationals because I felt like they were the only people who seemed to understand me.
It took me some time to realise a few things about why being asked those questions bothered me.
1. I could NEVER be sure of the intent behind the question. Given the xenophobic attacks that take place in South Africa, I would immediately assume a defensive position. I still do sometimes as I was almost attacked by a man in our apartment building in 2009.
2. I never knew why it mattered. I still don’t.
3. The tone used when being asked those questions. Does this person want to get to know me or is this person about to provide an unsolicited opinion on my upbringing?
4. People tend to draw assumptions about my parents. I don’t take lightly to that at all.
“Now when you associate yourself with a group of people who themselves initially reject you as one of their own and associate you with another group of people, its just emotionally tiring.”
There’s truly no other way to explain feeling like you don’t belong.
I have made it a point to learn more about my cultures by asking my parents and friends to teach me whenever they can. I no longer allow anyone to tell me who I am or what I should be (yes, I’m side-eyeing you “you are what your father is” people). There are obviously plenty of things I wish I knew more about when I was growing up, but my experiences built my character and they helped me grow confident in where my identity is rooted.