Race Series: The Issue Of Race

I find it difficult to write about race, issues affecting where I’m from or about anything that I was born into, really. It’s easier to talk about the things that happen to you, rather than the things that you are. Perhaps that’s why people struggle to describe their hometowns or to write their ‘about’ pages. Yet the language for describing the first time you tried your favourite food, or your first breakup or first trip abroad is easier to reach. But I really don’t relish talking about race as people end up justifying or defending or feeling that they are betraying something that they just are. Not did. But are.

It first dawned on me that race is a thing when I won a prize for a poem I had written. I was in high school and my parents attended the prize-giving day, which was held at a local private school. Particular local private schools were predominantly white at that time, and also attended by children of Indian descent. At that particular school, there were some black children, increasingly so, but people treated it like a predominantly white institution. I have to qualify this because, where I’m from, people perceive a marked social difference. Anyway, growing up, I had always thought of myself as… well, me. Not Black Tebogo. Not Coconut (a colloquial term meaning a black person who has white mannerisms and interests) Tebogo. Not Natural Tebogo. Just Tebogo. I got along with people of all races. Yes, I did experience racism – even in a country whose population is mostly black – but I failed to register it as personal. To me, it felt like if someone told me they didn’t like my favourite outfit. I would just think their opinion was a nonmatter because they didn’t go out and buy the outfit, they didn’t contribute any money to my buying it and they didn’t have to wear it. So why care what I’m wearing? My blackness – as people call it – was not something I used to discuss, really, until a couple of years ago. I just existed as myself, loved it and didn’t care what it was labelled.

That day, when we walked into the assembly hall of the white private school, my father hesitated. He seemed unsure. We walked in, headed towards the empty seats. And he hesitated. That was uncharacteristic of him. I asked him what was wrong. And he said, “Lapha sivunyelwa ukuthi sihlale ngaphi?” “Where are we allowed to sit?”

I admit: that undid me more than I realised at the time. My father is a traditional man in many ways. He has always seemed particularly proud to be who he is, yet here he was – questioning his own importance based on the colour of his skin. I currently cannot find the words to explain to you how that moment unfolded. But it definitely was not a regular, “Sooo where should we sit?” No. He seemed humbled. He seemed like he was trying to show that he knew his place and would not cross the invisible lines set up by someone who was more valuable than he inherently was. I am not being dramatic. I am trying to give you an idea of how packed that moment was. At the time, I saw it but I didn’t dissect it. I just ushered my parents close to the front of the assembly hall and that’s where we sat. And as we sat, I remembered that I had used a pen name when I handed that poem in: Robin Cook.

I thought it would give me the best chance of being judged fairly. I had not thought about the issue of race much, but I did suddenly realise that I and people like me became someone else when placed in certain environments – perhaps as some sort of defense mechanism? But suddenly, we would tweak certain things about ourselves – even our accents – in order to be understood or to fit in. We, in our black country, were trying to fit into what most of us thought is a more superior way of life – a way of life outlined by a psychologically powerful minority. That natural superiority is not true, of course, but it’s what was being implied. That has disturbed me increasingly over the years because it was not discussed in our community (I live somewhere in Africa) – perhaps jokingly mentioned but not seriously discussed. And it has birthed other problems. Black-African people appear to have groomed an identity crisis whose characteristics and symptoms we don’t even recognise. It’s a complex problem. People of colour who live on other continents are quite vocal about their race issues but we are not; and, in my opinion, it’s because we come from cultures where nothing is talked about openly, really. We do what we’re told and are discouraged from probing. That may be changing now, but not quickly enough.

When a baby is born, people rejoice that the baby is light-skinned or express disappointment that it’s dark-skinned. Anything in between is fair enough. When a dark-skinned man marries a light-skinned woman he jokes that he’s trying to do his bit to ‘lighten’ the gene pool. When someone moves to a predominantly white and richer country, people treat this person like a celebrity even before the person has achieved anything concrete. If as a migrant, you are living under terrible conditions in that destination country whereas you were doing better back home, people back home will say, “At least he’s in Dubai… At least she’s in America. I’ve always dreamed of going there.” No emphasis on what the person is actually going through to remain in that country. Honestly. It’s as if reality is skewed to the point where people do not see how lowly they have pegged themselves or how crazy they sound when they are saying these things. It’s bad enough that – to the outside world – Africa is seen as a perennial disaster or a place to be rescued, among other things. Other people are entitled to their own conclusions. But seeing ourselves that way – as incapable and inferior – will not help us move on from our problems at all. Sure we did not create these problems. But they are our responsibility now, unfortunately. And the mindsets we harbour will not help us effectively tackle the problems. The African problem is currently largely that of mindset.

Yes, it’s all a product of long periods of oppression and colonisation but at what point do we take charge of our own self-esteem? The true healing has to begin somewhere. But instead, all these insecurities are being covered up by the accumulation of degrees, businesses and money. I like to see people of colour succeeding materially because money is not just money, as we all know. It is access to better health care, people treating you like you actually exist, children having a better future than the previous generations did. It means a layer of protection in times of great crisis, exposure to different ways of thinking, living and problem-solving, exposure to different cultures, self-actualization, being able to provide opportunities to people who used to be marginalised even when qualified, growth. Etcetera. But none of that can truly compensate for how you really feel about yourself. And you will find yourself acting in ways that are telling, that give away your insecurities when you least expect it – when you thought you were good now. It’s as if in reality, when we say “…#BlackLivesMatter,” we mean “to different degrees and extents.” (I’ll explain this further later.)

So I’ll be publishing a series of articles on the issue of race alongside my poetry to explore issues such as the rules of being black (which are ridiculous to me), some black history topics such as things we used to do pre-colonisation that we ought to revive (particularly looking forward to this), unpacking the issue of black women being romantically linked with white men, the issue of successful black men preferring women who are not black and other things that may come to mind. I probably won’t talk about dating and marriage much beyond those two titles, though. This article is the introduction to that series.

PS: To contact me, don’t hesitate to email tebogn@outlook.com.

 

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Copyright Β© 2011 – 2020 Tebogo Ndlovu

19 thoughts on “Race Series: The Issue Of Race

  1. wow TN I don’t usually read such lengthy posts but you drew me in! Love the way you think and write, you are so articulate and I concur with where you are going with this series … it’s about self worth after generations of being oppressed. And I’ve seen it happen between people with those shades of light/dark … it really is treacherous thinking!

    This could be publishable when you are done … keep up the good work!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for sharing, T.N. I look forward to reading your future articles on this issue. As a descendant of African slaves and indentured laborers (China, India, and Portuguese Madeira)–born in what was then British Guiana, controlled by a minority white elite–I was defined by the color of my skin. As you say: “Yes, it’s all a product of long periods of oppression and colonisation but at what point do we take charge of our own self-esteem?” For me, it was a long personal journey of self-determination to build my self-esteem and take my place in this world. Sadly, the people of my country remain trapped in the box hewed for them at the birth of the independent nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Rosaliene πŸ™‚. Thank you for taking the time to read this article and for stopping by so frequently. It’s so inspiring to be in touch with someone who did the necessary mental work, regardless of how long it took. You are an example to everyone who is yet to embark on that journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is straight from the heart, TN, like a thousand arrows all hitting the bull’s eye.

    I am happy you’ve not let this issue of race – and most times in-your-face discrimination – stop you from speak your mind. Congrats on winning that award.

    I await further installments on this topic.

    Ps: Tebogo, do you also speak Zulu?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Uzoma πŸ™‚. I suppose occasionally speaking our mind becomes necessary once we realise the alternative is quite suffocating. I understand Zulu and Xhosa. I speak Northern Ndebele.

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      • Wow. That’s an impressive list of languages there. I’m from West Africa and can speak Igbo and a bit of Yoruba, Hausa, and Mambila. only know basic greeting Swahili.

        Back to the subject. Yes, it’s better to say one’s piece at some point. I’d rather do that than die in silence.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It sure is πŸ™‚. Wow, that’s impressive as well. Mine are not really because I didn’t have to learn Zulu and Xhosa. They are very close to Ndebele so if someone can understand one, they can understand the others. I’d love to be able to speak Zulu and Xhosa, though.

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  4. I have just uncovered this series, looking back into your timeline. I very much look forward to reading the individual entries within it as time permits. I am the white parent of an adopted black African boy and am constantly trying to increase my understanding and skills around the psychological predicament he is in. So, thanks in advance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, there. I hope the series helps however possible. Unfortunately, it’s not complete yet. It’s been unexpectedly quite taxing writing it so that I’ve had to write the rest of the entries very slowly. For now, I’ve made a page that shows all the posts under that series and will update it when a new one is published.

      I wish you all the best with raising your child, as well as all the wisdom and strength you require. Your son is very fortunate to have a parent who is putting in the time and effort to actually understand him.

      Liked by 1 person

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