– by Antonia
This year at Un’ruly we’re exploring the various meanings and shades of Black, recognizing that Black is a social construct largely created to justify slavery. Anthropologically speaking there really is no Black race or White race. But there are social positions and cultural characteristics associated with the color of a person’s skin.
From the conversations I’ve been beginning to have, I’ve been starting to get the feeling that being black in countries outside of the continent of Africa, has a lot to do with being put on the outskirts of a community or being made to feel different. The first time I had any inkling that my color was something that estranged me from others was when I was in primary school in London.
One of my friends had brought a few tiny Avon samples of lipstick to school and during recess, we all snuck into the bathroom and put them on, just like we had seen our mothers put on lipstick. I was only slightly bothered by the fact that the color didn’t show up on my lips as brightly as it did on my friends’ but that wasn’t such a big deal. I had on lipstick, like a grown up! A few boys in our class had heard about what we’d done and decided to chase the girls with lipstick around the playground. We all started running around in a frenzy, like kids do. Then I noticed that no one was chasing me. I don’t know how I found myself close enough to some of the boys to hear what they were talking about but not close enough for them to realize I was there. But I did and what I thought would be an opportunity to spy on them turned out to be the first moment that I would “feel” my color. One of the boys, the leader of the pack, had told the rest to continue chasing all the girls with lipstick “but not Antonia because she’s Black.”
I always laugh when I think back at that moment, mainly at the thought of little boys chasing little girls because they had lipstick on. But it’s clearly a significant moment since it stuck with me for this long. Before then, I had known I was Black, but never had the thought crossed my mind that being Black was something undesirable or unattractive. That idea was thrust upon me in that tiny moment. The crazier thing is knowing that a boy of that age (we were probably about six years-old, give or take a year or two) had already learned to make that kind of an assertion.
I carry that memory in a small trinket of experiences. It doesn’t weigh me down. It doesn’t make me angry or sad. It simply serves as evidence of a reality that I had to face then and that I understand more now. Bias is so present in our world that it can be learned at a very young age. It creeps in like a fog, not quite as visible as it once was but very much present, silent and nimble, interrupting innocent playground laughter.
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One thought on “discuss: when did you first feel your race?”
I first felt my race when I got to university. Growing up in Zimbabwe there was a diversity of cultures and races but I was never in a situation where I felt discriminated against or undermined. I completed my last year of high school in Johannesburg. South Africa has its own history related to racial differences and although there is a lot of talk of the ‘New South Africa’ and it being the ‘Rainbow Nation’ there is still quite a bit of racial tension and veiled segregation. I was not aware of this when I first got to South Africa because I was enrolled at British school, so I could complete the curriculum that I had begun back home, and this school had a lot of foreign nationals enrolled from all corners of the earth. When I left I went to Cape Town were I was to pursue higher education. It was very apparent even on my very first day that there was a problem on our campus. When i stepped into the dining hall i found the tables were only filled with specific race groups, whites to one table, blacks at the other and cape coloureds at another. While I stood there trying to figure out were i would sit, i happened to flip my braids over my shoulder at the same time that I made eye contact with a girl at one of the tables. She glared at me and loudly proclaimed to everyone at her table ‘Atleast mine is real’ as she flipped her hair over her shoulder to the loud laughter at her table. This incident although juvenile open my eyes to a situation that was in the city in general. Of the four years i spent in university the only people of other races that I spent time with socially/voluntarily were not South Africans and that seems to be the general status quo everywhere i go. I find it ironic that the ‘Rainbow Nation’ was the first place to make me feel my race.