I remember very little about my first few years in primary school. However I can’t forget the feeling that big school gave me. I carried a heavy loneliness; and a feeling of being lesser. Every day I was driven to a school in Bedfordview from a four room house in Soweto, squashed up with fifteen other kids in a combi, because my father wanted me to have a better education. And so I would go to class and try and fit in with children who I couldn’t relate to. These kids either didn’t look like me or came from a different class or both. I felt like a fraud. I was ashamed and alone. I found myself hiding who I was and sometimes even lying about where I came from who my parents were, and my daily living experiences.
For the longest time I thought that experience was unique to me, until I was exposed to music, spoken word, books and friends who had similar experiences. One friend recalled how he found his grade 1 show and tell book. The book was filled with fictional stories about his weekends with his family; he retrospectively wondered how his mother always smiled while reading through it. I slowly came to understand that across the diaspora black youth as a group were exposed to a symbolic violence.
At the time I didn’t have a word to put to the experience, but that was what it was. I had been symbolically violated. I drove every day from a poor area where I only saw black people to a wealthy area where the wealthy, to a large degree, were only white people. I was different. My understanding of what beautiful was had changed. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. My reflection bothered me. I was no longer acceptable to myself and my social construct and norms were different from those the school and society required. I was suddenly “other”.
The accepting of these social constructs and rejecting of this “otherness” has been dubbed the “acting white” phenomenon. Scholars Fordham and Ogbu have found that in order for a child to do well in any school their identity and the schools identity had to match; otherwise the child would first have to reject themselves in order to do well in school. This has been sighted as one of the reason why there is such a huge gap between black and white children’s educational outcomes. In order for a black child to do well they will need to reject themselves, which most children will fail to do.
How black parents teach their children to navigate through this experience of rejection is important. The idea is not to take our children out of multiracial schools as the state of our townships schools is often times less to be desired. However it is important we make sure our children properly integrate into their new environment, which means we need to be active in our children’s realities and push for more inclusive schooling environments.
Because while we often try to distance our children from racial politics as parents, the reality is their personal identity is not only shaped by who they, or who we think they are but also our societal constructs. And unfortunately while race should only be phenotypic it is structurally and systematically rooted globally, which means besides you, your children will find out they are black. Furthermore to distance ourselves from our blackness as parents, is to admit that blackness is lesser, which further perpetuate the stereotype.
Therefore before your child finds out on their own, before they come back with a jersey on their head insisting they want hair like Danielle’s, you as a parent need to instill a black consciousness while ensuring you teach tolerance and acceptance to your children -as Ubuntu is the cornerstone of Afrikanism. Other than the fact that it has been found that black students who were racially central performed better in college, a black conscious may help insulate your child’s self-esteem. And self-esteem is integral to a child who will be faced with their “otherness” daily. And while many parents think it will sort itself out the reality is today a teacher most likely said your child’s name incorrectly (teach them to correct them) your daughter insisted on having hair that looks like her white friends (show her images of black beauty) and your son wonders when you will buy a car like other dads or moms cars (explain the impact of disadvantage on your outcomes -explain how you plan to change it). The symbolic violence has already set in and we already have a huge task ahead in the plight to preserve our children’s right to “otherness”.
By Mabahlakoana Khuele