What being coloured taught me

2012-04-10 00:00

Although there are people who are lighter-skinned than me I regularly get asked if I am coloured. I’m not, but I once had to be to access better schooling than Bantu Education.

I joined the Johnsons and other kids like me who couldn’t speak English by adopting a name that could have qualified as a coloured name if the ‘inspectors’ had checked the registers.

No mixing of races was allowed then. My visionary mother used her mother’s maiden name and my surname became either Rangane or Rangan. I was almost eight when this adventure started in Richmond. It ended in 1992 when, at eleven, I became Brian Khoza.

The idiom says a man thinks his mother is the best cook until he leaves home. I have been enlightened by exposure to different societies, so if black society is home my first visit was to the coloured community via schools in Richmond and Pietermaritzburg. There were many perplexing things about this society, but many were also familiar.

At times it would seem like all the different races were in the school but this was mostly one race. In the very same way the neighbourhoods structurally looked like the depths of Imbali in some sections and like Chase Valley in some. For the most part though, everyone was people, and a friend of mine said this is how an ideal planet should be. Identity was important though.

There was some racism among the kids, including terms like ‘phuthu lips’ for thick lips, and initially I would make the joke too, oblivious that I was making fun of myself. Maybe I forgot I was black! There was self-hatred as well. Some teachers in anger told the children not to be ‘coloureds’ or said the word as a slur like, ‘coloureds!’ That was as confusing as how to feel. Emphasizing a point, a coloured girl said to me, ‘don’t be slow, coloured!’ There was a subtle disparity in popularity depending on your colour: the lighter your skin and eyes were, and the straighter your hair, the more you were admired.

However, I learned most of my virtues there, including how to be a gentleman. We stood up and greeted when any adult walked in the classroom. We prayed at break and after school. The girls always had to leave the classroom first, and when I asked Mrs Lawler why girls were more important than boys she lovingly squeezed my arm and said something like, “God made women to help men, so men must look after them.”

Self-love is not prejudice. My friends are respected professionals in different fields. And they all have front teeth, so I understand their sensitivity to negative stereotypes on television, and to the importance of seeing someone that looks like you thrive. Being a black person I relate with the coloured community’s need to see the best of its own people. So few us succeed it becomes positive reinforcement, and gives hope.

What’s still more important, though, is that we are South African.

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