A weird thing happened to me when I moved out of my hometown a few years ago; my perspective changed. Also, it was the first time in my life where I lived in a neighbourhood where almost no one looked like me. Well if I’m being honest, it was the first time I lived in a neighbourhood so white I’m shocked the whole community didn’t glow in the dark. I was surprised, hurt even, when racism and prejudice started to rear its ugly head. Hadn’t I moved up in the world from growing up in an “Indian area” to now living the high life in a “White area”? Wouldn’t my granny talk with pride when she said that I had White neighbours? I was quick to complain, to talk of the ever evil White Man and I found sympathetic ears in my family who shared my outrage and roared at the injustice of It All. I read anything and everything I could about our country’s history, I spoke to anyone who’d listen and of course, I sought solace in writing. Maybe I was too busy doing all of those things to actually see the wood from the trees, maybe that’s why when I heard the phrase in reference to Black people “They’ll always have one foot in the bush” at a family gathering, all I could do was feel shame and anger.
Now, I don’t intend to make excuses for my family, but here’s the backstory- not unlike “the boy who can’t be named”, it’s ugly and not something I like talking about. I grew up, as did my mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents, in what the Group Area’s Act labelled an “Indian Area”. When people tell me that the past is the past, I often think about how long-lasting and crippling the effects of such segregation really is. Outside of my racial grouping, I met poor Black people who were maids, or “boys” (who did garden work or any other kind of manual labour required) and I saw White people on TV so, of course, they were special and to be revered. I would live a childhood where Black men were referred to as “boys”, irrespective of age, they would never be men. Black women had no voice other than the one their Madame gave them. For the maids or “boys”, we would have special crockery and utensils, often chipped and placed far away from the normal plates and cups we would use as if it was permanently unclean. We would take our leftovers and pile them high on those chipped plates and say “Here you go Black person, look how generous I am to you!”. I remember competing with a White school at some event and giving up even before we began because I knew I would never be as good despite topping my grade in my Indian school. A hierarchy had been developed, clearly isolating “us” from “them”; white was right and black was bad. For the Indians caught in the middle, sure times were rough, but we never forgot that the White Man thought better of us than the Blacks. Sure, I’m oversimplifying and I know that many Indian men and women fought to bring about change during the dark days of apartheid but this isn’t about them, it’s about the rest of us.
The apartheid had served to denigrate and dehumanise our Black brothers and sisters and you know what, some of “us” were happy about it. Some of “us” looked on and thought, “Well, that’s great because the White man is good to me, and they belong in the bush in any case”. Better them than “us” right? Yes, our Indians are hardworking, they’re clever and those Blacks are just lazy. No matter what, dear self-esteem, no matter how lowly and horrid of a human being you are, you will never be as bad as “the Blacks”. Why do some of “us” need that to be true so desperately? Do we believe ourselves so unworthy that we need to place an entire race beneath our boots to feel better? I am selfish in writing this because what lies within my anger at this kind of talk is shame. I am ashamed that people in my family still tell me of how “some Blacks are different”, how they met a Black person who “was so civilised and well-spoken” and how worried they are because their neighbours are Black. I wonder sometimes if the ideals of a non-racial society that I thought I was raised on were just a myth, a bedtime story. How can I even believe that we’re making progress as a country if this exists within my own family? All the while I had been growing and changing and somehow, I left parts of my family behind. Is it not the responsibility of the younger generations to challenge our thinking, to break the mould? I had failed those closest to me.
I know that I’m probably going to make a few people angry with this post and I deserve that but South Africa deserves more from us. Change takes time, but we will never move forward until we start being honest. If I’m being honest, I am disappointed with some of my family and with some people close to me but I am probably more disappointed in myself for not making my voice heard. I’m disappointed with myself for thinking that change would happen without me being actively involved in it. So, if you are a Charou like I am, or if you’ve identified with what I’ve written, I urge you to do what I am doing. That is; start the conversation, disagree with your elders or peers, speak up even though you may not be heard at first. And whatever you, do it gently, everyone knows how proud “our Indians” are.