Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Golden Boy

I have often been asked how I got into writing about the inequalities and racialised problematics of our society. When I reflect back on it I realise that my son was probably one of my biggest teachers. From the moment he moved into the realm of language he made the most astounding social observations from his baby seat in the back of my car. I started writing short essays back then, when he was little and blowing my mind with his observational awareness. This is one of first pieces I wrote on his fairly complex toddler reflections … reflections which have continued into his early teens.

(2004)

I have a bright four-year-old son who is grappling with the normal day-to-day things that four-year-olds grapple with — like when he’ll procure his next lollipop, and how he can manipulate me into buying him the latest action man advertised on TV. More serious issues consist of how he can fake a really bad cough to get out of going to nursery school that day and trying to work out why sometimes in the morning, when he climbs into our bed neither of us are wearing our pyjamas, or what God eats for supper. He is quite a sophisticated little fellow, which, I suppose, does not really surprise me. This little dread-locked boy has had to become more sophisticated than the average four-year-old, because he has had a particular kind of curve ball thrown at him since he could speak. Such as one of his nursery schoolmates shouting at the top of her lungs “No, she’s not your mommy, she’s white!”

We once went to a tea garden in Sydenham so that 18-month-old Kai could clamber on wooden jungle gyms while we sipped our milkshakes and read the Sunday papers. A little girl of about seven walked over to our table and asked me brazenly “What are you doing with them?” I asked “Why?” to which she answered “Because they are black!” Other than giving her a political lecture or telling her to bugger off, I found myself blurting facetiously, “Because some people like strawberry milkshake and others like chocolate milkshake — and I love, love, love chocolate milkshakes.” She seemed satisfied and trotted off to tell her extended family, who all burst out laughing at once.

When Kai was two years old and learning about colour at nursery school, he looked at his daddy and asked: “Who painted your face browned?” He also asked me many times why he was not white like me, because as far as he could tell, all his friends were very much the same colour as their mommies. Later that year, as he began to separate from “primary mommy” and identify with daddy, he told me he wanted to be “browned like daddy”. This time he seemed old enough for a more rational response from me — at least more rational than a few monosyllabic grunts. I had to summon up all my wisdom to try and explain the “birds and the bees” as well as interracial mixing, to a three-year-old, in one short byte. I began haltingly “Kai mommy and daddy both made you — to which he exploded angrily “Yes, and you painted me yellow!”

Such are the woes and the joys of being in a mixed-race relationship. We have chosen to engage in this exploration of skin tone and not join the many who claim sanctimoniously that their children are not aware of colour, or that colour is not an issue. The fact that my child is bright, observant and wants to unravel the mystery of his beautiful hue and his three-tone family is not an indictment on us or what happens inside our home. It is sheer curiosity. But it is also what he sees on our streets daily that makes him decide what he wants to identify himself as. Recently, we drove past some street kids. He said: “Shame mommy, black children don’t have mommies and daddies hey?” I then had to deal with socio-economic issues and was bit stunted in my reply. How do I explain to a four-year-old the workings of a racially divided society which left many children homeless, and that in our society most of these children are black? My child sits in the back seat of our car and bears witness to a society that is still racially divided, that still undervalues the well-being of the majority in our country. As far as he can tell, white people have a better time of it.

It is what our society reflects back to him that makes him sometimes go even further and insist that he is not black, or that he prefers his white nana’s house to his black granny’s house, or that Spiderman cannot kiss Nanana (a black Barbie) because she is black — and each time I have to go through the spectrum of the people in his life. What colour is Daddy? — Daddy is black — Well, do you like it when Daddy kisses me? — Yes — So what is the difference with Nanana and Spiderman? — Nothing — OK.

Or.

Mommy I want a baby sister with blonde hair and blue eyes like you. Do you want Daddy to be her father? — Yes — Well Mommy and Daddy both made you and you are a beautiful golden boy with lovely curly dreadlocks and if we make a little girl she will be just as beautiful and golden as you — OK.

I recently did a documentary dealing with mixed-race couples and the way in which the media portrays them (a thesis in itself). I punched in the words black man, white woman and came across over 1 000 web-based articles on race issues — all of them American or British. Some of these were set up by support groups of white mothers who had experienced social racism directed at their brown children. One British mother spoke about how her teenage daughter was wrongly accused of shoplifting because she was black and shopping in a white area. Her mother then realised how she would have to step into a different reality and come to terms with the racism that her children might be subjected to.

It seems in South Africa, we don’t speak about these things. We don’t dare break the code of “political correctness” and “struggle savvy”. We’re simply too cool. Dare anyone print an article about the fact that mixed-race children may still be dealing with racial confusion, and some PC white woman will testify to her own teenage mixed-race children, who have been absolutely unscathed by colour issues, because they (the parents) are politically “sussed”.

Well, my son talks with great pride about how his “politically sussed” father was a freedom fighter and how he wants to be just like him, brown skin, dreadlocks and all. That is until he got wind of having to go and be circumcised in the bush one day. Daddy I am not a Xhosa boy! — Why? — Because I don’t want to go to the bush. I am scared of snakes!

It is not as if the race issue dominates our life or my child’s multifaceted mind. It is just that when the issue does raise its sometimes ugly head, I have often wished that I had others to turn to, to help me find the right answers to these questions.

Mommy — Yes — Is God black or white or golden? — Ummmm — well he’s not really a person — he’s energy. You mean like electricity? Well no, like the universe — Oh you mean like a planet? — Well perhaps. — So he’s kinda greenish and blueish? — Well God is a he and a she and doesn’t have a colour — blank stare — You mean he’s white like his hair?

Of course things have changed a lot since then and my son understands the workings of our society and why his granny lives in a township while his nana lives in a suburb. He is in love and in touch with both sides of his family. He identifies as biracial but tells me that when he dreams he dreams he is black. I look at him and thank the universe every day for the gift of this beautiful and aware boy-child who is happy, balanced, confident, often hilariously irreverent, and who continues to blow my mind daily.

Tags: , ,

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  • 23 Responses to “Golden Boy”

    1. Silke M. Dreyer-Wickins #

      Thank You for enlarging the habitation of our Minds. Thank You, for speaking for even us, mere settler sisters, who could easily hide our ‘Yellow’ -ness…but sit with the truth of it none the less…and weep with gratitude at the courage of the mothers like you who see this world through Rainbow lenses….Speak the truth with uncluttered clarity.

      November 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm
    2. Emma Huismans #

      This is a great and sensitive piece and good writing.. Loved it.

      November 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm
    3. PrettyBelinda #

      Buchi Emecheta the Nigerian Writer once said that she writes because of her children. You have given SA much to ponder and enjoy because of Kai, your golden-
      dreadlocked boy. Thanks to both of you, daddy and the extended family too.

      November 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm
    4. Peter #

      Yes, Gillian, you write with sensitivity here. Any reasonable person can relate to this. It is not the insulting cynicism of some recent articles which tended to alienate, thereby achieving nothing.

      November 4, 2013 at 7:26 pm
    5. This is an amzing story. Thank you for sharing. When you get a chance, please go checkout this website: http://www.bruinou.com – it was a very vibrant online community and social network in the mid 2000′s aimed at chronicling the plight, challenges and views of people who identified as coloured in South Africa. The website and forum is a treasure-trove of discussions, debates and observations about coloured society and I think you could benefit from browsing it.

      I was the founder of the website and my son also played a massive role in the formation of my social consciousness. My son was born with severe autism and so, is unable to speak or understand any forms of communication (with therapy, things have improved). I once likened my son’s condition to the broader coloured community of South Africa in that the coloured community is (still) the only census-defined race group in South Africa for which the SABC has no special programming or radio shows, rendering the group mute and cutoff from equitably engaging in the mainstream media economy as every other group is capable of. This special-case community therefore manifests its problems through violence, substance abuse and a host of other ills. I used my son’s condition to draw a parallel between the coloured community’s social autism and my son’s medical autism.

      Thanks again for sharing this piece…it’s amazing how our kids change us. :-)

      November 5, 2013 at 12:02 am
    6. bernpm #

      thanks, Gilian for telling us here you come from. Hope you, your husband and offspring do not get consumed by racial utterances but help your son to stand tall and proud of his parents. Race and colour does not matter. The person does count.

      November 5, 2013 at 12:41 am
    7. Ricky #

      On Monday afternoon I heard a caller into Radio702 complain about bi-racial relationships saying they were always doomed to fail in South Africa because of the country’s racialised past. To substantiate this she said she had never seen an old bi-racial couple so therefore they didn’t exist. I was upset and angry initially but realized that she was just uninformed.
      The world needs to hear more stories like this of people in South Africa who are just being people despite the constrictions that society throws up.

      November 5, 2013 at 4:38 am
    8. Zeph #

      Kids are the most honest of all as they have not yet constucted an ideoligy to which they feel obliged to live by.
      I found this very sincere and touching.

      November 5, 2013 at 9:42 am
    9. Nicely written piece, I enjoyed it.

      November 5, 2013 at 10:40 am
    10. Tofolux #

      @Gillian, it is quite sad that one must go to this length to justify one’s consciousness. That said, what does it say about our freedom and basic and mostly important, certain fundamental rights. With respect, I however, would put it to you that this ‘aware-ness’ or consciousness is deeper and more complex. But yep, we are beings with multiple (& fantasitic) enriching experiences. Flip side, for all of those who do not allow someone else the freedom to express themselves or the right to freedom of speech and yes I am greatly surprised from whence some of these attacks emanate, one would wonder aloud how well our hard-fought-for freedoms are understood. To my mind, the long long road to freedom is more difficult than anyone could have imagined and I wonder if we dreamt away the expected resistance from certain quarters.What did we expect? The continued framing and wording of some descriptions by children suggests to me that there is a particular and continued conversation by some. In fact for others, our first hand experiences tells us that nothing in their attitudes have changed. So Gillian, why must we be apologetic? Why must blacks in general but african in particular always allay the white fear. We have nothing to do with their fear and yet it is us who must continuously make amends. I am truly g@tfall of these tactics, I really am. And for those who have been co-opted to this fear, why are we not telling them that which needs to be said?

      November 5, 2013 at 10:49 am
    11. Brent #

      If kids grow up in an environment where race is the dominant ‘culture/focus’ they will not necessary become racists but the question of race will prevade their whole life, especially in multi racial SA. Interesting am just reading the autobiography of Harry Belafonte who apart form being a great singer/entertainer was very active in the US civil rights movement and was best buddies with M.L. King. I was astounded to read that King’s (one of my political heros) first love was a white women and he was persuaded by the Black community not to marry her. Black classmates questioned; what black church would hire a pastor who had a white wife and what would his parents say? MLK felt he could withstand the fury of Daddy King but not his mother’s broken heart. After much soul searching he ended the romance and started looking for a more socially acceptable mate. In my old age am shattered that my shining example of non racialism, MLK, was just as much subjected/prone to racial thinking/rationalisation. Brent

      November 5, 2013 at 10:54 am
    12. Charlotte #

      @ Gillian I finally get where you’re coming from.
      Kids do that to you. Be grateful that you have a lovely son who is growing up in a loving family and in a new multicultural society where he may one day even lead the way in crossing more boundaries and the acceptance of integration.
      Your having done what you did, hopefully your son gains by understanding the situation, not only for himself – but for others as well and a situation that will in due course undoubtedly evolve and resolve itself.

      However, you must have known when you entered a mixed-race marriage (never mind cross-cultural) and in a country like ours, that there would be difficulties. And perhaps on that score, you are doing what you can so that society recognises people not by their hair or colour of their skin, but by their individuality, personality and integrity.

      But your intemperate anger directed purely at all people born with a white skin – who had or have had nothing to do with politics or segregation (and in fact who have fought tooth and nail for equal rights and equal opportunity) is discriminatory, inequitable and misdirected. It sounds as if you are justifying your marriage and your situation by screaming and demanding acceptance.

      Also be grateful for what you have. Many people don’t.

      November 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm
    13. Miss O #

      True but your focus seems somewhat narrow (apart from your personal story). My comment was not published the other time I wrote that the white-mother/black father bynamic is mostly an American norm. In South Africa and in Europe the norm is usually white-father/black-mother. In the context of patriarchy and from what I have observed happen to friends and people that I know remotely, the latter does not present as many social “problems” as the former.

      November 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm
    14. Lisa #

      This piece made be better understand what motivates your sometimes extreme emotional investment in what you despise about whites. You are struggling personally at a very deep level with your choices and the world you inhabit. I live in Europe and I have never heard the mixed children at my kids’ schools being called yellow, or any variation thereof. My marriage is an inter-religious one and there I face challenges of my making in a sense, but it makes me tolerant and not angry. I hope that you find peace in your choices and in this imperfect world.

      November 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm
    15. Richard #

      Interesting article. Children do like to feel themselves part of a group, and so being neither white nor black will remove one potential group affiliation. Presumably you can make up for that with another type of belonging. There is just one thing you may need to consider, but I don’t know if it is possible. Mixed-race children generally have very great difficulty in finding organ donors. That is because the potential range of combinations of HLA and other genetic information is truly huge with such a varied genetic input. Where the child is descended from two people of northern European extraction, tissue matching is much easier, both because northern Europeans donate much more frequently (and that obtains around the world), but also because they stem from a much smaller number of originators. It may be worth getting your child’s genetic profile established to make such a search easier should anything like that ever occur. Not to be alarmist, but I have seen the mortality rates of mixed-race children and adults in this sort of situation, as well as that of unmixed sub-Saharan Africans. An unintended consequence, for sure, but one must be practical.

      November 5, 2013 at 11:09 pm
    16. BrianB #

      Children learn prejudice from their parents initially , and later on from peers and other adults.
      In South Africa prejudice is ingrained by our history.
      The good news is that there are many South Africans who have found a common denominator of respect for others regardless of who they are.
      This is worth nurturing.

      November 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm
    17. Momma Cyndi #

      4th time lucky?

      I do like how you used to write

      November 7, 2013 at 10:16 pm
    18. Tofolux #

      @Richard, you have really fallen for the racialisation of racism, hook, line and sinker. In fact, your expressions exposes how limited you’ve become in your extreme beliefs. Some could be find your insults very offensive but for me, I find it quite sad because in creating your own limitation, you have created your own deficiency.
      @Gillian, I dont get this notion of integration or the need to integrate. For SOME, especially those described by Marike de Klerk as the ‘weg-gooi’ kinders in WCape issues of self-affirmation and self esteem has been interrogated and resolved when addressing issues of identity. We are not our colour but human beings much like all human beings on this planet. Absolutely no difference, we have a head, shoulder, a trunk, two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs etc etc (should I go on?).

      November 8, 2013 at 11:06 am
    19. Cold Call #

      @ Tofolux
      quote: Absolutely no difference, we have a head, shoulder, a trunk, two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs etc etc (should I go on?)”

      No, please don’t..

      November 8, 2013 at 11:57 pm
    20. Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder #

      Tofolux is right. “Race” is a social construct, true. But race is an artefact with acute real-world consequences. We can no more deny race than we can deny the pernicious and enduring effects of the arbitrary imposition of colonial boundaries.

      November 9, 2013 at 12:04 am
    21. Graham #

      @Tofolux – wow, the “racialisation of racism”
      Have you seen the mpvie Inception?

      November 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm
    22. Jon Story #

      I asked myself what, in the context of this story, the significance is of living in a suburb or in a township.

      November 12, 2013 at 12:36 am
    23. Zeph #

      @Tofolux – help me with your comment on Richard’s comment. As I see it what he states about donors etc is pretty much fact and is as things are…or is it because he says whites are more easily matched as donors that he now does the ‘racialisation of racism’ thingy – whatever that is?
      Thanks….

      November 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

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