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.
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.
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.