Recently I was asked to speak at my former school’s prizegiving. This obviously led me to a reflection about my 12 year education and amongst many issues that came up race become central. I went to a former white model C school. The irony about this label is that when I was there between 1994 and 2005 it was still a predominantly white school demographically, especially the teacher profile. In grade 1 I was the only Black learner (though there was an Indian, Coloured and Taiwanese as well) in a class of 20-something. The defining factor was that I only discovered black women could teach when I was in primary school and she was the least respected teacher in the school. The rest of the teachers were white women.
The influence of my teachers in relation to the influence my mother had on me while growing up has been overwhelming. School obviously became more powerful than home seeing as my identity was hardly formed when I was thrust into a white school at the age of 6 and expected to swim (in more ways than one) like the other kids who had pools in their homes since they were born. I modelled my teachers and doubted my mother. Other black women in my life where those that worked in factories, overweight vendors of fruit and vegetables at the taxi rank; they did not have beautiful hair, make up, jewellery, perfume or anything framed in the world as beautiful. And my teachers knew everything about what it meant to be in the world. Albeit their world. I modelled them and soon learned to speak like the white kids in the school. When I was in public I heard people call me a coconut and someone had to explain this to me and something started to tick in my mind. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking “today I’m a coconut”, rather I wanted to be human. And at some point I wanted to be white. The teachers never problematised the existence of the white girls in the class, they were normal. I had to explain my hair, why my skin was ashy after swimming, the food I ate at home if we ate umphokoqo, the beads on my wrist after we had a traditional healing ceremony at home. I was othered and I felt that the only way to escape this was becoming white. I stopped speaking isiXhosa until I went to my mother’s church when I was 11 (fortunately mama didn’t stop speaking to me in isiXhosa). This was also the year we were told not to speak isiXhosa at school.
Fast forward to high school and in matric I was the one of the 5 black learners in the class again (our classes were streamed according to language and Maths). At this point being a coconut made sense and it was bandied about even more. Comments such as “you speak so well...you’re not like other black people...you’re such a white girl” started to form a picture in my mind. Being white meant something...being an English speaking white meant your world was alright and you were envied. The first time Black people existed in the literature we read was in Shades, the heathens and the colonised, disempowered. I was scolded when I came to school with my afro twisted as it was untidy and I was chastised like a naughty child. We were not allowed to have dreadlocks at school, but white girls changed their hair colour regardless of the rules in place. Black women spent time in salons trying to get straight hair, buying skin lighteners etc. Being black started becoming more of a problem because we were also too loud.
Fast forward to university where I chose Rhodes. A former white liberal institution going through an identity crises. When I arrived in 2006 many of the people in my class were white (I chose English, Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology-I was planning to be a teacher). I met more “coconuts” and somehow we gravitated towards each other in the effort of feeling normal. Many black people (especially from the Eastern Cape) thought I didn’t speak an African language or that I was Coloured and didn’t befriend me until third year when I took isiXhosa as a subject and things started shifting. Power, language, identity, agency and social capital started making sense and I realised that an acute identity crises was setting in. When I majored in English people were in awe of me, but I started doing isiXhosa and I had to justify why I was doing this. Recently I was told I should not speak isiXhosa because I sound weird. While greeting a friend someone else asked me “kutheni uzenza umlungu?” (Why are you mimicking a white person) and I thought I was simply greeting a friend. Even my own sister often comments “you’re such a white girl!” in spite of the fact that we went to the same school and raised in the same home.
The ironies and complexities of being part of white middle class educational institutions (if I’d start talking about religion I would need an entire book) has left me at odds with myself. I have been allowed to remake my identity and recognise that it is fluid given the context I find myself in. The ironies with my research is that I am propagating a mother tongue based education whereas I have never had a mother tongue education and that has been partly the reason for my success in university. I mastered the “code” and at times assimilated. More often than I would like, a conversation with a white person is not simply a conversation but a process of convincing that person “I can be like you and maybe even better”, it’s always a process of re-education and explaining as the custodian and spokesperson of the new hybrid generation that is straddling two worlds: one telling you who you ought to be and the other asking you to explain yourself all the time and somewhere in the middle there are questions. Often I am angry because in comparison to my white friends, I have to work twice as hard to claim my space in the world (though when I factor in gender and class I think I’m working double shifts). And it doesn’t help that I’m also a vegetarian because a friend pointed out that he doesn’t think my ancestors would be happy about that.