Where did you learn your English?
We had visitors from USA strolling through our passages last week. Like a good host, I indulged them with conversation when they came into my classroom as part of their tour of the school. Many didn’t say much except greet and admire the bright classroom with Linton Kwesi Johnson playing in the background, keeping me company while I was marking. One of the visitors noticed that I’m one of the English teachers and asked, “Where did you learn your English?”. Perplexed, I answered “Pardon?”. My response was deliberate because I was hoping she would re-phrase her question and say something less offensive. However, her response was bewildering: “Where-did-you-learn-your-English?”. The second time it seemed as though time was moving slowly because she enunciated each word carefully, for my benefit of course. Keeping my confusion and anger at bay I simply answered “I went to university, Rhodes, and I’ve been speaking English since I was a child.”
It wasn’t until I was sharing the incident with colleagues that I realised that something is amiss. In replaying the question in my mind, I realised that her question was directed at the black skin I wear everyday without thinking. She simply saw “the good native”, “the special black” who is so well-spoken. One of the learners I teach was part of the conversation and I asked her what she thought about the encounter with our visitor. In her innocence she tried to reassure me that “Maybe she’s not used to meeting black people who speak like you and teach English”.
I never seriously considered the perceptions of what it would mean being a black woman teaching English in a school that’s going through an identity crises—our school is not a former model c school, it is not a white school but it is partnered with a former white school in a privileged area—it is a new school. In my naivety I didn’t realise I would have to explain myself on two accounts: why I chose teaching and why I ended up an English teacher.
Through teaching, I now know experientially that teachers are at the bottom of the food chain. People don’t expect much from me and are often shocked that I have three degrees as opposed to a bachelor degree and a PGCE or an equivalent teacher qualification. I also know that there’s a clear bias towards Maths and Science teaching with the typically humanities subjects at the bottom of the pyramid. We encourage our children to read but there is little recognition of the importance that teaching children about the value of an imagination and how it shapes ideas about everything around us, which is what effective language teaching can be about.
My position as an English teacher has given me a new lens of understanding the world and how I navigate it as an educated, financially independent woman who happens to be black. In my efforts of trying to understand non-racialism and moving away from the dangers of racial profiling I have had to embrace the fact that I can’t ignore race if I am to move beyond it. When people see me, they are inclined to see my black skin and because I am a black woman, I am cast aside as one of the many black women in this country who are not educated nor earning enough to support their families (I’ve been mistaken as a domestic helper more than once). It is only when I start speaking that people start paying attention to what I have to say. However, that doesn’t help much because I’m then cast into the category of “coconut with a rich mommy and daddy who support her privileged lifestyle”. Another misunderstanding. Those who did go to former white schools have formed a collective that adds to the bewildering new South Africa. Much to my chagrin I often admit that I am a coconut in order to make others comfortable about how they classify me. But this is a misrepresentation of who I am (and possibly a conversation for another day). The complexity of being young in the new South Africa is simplified by the obsession with further classification of people as a coconut or “ghetto/kasi”.
This complexity became clearer when I read Nomalanga Mkhize’s paper “Am I a white-washed black woman”. It gave me a language of what I have been experiencing since moving to Cape Town and have been experiencing my whole life since I realised the dangers of assimilation, transformation and the politics of speaking English without an accent (as one of my colleagues once pointed out).
 This refers to a black person who has assimilated into white norms and speaks English as a primary language—acting “white”. The jury is still out on whether this is a derogatory word or not. I initially came across the word from a friend who said that’s the word other black people who hadn’t been to former Model C schools called black people who did.
 This refers to people who live in homogenous Black townships in South Africa. It come from the word “elokishini” which stems from “location” another word for township.