I knew my skin tone when I was born in 1987, but that is what it was…only a skin tone. There was no cultural or political meaning sewed into the pores of my skin. I attended a crèche where only three children were darker than white. I was the lighter skin toned amongst the three. The other children treated us differently but I never understood why.
My primary school was a more racially mixed environment than my crèche. The politics of race was more visible, but it was not realised completely in our interactions. There were some social taboos which were never spoken but seemed like a universal truth at the time. For instance, you should not have a crush on a person from outside your ethnic and religious background. These values came from the students’ homes and got reinforced by not breaking the ‘tradition’ on the school grounds. Still, I was quite blind from the full meaning of race in South Africa.
Within the first week of my high school career I was confronted with the question, “What are you?” It was not a question asking who I was as a person, but rather objectifying my physical credentials. My response at the time seems so innocent, “I am human.” Yet they made me feel guilty by crudely correcting me with, “Are you Indian or Malay?” Since I have never been confronted by this question before, I did not know how to answer. When I arrived home I asked my father whether I am Indian or Malay. He told me that he was Indian and that my mother was Cape Malay. Arriving at school the next day I answered their question proudly. However, they did not act too kindly to my response that I was mixed-race. They walked away from me in disgust, as if I was some abomination…as if I was some sin.
I went to an Islamic private school, which the predominant student population was Indian and Cape Malay. Since I was 50/50 of the two ethnic groups I was never completely accepted by both ethnic groups. I had to hide my other ethnic half in order to fit with whichever ethnic group I needed to at the time. It was only after two years that I managed to gain friends who saw such notions of racial discrimination as nonsensical. Still, I felt stifled by the racism I experienced between these two ethnic groups. Even though all the students and all the teachers (except one) were of the same religion they focused more so at their racial differences. It was the implicit details of racism that struck me. It felt strange to confront who I am through the lens of my skin tone.
It has been many years since the days of high school, and I have had other experiences at other institutions of racial discrimination. But that high school experience turned my skin into part of my identity. Before then, it was never part of my self-construction of who I am, but since then my mixed-race has placed me into the depths of not just who I am but where I am.
Shu’eib Hassen, 25