White kid in a white school

February 24, 2010

When I reached the age of 6 or 7, it was time to go to school. So started some of the most formative years of my life (obviously). Where the community in which I lived was mostly black, and I had a lot of interracial experience, although it might not have at that stage translated into amazing friendships, the school in which I found myself was all white. Race was not an issue, since we never dealt with it.

I was in grade 1 in 1991. Before the referendum of 1992. I remember my parents voting, and I remember that the outcome was good. I can’t remember Apartheid being discussed much in the house, but I had no doubt about my parents’ position on whether blacks may vote etc. I think it must have been around this time that the black lady that worked for our family, her name was Eniy, did Bible study with us in the mornings.

But somewhere around this time I must have picked up some implicitly racist ideas. I remember singing a song at primary school with these words:

Strawberry lippies, die kaffers gooi klippies

Mandela’s ‘n kaffer en nou moet hy suffer.

Kaffer is the most oppresive term white people ever used to refer to black people under Apartheid. The rest translate as follows:

Strayberry lips, the kaffers is throwing rocks

Mandela is a kaffer, and now he must suffer.

If ever I was a white man toi-toi’ing against the struggle, it was when we were singing this song. I do remember that it was with some discomfort though. This wasn’t how we were brought up. But although the school would never have propagated Apartheid ideology in those years (remember this was very close to ’94), and since I was living in Swaziland I never knew about all the Apartheid issues (I heard about pass laws only while in high school), the system in which I was finding myself was strengthening the idea that black people were somehow lesser humans than white people. It’s not something we argued about, and about which people made explicit cases for, but in our jokes, in our talking, somehow as if it was in the water, in our blood, we knew that we were better, and that black people were dirty.

In about 1995 I remember the fights for transforming the schools. I know my father was taking a leading role in our school to have them open up for black kids. Eventually they did. But I remember the day when we were driving to the high school to pick up the high school kids that were living in Swaziland, and seeing the march of armed white men who was fighting against the first black kid that was allowed in the school.

Some black people were different though. We had a child from the kingly lineage from Swaziland, a Dlamini, in our school who was our fastest athlete. Somehow he was considered to be touchable. I remember Chester Williams (Invictus reminded us of him), he was a hero of sorts. And I guess there were others as well. Some called them “good kaffers”, which in a brilliant way describe the experience that some had when they realized that there were black people that was really just better than white people in something. Usually sports was a good first place to notice this. How do you recognize the fact that a person is truly contributing to the school while still being inherently racist? But even when black students performed, you’ll find the jokes like “he can run so fast because he used to run away from the police”.

There was good coming out of this system. We were getting to know black kids, but usually we remained divided along language lines (actually if I remember correctly the school was mostly divided along language lines even before 1994). But 5 years later, by 2000, I was even more of a racist than before. And if I still wonder if I was a racist as a preschool kid in Swaziland, I know I was one by early high school. Even though still in a reserved manner. I was well-trained by my parents never to speak of maids or kaffers or openly discriminate against black people. None of my friends would have considered me a racist though. In most circles I would have been considered very open to black people. It took an “other” to help me realize my own inherent racism.

7 Responses to “White kid in a white school”

  1. tiaan Says:

    ***Posting this comment in English for dialogue’s sake***

    I went on my regular Wednesday morning visit to the Afrikaans school in town. I have an hour per week to interact with the students, talk about problems, build relationships, follow up, etc. This morning they were busy “geesvang” (psyching up) in the school hall because the First Rugby Team is playing their first game of the season this afternoon, albeit a practise one.

    So I’m standing in the foyer of the school hall, onlooking the spectacle inside, with the matric boys in front desperately trying to rally up some school spirit from the very apathic crown in front of them. Bored myself, I stand at the back and casually chit-chatting to some of the kids who are really not interested in what’s going on inside.

    Now, this is a completely Afrikaans school, but it does have some black kids. VERY few, but some. One of the black boys, Musi, at some stage found himself at the back with some of the other boys. Very nice and very playfully, they bullied him, smacking him against the head, pushing him around, stuff like that. But it is not a problem, we are no racists – Musi is our little black buddy. To lend Marcel van Heerden’s words from the hilarious comedy White Wedding, “Hy is ONS kaffer!” (“He is OUR kaffer!”)

    Ja right…

    This afternoon at a debating competition, one of the speakers used Nelson Mandela in an unprepared speech as an example of a role-model who “united all the nations (sic)” an “abolished apartheid and racism”. REALLY?
    Do you really want me to believe that racism and apartheid are completely gone, that we live in harmony and peace and everyone prospers?

    I beg to differ.

    Neo-racism is as strong as ever, alive and kicking VERY, VERY hard.

  2. tiaan Says:

    I also remember singing that version of Strawberry Lips as a kid…

  3. Shannon Says:

    I remember at about 4 years old coming home singing a song to the tune of “Jingle Bells” that had the word “nigger” in it. I got a spanking from my dad who said, “Don’t ever say that word again. Better for you to be spanked by a dad who loves you than to get pummeled by someone who doesn’t love you and hears you use that word.”

    I grew up in an integrated neighborhood. The first “best friend” I can remember, in second grade, was black. So were many of my teachers, not to mention classmates and teammates. I later learned this was not the experience of many (perhaps most) white Americans–I was just very lucky.

    Interestingly, this was why I was opposed to affirmative action and some other attempts to address race-based inequities: because I hadn’t seen it in my world. Why should there be university scholarships that my friend PJ was eligible for and I wasn’t just because he was black? His family had more money than mine, we had gone to school together, were science fair partners, had all our classes together, went to school dances together, had the same college entrance exam scores, etc. I looked around at my very small world–of course you don’t know your world is small when you’re 16–and saw that my soccer teams, classes, school hallways, neighborhood, church were all integrated, and not just in a token kind of way, and thought racism was a thing of the past. We all listened to hip-hop, we dated each other freely, we threw up next to the bleachers together after rough soccer practices, we slept over at each other’s houses.

    I was probably 19 or 20 before I was exposed to the poverty in my own city and saw how correlative it was with race and started to think critically as to why that was. I don’t think I developed a racial identity until then–that is a luxury whites have. My colorblind upbringing had only made me blind to my own color and its privileges.

    Still–those were good days, riding in PJ’s Jeep to school basketball games and goofing with Ben in the back of calculus class–as racialized upbringings go, I’m one of the luckier ones.

    I’m enjoying this series, Cobus.

  4. […] the sin of racism. I want to link onto his second story – about his experience at school: “White kid in a white school.” In this story he refers to me taking a leading role in the fight to get the schools my children […]

  5. […] Ek’s in ’84 gebore, en het in Swaziland gebly. Bietjie kleuterskool gehad, maar die wit laerskool was nog oppad. Op 4 of 5 kan mens seker nog verskoon word as jy polities ignorant […]

  6. Chuck Stukkie Kak Says:

    Heard Strawberry Lips for the first time on the radio this morning. Then I remembered that song the kids used to sing at my primary school. I was a coloured boy in a coloured school in 1994:

    “Strawberry lippe, die kaffirs gooi klippe
    Mandela moet suffer want hy is a kaffir”

    I Googled that verbatim and this is the page it lead me to.

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