White student, the one with the black heart, called Lucky

March 1, 2010

It has been noted many times that white people seem to be comfortable when together with black people when it is a “controlled environment”. If the black people aren’t too many, primarily. But the experiences I had at the end of 2006 was not controlled, this time I chose to break out of the box.

I was doing a holiday job assisting the marking of matric exams. They appoint students from the universities and technicons to help with this. Usually a majority black students, and a group of white students, and the previous time I did this, I simply flocked to the safeness of the white crowd. Plus, I had a white roommate that time.

I arrived at Nelspruit high school on the first day. Upon registering the white administrative woman at this predominantly white school offered to put me in a room alone, so that I don’t need to be with a black person – if it was possible. When walking into the room where all the other assistants was already waiting, I found only four other white students. I immediately went to sit with them. At lunch time I went into Nelspruit with them. They were all living in Nelspruit. We sat around doing nothing during the whole first day (yes, don’t think that in writing this I’m going to make as if our current government system doesn’t have mistakes). At some point during the day I at least met some of the black students, who was asking me about what I was reading (Soultsunami at that stage).

At this specific marking center they were marking African languages and Computer studies. African langauges had only black markers. Computer studies I belief only white, but computer studies was a very small subject. All the white teachers preferred to find other sleeping arrangements, rather than spend the night in this predominantly black space. At other marking centers the white markers use the arranged sleeping quarters, but here, the number of blacks was just too many I guess. And the other white assistants went to sleep at there parents homes. I think I might have been the only white person in the hostels those nights. My room-mate’s name was Eugene.

The next morning, when walking into breakfast (or maybe this happened at lunch, I cannot remember), I had to make a choice: Get food, and go over to the table of white students, and proceed with life, knowing that every night I will be the white man alone. Or get food, walk right past the white table (that was largely empty) and sit with the people that weren’t off to there parents every chance they had, that stayed in this space where I was bound to stay. I chose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

It was obvious from this point onwards that I was an outsider to the white group. Some decent dialogue still happened at times during the next 8-10 days I guess, but for the most part, this was the end of the short friendship we had on day one. But I made friends I could never have imagined. They were all Swazi’s. They taught me about the culture in which I grew up in. We simply became friends. Especially one person stand out from this time. Sibitiwe. We met on day one I believe. She was the daughter of two Lutheran pastors, grew up in church, but couldn’t believe that any straight-thinking young person would spend six years studying theology. So we got talking. She explained the tension between Zulu’s and Xhosa’s to me at the time when Jacob Zuma was starting to become visible as a possible next president. But mostly we just talked. About the squatter camp, about psychology, about the future, about life. And then one night she gave me the compliment of a lifetime, and not one I’m sure I deserve: “You have a black heart” she said. Even though you are white, you are different. Yes, they also knew that I had to in a way end the relationship with the white students if I wanted to spend the time, both day and night, with the black students.

In this time I remembered that I was given a Swazi name as a little boy in Swaziland. I didn’t even know it anymore. I found it from my father, and shared it with my new friends. Hi, they named me Nhlanhla : Lucky.

2 Responses to “White student, the one with the black heart, called Lucky”

  1. Shannon Says:

    But that designation is problematic too, although it feels like an honor when it’s bestowed. Maybe our contexts make all the difference here, but as someone who has been told plenty of times she has her black card/her ghetto passport/is incognegro, I’ve realized after a while it’s a way of being set up to fail. We like you, therefore you are not like “them,” you are the exception; then when you inevitably reveal that you don’t get it, that you still have some residual racism, you’re still working through your issues–it’s like a double betrayal because hey, you were supposed to be one of us! I’ve realized it’s much healthier on all sides to say thank you, but no. I’m actually very like “them,” and if that means we all need to reevaluate who “they” are, then fine; but I didn’t lose my race and I’m still working through a lot of stuff.

    I’m not sure that all made sense.

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