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Raising children in communities where their racial group is a minority and they are perceived as “different” can be difficult.

Despite South Africa’s claim to be a rainbow nation, there is, unfortunately, a tendency to view people in terms of their skin colour and as “different”.

Not natural

Claire’s* brown-skinned daughter cuts through the water; her strokes are long, determined and focused. She wins her first primary school gala race with ease. Claire is beaming with pride. Then the mother standing near her leans in to offer her congratulations. “That’s really good, because they usually can’t swim that well,” she says. Claire turns her head in disbelief… this is Cape Town, this is 2014, surely this should not be happening?

Claire and her family are not alone.

Michelle’s brown-skinned daughter is hesitant to immerse herself in the water when she encounters a new swimming teacher. Seeking to reassure Michelle, the teacher says: “Not to worry, swimming doesn’t come naturally to them.” It takes Michelle a full 30 seconds to comprehend what this woman is implying. She has no ready response. Even if she did, she does not want to make her daughter aware of the meaning behind this thoughtless  comment.

Rainbow nation?

South Africa, for all its beautifully colourful people, seems trapped in a bizarre need to categorise things according to skin colour. And, schools and suburbs seem to be particular targets. Some areas appear to have integrated more successfully than others. However, there are still people who are treated as out of place, based largely on their being “different”.

Schools are often not just our “local schools”, but “former Model C schools”, “coloured schools”, “township schools” and “Indian schools”. Within these demarcations, change is often slow.

Insensitive and thoughtless treatment

Clara*, mother to three primary school children, moved to Cape Town from Zimbabwe eight years ago. Comfortably attuned to a middle-class suburban lifestyle, she and her South African husband settled in Cape Town.  Clara is black, her husband would be described as coloured, and her children are similar shades to both parents.

When their eldest daughter was recently invited to a birthday party Clara accepted readily. But, it cut like a knife when Clara discovered a few weeks after the party that on all the other girls’ invitations was a small handwritten note stating that a black girl would also be attending the party. “Seriously?” Clara gasps. “In this day and age… in Africa?”

The hair issue

Kim* is mother to three gregarious girls. Their brown skin makes them a minority in their school. It is not their skin colour, but their “different” hair that seems to garner extra attention.

“Their hair is a work of art,” comment some well-meaning mothers as they admire the easy-care braids worn by her daughters. A fellow mother recently told Kim how hard it must be to take care of the girls’ hair. Kim smiled politely and told her that it was just curly hair. This other mother went on to tell Kim that she has a friend with black children and they have to be really careful in case their hair catches on fire. Kim’s daughters listen in on the conversation, bemused perhaps, but no doubt very aware of the attention their “different” hair is creating.

Cultural divide

Along with swimming and hair, these mothers and others interviewed have been asked what their children eat culturally, they’ve been praised for their children’s ability to speak faultless English, and they are often quizzed as to whether their children are on a scholarship at the local school. It’s hard not to feel insulted and hurt by these comments.

Standing tall

Sabrina, a young black journalist, has firm feelings about empowering children to stand up to inappropriate comments from strangers. “I think there is something wrong with simply being polite. Parents should find a way to respond that children observe and can in turn feed from when they need to fend for themselves. Educate others. Don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers,” she says Sabrina. “Children need rebuttals, because simply walking away disempowers them.”

Dealing with difference

Robynne Thomson, a Joburg-based psychologist, offers some essential insight into how to help children deal with being different to those around them. “Celebrate the things that make your child different from an early age. View differences in a positive light and make the child feel special and unique, ” she suggests. “Teach children that they cannot always control how other people think and that other people’s prejudices are not a measure of how special they are.”

Bearing the weight of all who are different

Samantha, a young Cape Town-based professional, is a living example of not letting prejudices impact on her being. Born in Zambia, Samantha’s mother moved the family back to South Africa towards the end of Sam’s primary schooling. Sam found herself thrust into the former Model C school structures. She says that when trying to integrate herself into the school community or later at university, she was constantly aware that she was carrying the entire black population on her shoulders. “I knew that if I  behaved in a manner that was considered “not acceptable” to my fellow non-black students, it would have serious ramifications for the general perceptions of all black people in their eyes.

“When non-blacks make ridiculous statements about having difficulty pronouncing ‘traditional’ black names, about black women’s hair, and about black people who are able to swim, they are embodying a fundamental ignorance to race and ethnicity as a historical loci of oppression. For me, this is where racism comes into play.”

Samantha believes that parents who push for a narrative of “not standing out too much” are not only perpetuating the problem, but are also creating fertile ground for their children to develop the very same complexes they are trying to prevent them from developing.

Make an effort

Clara remains positive even in the face of daily frustrations with the way her children are often treated. “As parents we have a duty to our children to let them explore relationships with their peers without the apartheid baggage we all carry.” She goes on to stress that every parent owes it to their children to make an effort to make friends across races, cultures and religions.

Sabrina has a unique perspective on being black in places where she is a minority. She recounts that during a recent year spent living in Gaza, an older woman approached her at a party and announced in a friendly voice, “You’re cute… even if you are black.” Sabrina’s grace-filled internal response went like this: “Thank you South Africa, had I not spent many years living in a country where skin colour reigns supreme, I’d have been shocked. Therefore, thank you South Africa for preparing me for being a black woman anywhere in the world.”

Is your child being teased for being different?

Robynne Thompson offers the following advice:

  • Empower them to respond to the teasing by themselves. Role-play appropriate responses that they can make, but do so at home within a safe environment… give them the words to use.
  • Responses should always be respectful and not descend into name-calling and lack of respect for the other person’s culture.
  • If the teasing still doesn’t stop, it might be useful to address the teasing at an adult level. Do so with either with the parents of the child who is teasing or with the school.
  • Schools should have policies and values based on respect for each other’s differences. Schools must become involved in an appropriate manner should teasing be a problem.

*Names have been changed


Donna Cobban