On my last day in South Africa, I am reflecting on all of the things that have happened around here- all the things I knew would happen, and those that I couldn’t know would happen. One thing I didn’t know would happen was that racial relations would be an important part of my role in the orphanage. Working to break down these barriers is a long-term process, and I started right away.
I quickly realized that I could serve another purpose in the orphanage beyond what I originally came here for. It was something I didn’t expect, given that I’m not South African and couldn’t foresee this kind of issue coming up. It was apparent that, even though every child in our home was born after apartheid, the thoughts of black inferiority still linger, even in the minds of children who otherwise shouldn’t even be capable of drawing that conclusion themself.
I’m not trying to say that they are actively taught that they are inferior, but there is something still there in the lives of children who never even witnessed a world of apartheid.
For two years I have heard the children say hurtful things about their own kind, accepting it as though it is fact. When one child asked me how old you must be in the States to get a driver’s license, I told him it is 16, unlike South Africa’s age 18 restriction. It’s like a lightbulb went off in his head, except it was the wrong kind: “Oh, that’s because white people are smarter than black people so they learn how to drive easier.” Even though I said that isn’t true, he insisted to me, now considering himself in the position of the teacher. “Yes, I’m telling you, that’s the truth.”
I have heard all kinds of self-hatred and negativity from the children, so I found that I had another mission: help get the children into a different mindset that they are equally valuable as white children. It’s a difficult challenge in post-apartheid South Africa, but on top of that, these are the neglected, rejected, and orphaned children, who already feel they have so little value because they don’t have a family. Getting the children to believe they are not inferior? Mission: Impossible.
For two years I have sat in the sunshine daily, initially because I love the heat, but also to make a point to the children. The first time I was questioned about it, it was Refilwe: “Why are you sitting in the sun? Don’t you know that your skin will be black?”
I smiled. “Yes, I know. And that’s what I want.”
“But why? White is so beautiful.”
“No, I like black skin. I want to look like you.”
“I’m telling you, the sun will make you black, and then you will cry. But when that happens, don’t come crying to me about it!”
My lesson is simple: We want what we don’t have. White people are trying to be darker, and black people are trying to be lighter. But beyond that, I wanted them to repeatedly hear that their skin colour is still very beautiful– you don’t have to be white to have beauty.
Between beauty and brains I felt like I was getting nowhere with the children. Their belief was simple; white people have both, and black people have neither.
“That’s rubbish,” I said, in response one day to hearing once again about white people being smarter. “How many languages do you speak?”
The child counted. “Four,” she said.
I asked other children, ranging from 2-5 languages spoken per child.
“And how many do I speak? Only one,” I said. “You can’t tell me that anyone who speaks as many languages as you isn’t smart enough!” But they always walked away, remaining unconvinced of the power of a mind that is multilingual.
They got used to my arguments to the point where they could say it before I could. “You are sitting in the sun because you want to be black like us,” they would say.
Now, two years later, I finally heard it. I finally heard about brains and beauty again.
The child was sitting in the sun, so I sat next to her.
“You are sitting in the sun because you want to be black,” she said.
“Well, actually, this time I’m sitting in the sun because you are, for some reason,” I responded.
Ignoring my response, she continued. “Yes, you are sitting in the sun because it is nice to be black. Black is beautiful.”
Did she really just say that? Then she continued.
“Do you know why else it is nice to be black?”
“No, I don’t. Why is it nice?”
“Because you can speak so many languages when you are black. So you see, it’s very nice to be black.”
I smiled. “That’s right,” I said. “It’s always nice to be exactly who God made you to be.“