Love in a time of closet racism

I used to think that we can love whoever we want without anything to stand in our way until I was 14 and my friend planted seeds of doubt.

My first boyfriend was white. I was 12 and the most we did was hold hands and hug in secret when no one was looking. I was shy – I didn’t want people making a fuss about what I did. The image of a white boy as a hot boy had been drilled into my mind. My first crushes were members of The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync and Westlife, so to question the attractiveness of a white boy because of my black skin had never crossed my mind.

Then I got to high school.

In a conversation with one of my friends – a white Portuguese girl – I asked if she would date a black boy. She said no. Without hesitation. She said she wasn’t raised that way. Even today I ask myself what that means. What it means to be raised in a way that teaches you to exclude potential love because of the packaging it comes in. To me, race wasn’t a preference – perhaps looks and height and all these other things that make someone attractive to you were things that included or excluded someone from consideration but race had not previously come into play.

I went on to ask her if she found black boys attractive. Again she said no. She just didn’t see them that way. I didn’t probe too much. I could tell she was uncomfortable so I let it go, but I know from that day I saw my friend differently because it became clear to me that I was different from her. Her rejection of black men felt like a rejection of me too. We could be friends but only to a certain extent. She wasn’t raised to be more than civil with me – or so it seemed to me.

Over the years in high school it was clear to me how things worked. We could all hang around with one another but we could not cross the line of getting too personal. Touching, kissing, being intimate. My affections, as a black girl, for a white boy were a taboo he dare not break.

He was not raised to love me, despite his deepest desires perhaps, despite the the quiet joy he pushed down when he heard my voice or saw my face.

Interestingly though, black boys who were our peers, would get lucky sometimes. They sometimes found the rebellious white girl who wanted to test the waters. Some wanted to “test” their parents, others were “curious” about a black boy and his forever sexualised masculinity – but that’s a story for another day.

I got to test out my taboo theory again when I got to my final year of high school.

I went to a girls’ school and there was a boys’ school near us – our brother school. In matric (senior year) 30 of us were elected to be prefects. So at some point there was to be a Prefect’s Ball where prefects from across the city would all gather and have a jol.

The price of a Prefect’s Ball ticket was R150pp so to be money savvy taking another prefect would be the smart thing to do – that way you each pay R150 instead of R300 for you and your date. As girls our plan was to propose our money saving concept to the Boys High prefects. We had a Prefects Braai (barbecue) coming up so we would raise the issue then. Solid plan right?

Except for one teeny detail. There were fourteen black prefects in our group and I think about four in theirs. We decided it didn’t matter. Or we thought it shouldn’t. Maybe we just hoped it wouldn’t.

When we got to the braai we did a speed dating thing where we all met one another and chatted about different things. I decided instead of making a proposal about going together as couples to the ball that I would ask a deeper question, one that I actually wanted the answer to. Ultimately, I didn’t want to spend a night to remember with someone who didn’t share a fundamental value system with me.

So I asked them, one after the other: Would they ever date a black girl? And did they find black girls attractive at all? Not a single one said yes. They all weren’t raised that way, didn’t see us that way or just weren’t into that kind of thing. I remember specifically exchanging notes with my bestie. I recall how crushed we were. I think even though we had an idea of the likely outcome we expected a majority decision not a unanimous one – a loud unanimous no.

I think I expected better because we were all raised during the same era. The dawn of a New South Africa – the Rainbow Nation where we were taught to be free in all things. We had been taught that our generation was different but that day it felt like I got 26 blows to my heart and to my hopeful spirit. Our generation was supposed to be different but here it was – a clear indication that it really wasn’t.

I don’t know how different those boys would be today. I don’t know if they would have grown up to be men who don’t let race dictate who they choose to be with but honestly I do doubt that very much. I rate they’re currently busy defending their privilege and are convinced now more than ever that loving us would be a terrible mistake – but again, that’s a topic for another day.

All I know is that these experiences of rejection as a young girl based on my skin colour changed me. I rejected the idea that a white man could actually see me as an equal partner and I also rejected the idea that his family could accept me even if he did. And it hurts. To think that I was raised simply to love. If anything the most my mom would ever say is that he must go to church but even then, she always hammers the fact that her only desire is for me to fall in love with a man who loves me as much as I love him – maybe even more.

Deep inside me there still remains a hope that we can get over our prejudice.

But only if we stop raising our kids to love selectively.


*P.S. – I was 14 in 2003, matric 2007. Just in case it matters.

4 thoughts on “Love in a time of closet racism

  1. Thank you Shandu, as nayirrah waheed says, “We need to share our wars”. So many of us who went to these ‘Model C’ schools have been scarred by our white counterparts. I am glad we can have these kinds of conversations though, it reminds the wounded girls inside of us that she matters, and what happened to her is not her fault.


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