Fifty Shades of Melanin

By Kaitlyn Huynh – Emzingo Fellow (South Africa)

 

It’s quite amazing to find myself at the halfway mark of my fellowship in South Africa. The experience has been an interesting one in exploring a new corner of the globe, where the language is familiar yet life is foreign in comparison to what I am used to.

Before I landed in South Africa, friends from the country provided lots of tidbits and advice on what to expect:

– “You’ll love the food; it’s great and so affordable” – Indeed! My jeggings and I are so happy, perhaps too happy.

– “The people are very warm and friendly and will start random conversations with you.” – So true! Passersby will always have a friendly smile and a ‘good morning’ greeting at the ready.

– “And race will be at the forefront of many conversations. You will be judged by whether you are black or white, or coloured upon minutes of your encounter.”  – Wait what? But girls, how is that possible in this day and age I naively questioned.

I am cognizant of speaking to someone who is Black, Asian or Hispanic for example. But after that fleeting acknowledgment, their race is no longer at the forefront of my mind as the individual’s personality or character takes over in whatever conversation we’re having. It’s not to say that I am “color blind,” but rather color does not necessitate how I view, judge and ultimately value the other person. It is another facet of the many layers that make up who we are and should not be the overriding factor of our being.

You see, coming from the United States I know racism exists regardless of how much we have advanced through the years. I recognize it could be as blatant as racial profiling or as carelessly woven into the media updates covering them: “Armed and dangerous black male” Vs. “Suspected white assailant”.

As I mentioned, I’m not blind to it and think these issues DO matter. A lot. But before my trip, they matter just as much as women’s rights, gay rights, immigration laws, and everything that is too often used as a platform for political fodder and soap-box filibustering. However, as I spend more time here in South Africa where race factors into every facet of life from its determination of which side of the border you live on, to which bars you patron and not stand out, I can’t help but look at it through different lens.

I recently attended a panel on race and race relations that was undeniable in the parting impression it had on everyone present. The discussions were raw, emotional and sometimes heartbreaking to hear. There was the woman who felt like she found her voice for the first time in being able to express her angst about being treated as a black woman. How the simplest thing as sharing her name was a struggle for her because her ethnic name was too “difficult” for others to try and pronounce; how she had to water down and minimize her blackness for the sake of the other half.

Then there was the comment from the panelist who painted a startling picture of the inequity they had to endure during Apartheid, the designation as non-white. Nothing made me feel more dishearten then hearing how one group of human beings had their entire identity stripped down to nonexistence, other than the fact that they were described in absentia of what defined the others – (the holy) whiteness. I can’t imagine being bereft of my ethnicity much less be categorized in such a demeaning manner where my entire race is only described as the lack of something else.

I then attended a youth development session where the speaker shared a “race” she had participated in right before they had broken for lunch. Each person had to answer a series of questions where ‘no’ meant taking one step back and ‘yes’ meant being able to move that much closer to having lunch. Sounds simple enough, right? But what if the questions were:

– Did you grow up in a household with both parents present?

– Did you have three square meals a day?

– Did you grow up with access to a running toilet?

The exercise quickly showed the disparity between the have and have-nots.  It demonstrated the struggles that many encountered due to the color of their skin and how many more hurdles they had to surpass in order to have access to the basics, like a simple lunch.

I share these stories because I believe the way forward is for us to treat one another with the same grace and dignity we all deserve. Everyone should have access to all opportunities available, with no limitations based on the level of melanin they possess. Keep in mind, I know these views are my own and I have no solution to offer, but I do feel at least sharing my thoughts about the issue is one itty, bitty, minor step in unmasking this problem that impacts the socio-economic and inherent unfairness of the disadvantaged.

In my short time here I have found South Africa to be a beautiful country with its natural landscape, but more than anything else it is the resiliency of its people that shine. And I hope that you get a chance to visit one day and hear the stories firsthand.


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