by Rafia de Gama
I grew up as a third culture child across the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa. My parents, who came from different countries but similar ethnicities, consistently insisted we focus on what we share with others. This was a mantra in the house, from my mother who was South Asian-Ugandan and a father who was Pakistani. Their upbringing was very different, but their concern to ensure that they show us and the world kindness in words and action was so similar. We grew up with people from all backgrounds, religions and cultures. My father insisted we read about different religions, my mother insisted we were all lifelong members of libraries. We were constantly reminded to see the person before anything, before the religion, the race and culture. We were taught to notice the differences to celebrate them, I remember being told differences added flavour otherwise life would be just boring and bland.
This was in opposition to many things in the media, the constant reminder that people were always written about and talked about in oppositional terms. I feel it was easier as it was a different time so we heard their voices more than any other. I was lucky to find diaspora from the places with which I could identify wherever I went. I had a place of comfort, a home.
My children, who are mixed race, are colourful. They are joyful and full of life’s possibility. However, there is a cloud, this cloud grows as they grow. Their link to blackness takes them from the cuteness everyone seemed to see to something different as they grow. There seems to be a wariness, a look, a wait to see if they put even a toe out of place, this place that so narrowly defines good behaviour for mixed and black children.
I, in naiveté, thought I could raise them just as my parents raised me. I remembered that my female South Asian personhood makes me a stereotype for repressed yet still excelling, downtrodden and not a problem. I never fully realised how privileged I was to be never seen, as a problem and definitely never as dangerous.
The first time I was shaken was when my oldest, at age 6, came home and asked me why someone asked, ‘what are you?’ instead of the correct, ‘who are you?’. I was so overwhelmed by her innocence that I just shrugged to say, they do not know your mother is not from South Africa and is a foreigner.
In a place like South Africa, where Apartheid had not long gone, one could perhaps explain away the existence of such a question, perhaps not knowing what such division had wrought.
My children’s experiences took me out of my very liberal upbringing, bringing more nuance, things I knew but had not noticed. Over time, I dug deeper into myself, noticing how within my own people there were slights against anyone not conforming to their ideal, whether cultural, religious or racial. The colonised mindset that still perpetuates. The reverence for the hallowed privileged position of whiteness.
As my three kids grow I see and notice every little way that they are treated differently. I accept that I am their comfort and home but also their champion and shield. I work first and foremost on myself, to keep educating myself, checking myself. Standing up for them, showing them by example to stand up for themselves and others. Focusing on filling the holes in their curriculum in history, in literature, in science and maths so they can truly understand the contributions of their cultures, African and Asian to the world of culture, language, science and maths.
I know evolving to be a better person and ally is a lifelong endeavour for myself. I have to raise my children as children to be loved and guided with kindness. I have the right to expect and to ensure that this is mirrored in school and broader society.
What I have discovered over time, if I am honest and upfront about my philosophical leanings, my anti-racist stance is that I attract those of a similar mind. Happily my children, over the years, have found some champions at schools. They and I find places of comfort, however small they may be, in some instances and that is a start.