There was a moment in time when I didn’t know that race existed. I’ve been thinking back to that time recently with this talk of the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees this year and people using the incorrect terminology when referring to other races. Of course talk about race is nothing new, when has there ever not been talk about race. As long as inequality exists the talking will (and must) continue.
Still I had this moment and it lasted for approximately thirteen years. The first thirteen years of my life actually. To illustrate just how unaware I was I have this one embarrassing memory to share. It takes place at primary school but before I go on, you need to remember my love for Madonna and that it started young. On this particular day my friends and I were sitting on the bleachers in what was known as the Birdcage, I think it must have been lunchtime because I remember I was munching on crisps (Discos, remember them?) So there we are, my friends and I talking away, possibly eating, when in an effort to be cool (you remember when it was all about being cool in front of your friends right?) I exclaim out loud that Madonna is related to me. I go on to elaborate by saying our grandmothers are sisters (yip that overactive imagination started real early). My friends, bless them didn’t walk away and de friend me instead they laughed at me and gave me reasons like ‘she lives in America’ as to why this couldn’t be true. The whole exchange lasted a mere seconds and was soon forgotten by all save me; it is a memory that has always stuck with me not least because it proves I have never been able to lie well but that it reaffirms I never knew race. I didn’t see that Madonna and I are different. Hell I didn’t even see that my friends and I were different – to me we were all just kiwis.
Fast forward a few years to when my father decided it would be a good idea for me to have a South African education (on account of my mother being South African); we relocated temporarily to Johannesburg to live with my grandparents. This was in the 80s towards the end of apartheid. Here’s where the wheels started churning for me in regards to race, how could it not. We lived in a predominantly Indian only area and we had a maid and gardener (not Indian) who were not permitted to sleep in the house or eat with us. I still remember the stern look of disapproval and tap of the walking stick my grandmother would give whenever my brother or I spoke to either of them. This was a country that has known much cruelty as such we lived in a house with bars on the outer windows even the pet giant tortoise wasn’t just left to roam, he too lived in enclosed quarters. And every time my brother – always a hothead – took off down the street after an angry outburst, the adults would be on tenterhooks until he was found should something ‘bad’ befall him. All because of perceptions of race.
It wouldn’t be till years later when I studied the history of South Africa that I would understand the firsthand experience I got when I was living there; but a light had been switched on during this time and I would never see the world through those innocent eyes again more’s the pity. It might be naive of me to say but the socialist in me can’t help thinking it is not necessary for race to be important if people don’t want it to be. In any case whether it is down to the fact that I grew up in Wellington (which although technically a city is really a village) or that I grew up in a time before the world wide web; I am happy that for a short window I lived in a world in which race didn’t matter.