“Can I touch your hair?”
The little girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes asked shyly, interrupting a conversation between myself and two other black girls. She, too, was accompanied by two other girls, both brunettes. Their giggles gave the impression that they had discussed this earlier and the little one had been designated the group’s spokesperson.
We were round about the same age hence we had been placed in the same dormitory. I was eight years old then. All of us were new comers at the school. I was arranging my toiletries on my dressing table while my two newly found friends sat on one bed. We were chatting, trying to get acquainted while adapting to our new environment.
One of my new friends nodded her consent, uncertain about why anyone would want to touch her hair! She was spotting a short natural afro, while our other friend had cornrows and I was nearly bald shaven.
The blonde girl advanced, stretched her hand and ploughed her little fingers into the afro, then withdrew her hand, still giggling. My friend in turn asked if she could feel the blond hair, to which the little girl consented. Unable to contain our curiosity, the rest of the girls joined in.
Delighted squeals followed as the children felt the diverse texture of each other’s hair and analyzed their differences. The conversation continued as more questions followed.
“Do you bleed when you’re hurt?”
“Yes,” my other friend replied.
“What colour is your blood?” one of the white girls asked.
“Red,” I replied.
“Oh, mine too!”
The ice broke!
A seemingly stupid conversation, yet it was real. This was a conversation among children who had been separated by years of racial prejudice and bigotry, suddenly interacting for the first time in post-independent Zimbabwe. Having been born during apartheid, this was the first time we were openly interacting, thanks to a change in Government policy that ended racial segregation in schools and other institutions. Although the policy had been in place for some years, I had been recently transferred to the boarding school and like my counterparts, was interacting across the racial divide for the first time.
Away from the discrimination and bigotry that had separated our nation for decades, we explored and learnt about each other in the privacy of the dormitory. Curious about our differences, we exchanged a myriad of questions and learnt what we had in common.
The question about the colour of our blood was somewhat definitive as it brought to the fore the basic fact that despite our differences, we were all human beings. From then on, the way we related changed. A new respect was born.
The bell rang, indicating that it was time to go downstairs for supper and interrupting our magical moment of exploration as we rushed down to join the queue. The conversation shifted to the mundane things that children talk about, like favourite food and colour.
As in any normal society, relationships were born, friendships were forged and bonds were formed – some temporary and others long term – as people discovered what they had in common and learnt to accommodate each other’s differences.
That was the blissful world of childhood.
The following day, we went to school and interacted with more people from other races including Indians, Chinese and Japanese among many others.
Life became an adventure, a journey of discovery, learning about other cultures and living together despite our obvious physical differences. Once we got over the curiosity of our initial meeting, we became one happy community.
We lived blissfully in harmony until we stepped out of the safety of the school into the rest of the world. A world tainted by prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. A world characterized by bigotry. Not only did racial differences exist, but they were being constantly magnified and reinforced. There seemed to be an invisible hierarchy that automatically made some races more superior than others and we were all expected to fall in line and recognize that supposed superiority without question. Indeed, in this world, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It saddens me that most people perpetuate racial discrimination and are reluctant to change their views about people who are different from them, even when there is no compelling reason for their prejudice apart from a difference in appearance, culture and place of origin.
Efforts such as the proclamation of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on annually on 21 March since 2001 have not brought about much change. While the objectives of this day are noble and it is a good initial step towards addressing a global problem, I believe it will take more than that to transform deep-seated mindsets.
Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream of equality and a country where people would
“not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” His dream was for America, but mine is for the entire world. Regardless of our differences in the geographical boundaries, more than 50 years after he made his famous speech, that dream is still yet to be realized.
Although the expression of racism in my time is less brutal than it was in Dr. King’s time, it is still vicious in its subtlety, as it seeks ways to evade the legal frameworks and policies that have been introduced in efforts to curtail it.
I wish more people would cross the racial divide and come over to the world equality and respect, a world that celebrates rather than resents our differences; A world that appreciates rather than despises our diverse cultures; A world that recognizes that we all have something to offer, regardless of our appearance; Above all, a world that recognizes that we are all human beings with equal rights, regardless of the diversity of our pigmentation and hair texture.
I hope this dream comes true during my lifetime…
Photo credits: Children http://bit.ly/1Pn4JBE and Dr. King http://bit.ly/1RvvYBD