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Understanding comes too soon? Or too late?

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A fragment of the Freedom Charter Memorial in Kliptown, Soweto. Photo by Christine Gronberg.

By Christine Gronberg

Exhausted and slightly embarrassed, three of us rush through the old courtyard and into the lobby of the guesthouse where the group was scheduled to meet five minutes earlier. Everyone else is already seated on the couches and soft chairs, so we hurriedly choose spots on the wooden floor and turn our attention to the speaker we came to hear.

Claire Collins is the focus of all eyes in the room. Even sitting, she is taller than the rest of us. She is introduced by a close friend and member of our group, Janie Ward, a Simmons professor of education and Africana studies.

Born in Durban in the 1980s, Collins remains loyal to her hometown, calling it the most African city within South Africa. She would know, too. She has done her fair share of traveling.

When she was 18, Collins visited the United States and worked as a nanny in western Massachusetts. She later found herself studying economics and political science at Gordon College in Wenham, a quaint New England town on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

After graduation Collins returned to South Africa, but this time she lived in Cape Town. Seven years later, following her dream to be a doctor, she came to Johannesburg to study at Witwatersrand University, It is here that our paths cross.

Collins is kind enough to share her experience of being a young South African girl during the last years of Apartheid. We listen raptly.

The story of how she became aware of her place in South Africa's arcane racial hierarchy starts in her home: Mr. Collins was against racial classification of any kind and had brought up his children as South Africans, not as "colored people," and tried to protect them from the stereotypes that went along with that label. But at school it was a bit different.

A class project required the students in Claire's class to list the races in South Africa. and list the characteristics of each one. Then they were to form groups around the room according to their own race and discuss the benefits or obstacles of that classification.

Claire was in 3rd grade. As an eight year old, she did not quite understand. She says she knew her skin was not light enough to be white nor dark enough to be black and she knew she was not Indian. That left only one category: "colored."

She says she continued to sit in her chair as she worked through all the categories to make sure she didn't miss anything that would help in this moment of confusion.

The teacher walked up to her and asked why she wasn't in a group and Collins answered it was because she did not know which was the right one. The teacher proceeded to tell her to join the colored group of children. That was her first experience with race and the beginning of her understanding of Apartheid and its stark, all-encompassing divisions.

Collins learned the meaning of being "colored" [mixed race] at age eight, whereas I learned the meaning of being white at age 20.

We visited the Apartheid Museum on our second day in South Africa. Before entering, we were given tickets that arbitrarily classify us as white or non-white, and we had to use the appropriate entrance. This caused some discomfort throughout the group in the midst of nervous laughter as we tried unsuccessfully to lighten the situation.

I received a ticket that labeled me "white." Entering the museum, we could see the opposite groups through the metal cages that separated the whites entrance from the non-whites. The enclosed, unfriendly and harsh space made it impossible to feel ok with the separation.

Looking at my classmates on the other side, the classmates that only 25 years ago would have had to go through the faux-scientific process of classification, I felt disgusted. Disgusted at the world for the animalistic treatment of human beings. Disgusted at myself for being privileged. Disgusted at the very idea of being "white."

As South Africa and the rest of the world come to terms with racial equality, discrimination will gradually become a thing of the past--something that we read about in history books and look back thinking of how far we have come. It cannot happen too soon.

Posted by South Africa Group on May 18, 2014 1:51 AM
Category: South Africa 2014

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