Two weeks of hell.
Sister Mary called us into a meeting in the school hall. She announced to us that a new student was coming to the school. For a moment, 14- year old me was confused. We had students come and go all through the year. What was so special about this student? Why go to the lengths of announcing that she is coming?
Sister Mary explained that we needed to be kind and friendly towards her and that anyone found being nasty to her would be punished. Her stern warning made me wonder what was wrong with this girl!
In the school I was at, an all-girls’ Catholic school run by nuns (primarily Irish), some girls had physical disabilities, but I couldn’t recall if they were ever teased or bullied. Why the special announcement about this girl?
The next day, as I walked with a friend of mine during the 15-minute break, I saw a crowd gathered at one of the benches. There was noise, laughter and the occasional shouting emanating from the group, and curiosity drove me to see what was happening. In the middle of a group of girls (the popular girls) was a girl who sat at the table crying while from them I heard, ” What are you doing here?” “You’re not welcome!” “Find another school!” “You don’t belong here!” The girl sat quietly, crying, while the group continued bullying and harassing her.
Growing up in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood, I was used to seeing and being part of physical fights, but this was different. I didn’t belong because I came from “the wrong side of town,” my hair wasn’t flowing down my back, I wasn’t fair and never had a two-parent household, so, yes, I was bullied, but I stood up to those bullies and became “tough.” I hung out with girls who looked like me. We were the ones on the outskirts, and the bullying eventually stopped, but by and large, they ignored us. The difference between us (the ones on the outskirts) and the popular crowd is that they were the “perfect” ones, the beautiful ones who looked “white,” and, while to us, it seemed that we were always told to behave, they never seemed to be chastised for anything, and if they were, it was done reasonably. We were curious why this girl was being picked on and was told, via the grapevine, it’s because she is “African.” African is a word Brown people from Cape Town use to describe Black people.
The next time I saw this girl was two days later, where she was being bullied again and told she doesn’t belong. The girls were relentless, mean and cruel. They never physically touched her, but she was verbally, mentally, and psychologically abused at every turn. She would be walking down the hall, and girls would be behind her, and when the nuns were in earshot, they would smile, and to an outsider, it looked as if they were trying to welcome her. She was in Grade 10, so I never saw her during lessons, but I saw her in the cloakroom, the hallway, the steps outside the school, and the quad (playground). My friends and I couldn’t understand at the time and just wished they would leave her alone. They didn’t! It became a type of “sport” for the girls and their behaviour. The bullying continued for two weeks, ten days of her having to endure this bullying, cruelty and racism.
One day she just wasn’t there any longer, and we heard that she left. At 14-years old, I knew what was happening to her wasn’t right. I would love to be the heroine in this story and say that one of us spoke out against them, but we didn’t. I just kept hoping they would find something else to focus on, but they didn’t. Because none of us spoke out, she had to suffer! She was 15 years old! A child! Her only “sin” was that she was Black. As an adult, I admit that I was too scared. I didn’t want their hate turned back on me, and that was wrong. My silence, our collective silence, harmed her. Yes, we may not have been the actual bullies, but we saw what was happening and said nothing.
Her mom laid a complaint, and pupils assembled in the hall. Sister Mary explained what happened to the girl and that we could name the bullies anonymously. We did, most of us did, but the bullies, with their wide-eyed innocence, fair skins and flowing hair, were found not guilty of bullying. They insisted they were merely teasing her, and they hadn’t known she was so “sensitive.”
They got away with it, and as “innocent” bystanders, we were upset and guilt-ridden that our silence led to her hurt. We felt even more powerless when the bullies were “cleared” of wrongdoing.
I’m not sure what happened to that girl? All I know is that internalized racism runs deep within us, and unless we continue to examine ourselves, even as teenagers, we will forever be leaving traumatized Black people in the wake of us thinking we are “better” than them.
Internalized racism is vile, wrong, disgusting and harmful!
I’m both saddened and disgusted so many years later that very little has changed within the communities in Cape Town. Colourism and Classism remain a problem that needs urgent addressing among our people.
In the present, internalized racism conveyed the message that what happened in Phoenix, KwaZulu Natal, was acceptable. It was not, and unless we “innocent” bystanders speak out, we will find excuses why we think it was “acceptable” for so many Black bodies to be lying, gunned down, in the name of “sticking” to our kind,” and “protecting our properties.” While we have a right to protect our property against intruders, our internalized racism makes us believe far too easily that it’s ok to kill or harm any Black person wherever we see them and to judge them as a collective.
Internalized racism is a form of internalized oppression, defined by sociologist Karen D. Pyke as the “internalization of racial oppression by the racially subordinated.”
Black lives Matter!