Shakeel (13) has always been the type to have a best friend - he's always wanted or needed to have a special friend, to whom he'd show undying loyalty. Tharaa (10), on the other hand, has always been the type to flit from friend to friend, clique to clique - as the fancy took her. She's been this way since creche and I must admit that this has worried me in the past - would she be able to commit, show loyalty or receive the benefits that come with having a deep friendship?
So, when the kids started madrassah (islamic school) a few weeks ago, there was no reason this should change. Tharaa chatted to one girl / group of girls the one day and then moved on to the next the following day - just as the fancy took her.
This has never been a problem for her - until last week, when, instead of chatting to the same two girls from the previous day (let's call them X and Y), she started to spend time with Q. This is when X and Y levelled the accusation, which completely baffled, horrified and devastated Tharaa.
''You don't want to play with us anymore because we're black,'' they concluded.
No amount of explaining, defending or arguing could get the girls to change their minds. Tharaa got into the car close to tears.
To understand how bizarre that accusation was, one would need some background about my kids' exposure to race and racism.
During apartheid, public schools were racially exclusive - black children could only go to black schools, white kids to white schools, coloured kids to coloured schools - you get the picture.
Since the fall of apartheid, schools have opened up and admission criteria are no longer racially -based. They include instead criteria like affordability, area in which the learner resides, etc.
My kids attend a formerly whites-only school which is based in a formerly whites-only area. The school constitutes kids of all racial groupings - funnily enough, with white children now making up a tiny minority. (I have absolutely no idea where the residents of the area - who are still predominantly white - are enrolling their children).
Shakeel and Nuha (7) have been at this school since Grade 1, while Tharaa did her pre-school year at the school as well. They have had friends of all racial groupings since the beginning. It has been really interesting to observe how, compared to us (the products of apartheid) they are completely (racially) colour-blind.
I have always wanted to keep them this way - innocent and naive - when it came to the issue of race. However, I knew that I could not bury my (and their) head (s) in the sand and keep them in the dark about such issues. Doing so would deny our past, which would in turn, fail to honour those who had endured and sacrificed to enable our kids to enjoy the benefits which they do today. Denying/ignoring the past would also mean that the kids would not realise how far this country has come in such a short time - it is so important for them to appreciate what they have today and to realise that the rights they enjoy today, were born from much pain and sacrifice of the previous generations.
So, a few years ago, while watching a documentary on our apartheid past, I took the opportunity to explain to Shakeel the concept of apartheid and racism. He was baffled. Why did the bad guys (apartheid government) hurt people just for being a certain colour? Was he black?
I have to tell you - my heart broke, as I felt that with each bit of information, I was destroying his innocence bit by bit. By introducing the concept of race into his consciousness, I was effectively eradicating his colour-blindness and making him see beyond the person him/herself - but see their race. I doubted whether I was doing the right thing, but once it had been uttered, there was no turning back.
What amazed me was his question, ''Do we know any black people?'' I did not want to answer that question. I did not want to draw his attention to the race of some of his best friends.
Then came the question, '' Is Tharaa white?'', which necessitated a brief discussion on colonialism and how white people had ended up in South Africa, which naturally was followed by, ''Do we know any white people?'' This one was tricky - I was concerned that telling him that one of his close friends was white could make him view the child negatively in the light of the information with which I had just provided him. But he distinguished between the bad guys (the apartheid government) and the white children who were his friends. ( Thankfully, I did not have to get into a discussion about the supporters of apartheid who were not part of the apartheid government).
After that discussion I felt guilty; like I had tarnished the innocence of a child forever. Thankfully though my older two kids have this annoyingly superior attitude when it comes to comparing their youth with mine. It seems like telling them about issues which we had faced - like apartheid, corporal punishment etc, has led them to view their generation as more evolved than what we are. They do not think like us, I'm often told.
Questions like ''Was the girl who won the prize at your school black, coloured or white?'' (often posed by older members of the community, whose apartheid-scarred minds are sadly still unable to look beyond racial classifications) are met with horrified gasps by my kids.
To my kids, the apartheid government and racists are bad guys - akin to Lex Luthor in Superman, the Green Goblin in Spiderman. Thank God for the end of apartheid. Good riddance to bad rubbish. To them, the apartheid government and racists were evil - thank goodness they belong to a different time.
So, Tharaa being accused of not wanting to play with someone because of their race, had me filled with fury - because to my child, she had been likened to the vilest, most unlikeable bad guys - the kind who had actually existed, who had negatively affected the lives of her parents, grandparents and countless others.
''I told them I'm not that stupid,'' she kept repeating. Because to her racists are stupid - choosing to play / not to play with someone because of the colour of her skin is stupid. (For her, a more valid reason to dump one friend for another would be if the latter had a Tinkie).
So when she reluctantly returned to madrassah, she was surprised to find that the issue which had plagued her, had become a non- issue. Life at madrassah was continuing as normal. X and Y had forgotten what they had said to her. And this made me furious.
They had spoken those words so lightly and easily, even though it had been completely unsubstantiated. It had just been a convenient, easy explanation for why she did not want to play with them. Not for a second did they consider that there might be an alternative reason. They had jumped straight for the race card, with awful emotional consequences for my daughter.
As a Muslim person, I always become annoyed when some Muslim people regard any and every negative comment as Islamophobia. Sometimes the reason one does not get a job is that one was not qualified enough; or if someone did not smile at you, they may be having a bad day. Yes, Islamophobia and racism as a whole are very real - and sadly, are practised daily. But levelling accusations of either should be based on proof and not paranoia.
On the one hand, I am furious with X and Y for causing my daughter such grief. On the other, I feel sad that they have to be so defensive when it comes to their 'race'. Could this be a result of racism which they are actually experiencing from kids at school? It is so sad that this ugly concept has to be at the forefront of their consciousness - at such a young age.
Later, when I asked Tharaa why she didn't just tell them that one of her closest friends in her class is black, she asked ''Who?'' - she had not even registered what the race was of her friend, whom she just regards as 'the clever one'.
We drew a valuable lesson from this experience: how harmful it is to judge in the absence of evidence. This incident has also reiterated the importance of weighing one's words before uttering them and paying particular attention to how they will impact on others - once words have been uttered, they are impossible to recall and the resultant damage is often very difficult to undo.
in the silence
you wish to take
two steps back
inhale your words
(by award- winning poet Gabeba Baderoon from ''A hundred silences'')
Baderoon, Gabeba, ''Fight''. A hundred silences (Kwela/Snailpress 2006), pg 28