Riddles of race

My son was learning to climb stairs the first time I saw him. He didn’t bother looking higher than my knees as he intently heaved himself up for another assault on the scorching hot concrete steps.

A year after I first saw the orphaned Zenzo I brought him home. His brother, 15 months older, was dismayed when it sank in that the arriviste was there to stay and to share toys and attention.

Now Zenzo is the middle child, sandwiched between two blue-eyed, blond siblings. It has a good side: all three kids seem uninterested in skin colour and are equal-opportunity friend-makers. But for me, who had non-racialism and the inequities of apartheid drummed in from an early age (how many London-based 10-year-olds get given books from the African Writers series as a Christmas present?), Zenzo’s arrival was a salutary lesson in race awareness.

We took Zenzo—newly adopted, proud in his first set of tiny dreadlocks—for his inaugural trip to Britain to meet the rest of his family. The immigration officer had other ideas. How did he know Zenzo’s new passport wasn’t a forgery?, he demanded. How did he know Zenzo was my son? Where were the adoption papers—I must travel with adoption papers. (Those most precious of documents were locked in a safe in Johannesburg.)

No matter how often I pointed out that we had the same surname, and that his brother’s passport was issued on the same date, so why wasn’t he questioning its authenticity, it was only the little black boy he focused on. Zenzo clung crying to my legs as he was threatened with deportation, a threat repeated in language that a three-year-old could understand. The intervention of his press card-wielding father threatening lawsuits finally let us through: but Zenzo met his grandmother through a haze of terrified tears.

Building a castle on a beach in Israel my two sons were surrounded by a group of chanting, mocking children who threw sand at Zenzo while ignoring his brother. The adults on the packed beach looked on, until the boys’ father and I waded in, demanding from children and adults alike whether this discrimination was what their ancestors had meant to happen in the Promised Land.

My bewildered son asked me why: why him, why not his brother? It was an answer I found hard to give. As it was hard to answer when a man spat on Zenzo’s head as he walked down the street. Holding his hand tightly and trying to wipe his hair, I wanted to cry at those uncomprehending brown eyes again asking me what had he done. Nothing, I told him, nothing: the man must have meant to spit on the street and missed.

Racism isn’t all one way. “You have taken him away from us,” one man told Zenzo’s father, while strangers have felt free to come up to me in the street and tell me my son should have been left in his own culture. I don’t think a refuge (orphanage) is the right culture for any child. More kindly, I am lectured on failing to keep his hair in check and for not putting enough Vaseline on his skin (tasks Zenzo views as akin to torture).

During the adoption I promised to ensure Zenzo was exposed to his culture—but what is his culture? His mother was an illegal Zimbabwean immigrant, his father from KwaZulu-Natal.

I tried giving him Zulu lessons, I asked his au pairs to talk to him in Zulu: no interest from Zenzo although his brother was keen. When people greet him in the street they think he is rude because he ignores them. So for now we have given him access to another African culture. As a fluent French-speaker he mixes happily at school with kids from across Francophone Africa. One day, he tells me, he’ll learn Zulu, but not yet.

Even without racism misunderstandings happen. Zenzo got lost in a shopping mall. While security guards were calming me down in one shop, others were trying to get sense from a hysterical and sobbing child in another. It was five minutes before I remembered to mention the crucial point that led to our reunion: “He’s black.”

In a rugby match a few months ago Zenzo lay motionless on the grass after a particularly enthusiastic tackle, while his father and I leaned over him demanding to know how many fingers I was holding up. I became aware of the coach from the Soweto rugby club urging that we call his parents. “We are his parents,” we kept saying, but it became a surreal repetitive refrain that continued until Zenzo had the usual sportsman’s miraculous recovery when the stretcher arrived. To be fair the coach sought us out and apologised.

At the age of nine Zenzo has become used to doubters. At school when kids refuse to believe I am his mother or his siblings are really his siblings, he just rolls his eyes to heaven at their ignorance.

Gone are the days when he wanted to scrub off the black skin so he could look like his brother and asked to bleach his hair to match his father’s blond (thinning) locks. Zenzo now views being black as unimportant, especially compared to rugby. It allows him to gloat at the amount of sunblock forced on his pale siblings.

But he has very firm views on who is black and who is not. His godfather—a Brit of Jamaican descent—qualifies and is his hero. Others do not.

Zenzo was very excited when I told him that, for the first time, a black man was about to win the Formula 1 racing championship. Until I showed him a picture of Lewis Hamilton. “He’s not black,” he sneered. “He’s just Nico-coloured,” in reference to a coffee-coloured Latin American friend.

Nor does Zenzo believe that Barack Obama is really going to be the first black president of the United States. It’s nothing to do with whether Obama really fulfils the “natural-born” American criterion necessary to become president: he’s just too pale to pass the “black test” in my son’s eyes.

“Why is Obama black when he’s half white?” Zenzo asked on the way to school the day after the US elections. “Why isn’t he white even though he’s half black?”

I don’t know, Zenzo.

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