Slice of life: Skin shapes the way I am

"My parents were, therefore, from very early on in my life, very protective of me. I was the youngest." (David Harrison/M&G)

"My parents were, therefore, from very early on in my life, very protective of me. I was the youngest." (David Harrison/M&G)

Why do I write? Being born as the light-skinned girl in a dark-skinned neighbourhood gives you an interesting perspective. You start to see people’s fascination with light skin. There was almost a sycophancy.
Children want to be your friend. But I instinctively knew I couldn’t trust it.

I began to understand all kinds of assumptions people make of you. In the neighbourhood I grew up in, older kids would say: “You think you are better than us.”

My parents were, therefore, from very early on in my life, very protective of me. I was the youngest.

Also, nobody in my family looks like me. Except my father’s people, who are light-skinned. But my father is not light-skinned. My Aunty Beatty was dark, dark, dark, with an Afro, and a shock streak of grey hair. My Aunty Jerry, she was also dark. The rest of the sisters were light-skinned.

From an early age I was sent to speech and drama school and I was taught to elocute and be articulate. But I would never speak like that at home in Hanover Park because you would put yourself up for ridicule.

I didn’t run around pretending to be white. In fact, I remember at the age of nine my mother enrolled me at a visual arts school in Woodstock. I was the only black kid in the class, and there were all these kids who stared at me. And at some point, the kids must have plucked up some courage and asked: “What are you?” And to this day I don’t know how I arrived at the word coloured. Because as a nine-year-old that was something I never thought about. I don’t think I had ever heard the word before.

So a lot of these things shaped the way I perceive the world and how I respond to it. — Actor, performer and poet Khadija Tracey Heeger, as told to Lester Kiewit.

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