I remember waking my dad up at 4am to ask who Sash was.
I was 12 at the time and a day earlier, a schoolmate had pushed me down the stairs while calling me Sash, repeatedly. I was confused because I knew that was not my name. But I was more confused when my Dad said he also didn’t know.
That was my first experience of being teased for being dark skinned.
Although I didn’t know what the name meant I knew it was just as bad as other names I had been called before like kwerekwere and ugly. Later on in my life, having being called Sash countless times, I found out that it was a name reserved for dark-skinned people in my part of Soweto, Zola.
Growing up dark with a light skinned brother
The hardest part about realising your skin colour is not the world’s favourite is that I could not even claim my own brother.
I have an older brother who’s what you would describe as a “yellow bone”. But at school I always had to convince people that we were related. No one believed me. It was hard for them to understand how someone as light as him could be related to me. It hurt my feelings. I remember getting home, looking at my Barbie doll and wishing I had her skin colour, hair and smile. Her smile made me feel like she had a better life than I did and I wanted to be as happy as she was.
When I realised how impossible this was I started hating myself.
The older I became the more I wanted to be someone else
Throughout my school years, I always thought getting good grades would shield me from the constant teasing. It didn’t.
I also stopped speaking Zulu around the neighbourhood in the hope that speaking English would bring be closer to being white.
I became so obsessed with my skin tone that whenever I saw another dark-skinned person, I would compare whether they were darker than me or not. But none of this helped. I still remained Mbali, the kwerekwere or Sash, to people. People continued asking if I was from Zimbabwe or Malawi. Some even said I’d be beautiful if I had a lighter tone.
Everything changed when I got to high school
In high school, I started doing public speaking. Our mentors, who came in a few times a month, were always dressed so well in beads, headwraps and dreadlocks. But more importantly they encouraged me to read more, especially books by Steve Biko and Franz Fanon. I think that is when my journey towards black consciousness started.
I was more confident — being a public speaker — but I also started seeing my skin colour as something to be proud of.
I started learning about African history. I was inspired by people like Queen Yaa Asantewaa from Ghana who inspired her people to fight the British in order to release their king. But more important than the books I was reading and the public speaking was listening to a speaker, while at camp in Grade 11, speak about identity. He spoke about how we should embrace ourselves as black people and stop hating each other.
After that, I started wearing my hair naturally but also began to see my skin tone as a blessing rather than a curse.
Now I can’t relate to my younger self who wanted nothing but to be whiter. I’m black and proud.