Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
I’m Beige; You’re Brown


I met Wendy the morning we arrived in South Africa. She breezed through the door of our empty home with local grapes, mini-pizzas, and a bouquet of flowers. At the time, she managed my husband's office, but Wendy has since become a family friend. She has babysat our kids, brought chocolate at Easter, and involved me in the Christmas parties she plans for a nearby orphanage. Wendy has also told me stories of her youth and early motherhood in apartheid South Africa -- stories that make me question how I teach my children about race and equality.

Like citizens of most countries, Wendy received an identity number at birth. Her ID, however, established not only citizenship, but race. Apartheid -- the word derives from the Afrikaans apart -- rested on the principle that races must be physically separated. Classification of people by their race was therefore institutionalized.

According to her birth ID, Wendy is Coloured. This term (always capitalized under apartheid) included people of mixed ancestry, usually a combination of African, Indian, Southeast Asian, and European. While subjected to fewer restrictions than Blacks, Coloureds could not freely choose a job, a beach, a spouse, a public washroom or a place of residence.

Wendy says that her parents acquiesced to their status as a Coloured family, probably out of fear. Wendy, however, was forced to question her race at an early age. Her skin, she tells me, is lighter than that of her siblings, a fact of biology made more complex by society. She recalls standing outside a whites-only swimming pool at age five. Her older sister and aunt stood with her, all of them eager to plunge into the cool water. But the gate attendant performed his own racial assessment and permitted only Wendy and her aunt to enter. What was a five-year-old to do? Wendy swam; her sister did not.

Later, as a teenager, Wendy often rode the double-decker bus into town. Apartheid allowed only whites to sit on the lower level. Again, she encountered arbitrary categorization based on skin color.

"Sometimes I sat upstairs, and they sent me down. Sometimes I sat downstairs and they sent me back up. Down, up, down, up. I never knew where I should be."

Wendy laughs when she tells this story, but is vehement when speaking of its effect.

"The humiliation stays with you," she says. "Your whole life, you don't forget."

In the mid-1970s, Wendy married, became a mother of two, and settled in an area of Cape Town designated for Coloureds. Her husband was a jeweler, a profession difficult to maintain as a Coloured man, but which brought in sufficient income that Wendy could send her children to a private school -- a school filled mostly with white students -- with a standard of education far higher than that of government-run Coloured schools.

Wendy's children grew up in a world where race and racism governed daily life. How does a mother describe this to a child? When are kids ready to hear that so much hinges on the color of skin?

"I didn't talk about it when they were young," Wendy says. "I waited until they brought the difficult questions home, until they asked, 'Are we Coloured?' and could understand the meanings of the word."

Her response surprised me. I'd guessed that raising kids under apartheid would have compelled Wendy to discuss race even while her kids were small. But her answer reassured me too. Explaining race to young children is tough. It's so tough, in fact, that most parents - especially white parents - don't do it. According to research on US families compiled in the 2009 book Nutureshock, only one quarter of white parents ever broach the topic with their kids. Parents of colour, while also reluctant, are three times more likely to discuss race.

According to Nutureshock, failure to talk about race with kids -- as young as age three -- leaves children to create default preferences. That is, children will group people of similar appearance into some sort of category, often like-me and not-like-me. Crucially, even preschoolers will begin to favor people similar to themselves unless they are taught differently. Parents must therefore discuss race early and openly.

But how do I, a white mother, explain to my kindergartners why our neighbors in giant, walled homes are also white, yet the workers who tend the lawns are black? How do I tell them that Wendy's skin color shaped her entire life? How do I show them that these questions have everything -- and nothing -- to do with race?

My five-year-old Alex is a prolific drawer, and always picks the pencil for skin deliberately. People with light complexions, including himself, are "beige." Those with olive or darker skin, including Alex's twin Jon and our Xhosa housekeeper Lizzie, are colored a shade of brown. Alex is aware of differences in skin just as he's aware of differences in hair (a few red bristles for my husband; one unflattering wave for me), and he takes pride in drawing such details accurately.

This recognition -- and I hope, appreciation -- of physical similarities and differences might be a good place to start a discussion of race. Or is it a good place to stop? Can we talk meaningfully about difference -- even differences among typical racial markers like skin color -- without invoking race?

Late one Saturday afternoon, I wielded Alex through the grocery store. He stood in the cart as we joined the long line at the cash. "Mommy," he said, taking in the crowd, "why do all the people at the Pick 'n' Pay have brown skin?"

I explained to Alex that most people in South Africa have darker skin than his own, some a bit darker, some a lot darker. In fact, many of the customers he described as "brown," might describe themselves -- or be described by others -- as coloured. The term is still used to classify race in South Africa (although not on IDs). According to census, coloureds form the largest racial group in the Western Cape province where we live, but it is far from homogeneous. A coloured person might also be Muslim, Christian, Cape Malay, Griqua, Cape Coloured, Afrikaans-speaking, English-speaking and so on. Some people reject any unifying label; others embrace it.

Race was imposed upon Wendy during apartheid, but she now defines herself as coloured, and identifies with a community of coloured people in Cape Town. This is her choice; I know it because she's told me. But is "coloured" a helpful way to talk with Alex about his observations in the grocery store? According to Alex, his twin -- "like-me" for so many reasons -- has brown skin too. Rather than a category of people, might Alex see that each Pick 'n' Pay customer is also both like him and not like him?

It's important to learn about race and racism. Alex knows why Nelson Mandela went to prison, even though he's not "the bad guy." He knows that "sharing" is still a problem today. Perhaps this will help me explain our neighborhood and its gardeners. But I hesitate to presume racial categories with children already keen to slot and label. I'd rather Alex see the person, as well as the color. Wendy -- the friend, the babysitter, the mother who raised her children in apartheid South Africa, the woman who makes Christmas sparkle for hundreds of orphans each year, the beaming grandmother -- that person is unique. And that's who I'd like my children to see.

Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.

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A day without learning is a day lost. Again today I have learned something significant. Thank you.
What a powerful message! A difficult subject that you managed to present extraordinarily well! The whole world needs to read this! Very well done indeed!
Should be (and should have been )required reading the world over. Brilliant writing Katherine.
Great writing as always Katherine, I can imagine it wasn't easy to tackle this enormous topic in the space allowed! A comment from a South African mum: I've admittedly not read Nurtureshock, and while I understand the gist of your point about addressing race issues with children, I think it can be dangerous to apply US studies to a South African context. All countries have race issues, all work differently. My (young) kids grow up with neighbours, friends, fellow scholars, even family, of mixed races - I'm not going to start pointing out the differences between us until they start asking, and I don't think that's going to be disadvantageous to them as evolved human beings. But I have no doubt they will start asking at some point, and this article has helped in considering my answers. Thank you!
"But how do I, a white mother, explain to my kindergartners why our neighbors in giant, walled homes are also white, yet the workers who tend the lawns are black?" I ponder exactly this question in Thailand, where the lawn, maintenance, construction and childcare workers in our expat community are often Thai with darker skin, while the families from various countries often have lighter skin. I try to talk about people by name rather than physical features with our 3-1/2-year-old, and her drawings aren't skilled enough for me to tell how much she notices skin and hair color . . . but I can see these questions coming up. Thanks for getting me thinking about what to say!
I love your column. It is so fascinating to learn about a different culture in general...but to be provided with a glimpse of this vastly different culture as seen through the lens of so many characters who share such universal emotions (hope, happiness,fear, humiliation etc.) really provides the reader with a unique perspective. Your column makes the world seem all that much smaller and people not so different. Thanks for your column.
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