Posted by Kay
I met aspiring 24 year-old wildlife conservationist Rutendo via her sister Tadiwa, who has both modelled and written for us at ThandieKay (see her Loving post here). As soon as she told me about her love of animals (she is currently an ‘elephant behaviourist’), I knew we had to have her write for us! Rutendo and Tadiwa were both raised in Zimbabwe.
My news feeds have been filled with articles like Amanda Stenburg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”, – a video in which the actress discusses the ‘cultural appropriation‘ of black hairstyles by high fashion. Most recently, Jada Pinkett Smith’s call to boycott the Oscars.
And even more recently, the Emmy Award-winning comedy show Black-ish, starring Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishurne, tackled the very important Black Lives Matter movement.
More importantly it highlights how even within a single family, many views pertaining to racial equality and identity exist. Whilst the older family members in the show relive very brutal and hostile encounters with the police, dating back to the unrest during the Civil Rights Movement, the younger members of the family are still innocent to the racial divide.
In Zimbabwe, children born after the Struggle for Independence are called “born-frees”. I am a Born-Free. Meaning that I am part of the first generation born after the abolition of segregation in Zimbabwe.
Let that sink in for a minute – a whole generation has not yet passed since the end of racial segregation in Southern Africa and it’s 2016.
My own family’s history is full of stories of the “struggle”: my maternal grandmother and her brothers were active freedom fighters, smuggling Intel and supplies for the cause. My paternal grandfather, a catholic priest, was assassinated in a landmine explosion for promoting peaceful protests. Leaving my widowed grandmother to not only raise my father and his siblings alone, but to also foster the children of exiled South African freedom fighters.
In a newly independent Zimbabwe, my mother engaged parliament to guard the rights of women and children. And my father found his calling improving the infrastructure and technology of underdeveloped African countries.
Knowing how deeply rooted the Freedom Fight is in my family’s history, Black-ish’s episode resonated with me deeply, because despite the war my family fought, I was never taught to hate “the White Man”, or any other race for that matter. In fact, my parents encouraged us to be global citizens.
Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to be oblivious to the issue of race, and our parents never wanted us to be naive, but they made sure we never navigated racial identity with bitterness and anger.
It was only when I moved to the United Kingdom for university that I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. It was only then that I felt ‘black’. Don’t get me wrong, the racial tensions in South Africa are still very profound, but when I came here it was the first time that the colour of my skin was a barrier. Even though British universities can be fairly diverse with students from all corners of the country and the globe, higher education does come with certain socio-economic and cultural privileges.
My vet school was situated on the university’s agricultural campus about 30 minutes outside of town in the country side, and it unfortunately was not as diverse as the city campus. Going to an international high school, being the “token black” girl did not mean very much because I was surrounded by so many other ethnicities; but when I started university, I stuck out like a sore thumb and I was not the only one conscious of it.
In first year, I remember that everyone knew who I was because I was one of two black girls in a class of 120 – fair enough. I knew this was different, however, when we were told to get into groups during our first animal handling practical. I will never forget the look in one girl’s eyes as she tried to assess if she really wanted the burden of having the black girl in her group.
And as the years passed she wouldn’t be the only person to hesitate before speaking to me as they wondered if they could relate to me and my blackness. It’s as if becoming an adult turned the switch to how people saw me.
A couple of years ago, our family went on a safari holiday in South Africa. One morning, as we enjoying our complementary teas before our game drive, a man (whose ethnicity I don’t remember) began to get frustrated because he could not find the sugar, and he proceeded to demand that my father tell him why there was no sugar on the table. My dad calmly ignored the man as he continued to vent his frustration toward my father – because of course, he thought my father worked there. This man was only silenced by his own embarrassment when he saw my father get onto the safari truck to join the rest of our family. Unfortunately, this man’s assumptions about race blinded him from realising that my father was not part of the hotel staff, nor did he even look remotely dressed like hotel staff. In the truck my father just shook his head and calmly said, “The sad thing is, even if I owned this hotel, he still would have treated me like a worker.” This broke my heart, because for once I knew what he meant.
I have an honours degree in Veterinary Medicals Sciences, a Masters in Veterinary Science and I am currently working through my PhD. Even with multiple letters after my name, the colour of my skin makes people sceptical of my capabilities. Not all people, but where it has mattered the most, often the thing that has come between me and a goal is the colour of my skin.
I remember when I got a C+ in a pre-algebra in middle school, my mother gave me the scorning of the century. She told me that as a black woman, I could not afford to fail, because there are people who will be expecting me to fail before I even open my mouth, just because of the shade of my skin.
Her words still sit with me.
Her words make me ask the same question asked in Black-ish: If I will still be profiled and treated like less than an equal, then what is the point? In the UK there is still a pay gap between black and white graduates employed after university – black graduates with the same qualifications as white graduates receive 14% less in wages. What is the point?
Does ‘Black Excellence’ exist if it will never measure up? Will I be taken seriously as a scientist or will people be more interested in touching my afro? Is there hope?
Yes, there is. Although in the history of the modern world, our progress was stunted by oppression and discrimination, we are far from disqualified.
Yes, the frustration is real (it’s 2016 for goodness sake) but our load is MUCH lighter than those before us.
Does this mean I’m anti-white? Definitely not! Celebrating and promoting your heritage should not come at the cost of others. Growing up in different countries has taught me to appreciate diversity and to embrace the uniqueness the world holds. And I am a strong believer that we should all be free to celebrate our different races and ethnicities without stereotyping or offending others.
It is easy to be bitter when we compare ourselves to other women or to other races; but I believe that true pride in your own identity happens when you can look at someone and say, “Hey, we may not look the same or act the same, and we have different achievements, BUT we are both beautiful.” And this what pushes me to strive for racial equality, this is what give me hope. I’m not hoping for a world where people “don’t see colour”, rather, I am hoping for a world where when I see the colour of your skin or you see mine, our minds do immediately run through a million reasons why we won’t relate. Instead we begin to see the beauty of each others uniqueness, which then draws us to want to know more about each other. We begin to see each other in a different, purer light where colour is radiant and heritage is illuminate; and where the spectrum is more beautiful than a single colour.
Rutendo Wazara has a degree in Veterinary Medical Sciences from the University of Nottingham, and is currently working on her PhD research on elephant social welfare with Chester Zoo and the University of Liverpool. In the future, Rutendo hopes to help spearhead wildlife conservation efforts both in captivity and in the field. She is also passionate about empowering people and hopes to give communities and countries, especially her home country of Zimbabwe, a voice on the global stage of wildlife and environmental conservation.