5 Realities Of Being A Mixed-Race Child When That's Illegal
Until the end of Apartheid in the '90s, white-black marriages were illegal in South Africa. And the children of those marriages were super illegal. In Namibia, we met up with Paul Schulz, a half-white, half-black man who grew up during the '80s and early '90s (aka the "We can arrest your parents for being in love" times). We asked him what it was like being a living, breathing felony offense. He told us ...
We Had To Pretend My Dad Was An Anonymous Rapist
My father was white, of German ancestry. My mom was black, from the Xhosa ethnic group. They met in 1979 and bonded over their shared hatred of apartheid. They started a relationship and eventually decided to marry. Since trying to hold the ceremony in South Africa would have resulted in jail time and probable murder, they opted to fly to the Netherlands separately for the wedding.
Murder does tend to put a damper on the big day.
The reverend was initially reluctant because they weren't citizens, but once they mentioned the situation in South Africa, he was more than happy to do it -- that's just how men of the cloth give the finger to The Man. They got back, and later that year, I was born. They couldn't get a visa anywhere, so we stayed in South Africa, where my very existence was illegal.
Trevor Noah refers to that as "being born a crime." I like to think of it as "walking probable cause." Being spotted by a cop with either of my parents had the potential to lead to jail. My parents only announced their marriage to a few close friends. When my mom gave birth at the hospital, she had to tell them that she didn't know who the father was. On paper, an "unknown white rapist" was my dad. Because, legally, rape was a better reason for my existence than "loving interracial marriage."
I know my father was hurt, but he also knew it was for the best. The "nice" thing about having to use rape as an excuse for my existence was that it was so commonplace that not many people would question it.
Yeah, you see why "nice" is in intensely sarcastic quotation marks.
I spent time with my father, but almost never in public. It would be at his apartment, or with my mom at a house in the country on holiday. Once in a while, when I was really young, I would see or pass my dad while out and about. Being three, I wanted to scream out "Daddy!" when I saw him at a red light in his car or something. But my mother would squeeze my hand and say "Don't say anything."
The Lies Didn't Always Work
Not everyone bought the rape pretense. Most people accepted it, but those who didn't threw tantrums. Anytime I went out in public with my mom, we had to brace for a potential shitstorm of racism. One white man followed us around when my mom took me shoe shopping. Every time she pulled out some black shoes, he said, "Wouldn't gray be better because he's mixed?" or "That's too black. Why not those brown ones to match his skin?" and other bizarrely shoe-themed racial jabs. Eventually my mother had enough and asked for a manager. The cashier pointed to the amateur comedian footwear racist. He was the manager.
"I'm getting paid while doing this!"
The cops were the worst. They had to question us, because a black mom with a brown son was suspicious. Many believed the rape story, but my mom and I spent a significant chunk of time in police stations over the years while they checked. Her records stated that she'd been raped, of course, and my parents taught me a few key phrases to allay suspicion ("I don't know my daddy. You have to ask mommy about him.")
If you were mixed-race, the police gave you the pencil test. If a pencil could get through your hair without getting caught, you were white. Otherwise, you were mixed. When I was younger, I thought the test was funny -- some cop sticking a metal pointer in my hair. Then when I got older, I realized how cartoonishly evil the whole thing was.
Everything In Life Is 100 Percent Harder When Your Skin Is Illegal
Searching for a new apartment sucks at the best of times, but having a mixed-race child is like showing up at the door with a pet tiger. I remember one time my mother and I went to check out an open apartment, the landlord saw me and immediately screamed, "Get that out of here!"
While others didn't even bother to yell.
I tended to get lost as a child. Invariably, some employee would find me and the store would do a PA call. But since my race was indeterminate, they'd have to guess. Sometimes I was Malay, sometimes black. Since our races weren't a perfect match, my mother would have to bring official papers documenting my parentage. She had to keep these on her at all times. If she forgot them, and the people felt like being dicks about it, the whole situation might take hours to clear up.
My father had it worse. As far as the government was concerned, he couldn't be my father, so whenever we spent time together out of his apartment, he had to be on the lookout for police. The two of us going on a walk in the park was, for him, as risky as if I'd been an adorable sack of cocaine. If a cop questioned us, he wouldn't be able to admit he was my father, and thus he'd wind up in jail for abducting me. Every father/son moment we had involved a game of "Let's avoid the police!"
I Wasn't Accepted By Either Race
Since I had a black mother and, on paper, no father, the authorities just listed me as "black." Unfortunately, the Xhosa people I lived around didn't put a lot of value on what the police paperwork said. To them, I was white. And they made sure I was unwelcome. One time in school, we had to give a presentation about our heritage. All the kids had cool stories about their tribes and people. When I told my teacher that I wanted to be part of the Xhosa group, he told me that it would be unique to tell people about white culture. Most of my knowledge of white culture involved Magnum P.I., so I gave a textbook speech on Afrikaners and the importance of glorious mustaches and garish shirts. To zero applause.
Racism is such bullshit that it somehow tried to make this uncool. Fuck that.
Obviously, white people weren't happy with me, either. After Apartheid ended and my very existence stopped being illegal, my parents finally made their union official. I started going to a majority-white private school at that point, where I was insulted on an almost hourly basis. But that was actually a step up for me. At the black private school, I was seen as being on the white side -- aka the oppressors. But some of the kids at the white school thought I was cool, because this was the early '90s and rap was starting to get huge. Fresh Prince was on TV, and I benefited greatly from Will Smith's playground combat ineptitude. In fact, when I was mocked at my new school, some kids defended me because of my "hip" skin color. Yes, I was a literal token. But you know what? Acceptance based on your nonexistent rap skills is better than no acceptance at all.
Acceptance Is So Shocking That You May Never Get Used To It
In 1995, Namibia gave visas to my whole family. Since the country used to be under South African control, I thought it was going to be more of the same, but I was shocked to see how cool everyone was with me. Unlike in South Africa, generations of Namibians, Germans, and others groups were on friendly terms almost overnight after their own version of apartheid fell, so they enjoyed the benefits of those kinky mixed-race relations. For the first time, my skin was no big deal.
I also traveled to the UK and the US a few years later, and again, no one gave me a second thought. I was so used to feeling like my skin was a crime that hearing that it didn't really matter came as a shock. At one party in Philadelphia, someone called my parent's relationship "amazing." My mother was as shocked as I was. "But I married a white man! We have a son. That's not unusual?" The person said, "Here? Maybe a little, but most people are fine with that." The people in Britain were the same way. It was like we'd landed on another planet.
Like, I bet no one has even considered jabbing a pencil into that kid's hair.
Today, even in South Africa, it's totally fine to admit being mixed-race. But I still hesitate before admitting it. If I'd said that out loud as a kid, my parents would have gone to prison. You don't unlearn that kind of defensive behavior. Today, 85 percent of Millennial post-apartheid South Africans are fine with interracial marriage, compared to 86 percent of all Americans. Modern mixed-race kids can take pride in their creamy skin and go on walks with their fathers without feeling like crack dealers. That's a beautiful thing.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy and Personal Experience Team Member at Cracked, and was honored to talk with Paul. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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