This essay came third in the 2020 Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Essay Writing Competition Against Racism
Close your eyes and picture this, you’re running an everyday errand. This errand can be whatever you wish, collecting mail, buying groceries, paying bills etc. The one minute you’re paying for the bread your wife asked you to buy, and the next you’re pinned to the ground. You’re pinned on cold, dirt-covered cement. You’re pinned uncomfortably near a car. You’re not only pinned near the car, you’re pinned directly next to that godawful exhaust pipe that you were told to fix but simply could not afford to. That exhaust pipe that begins to spew its fumes at your squashed face, leaving you near breathless. You’re being pinned against the ground and held down by a pale man in blue, whose knee is now pressed against your windpipe. You’re struggling to breathe and because of your lack of breath, your cries and innocent pleas begin to falter. You’re surrounded by men in blue and unrecognisable bystanders with cameras, all of whom are forced to listen to you cry for the woman who birthed you. You beg for mercy, to be free, and all you get in return is a harder press of the knee. You scream and struggle and beg until you feel your lungs give out with one final cry of “I can’t breathe”.
Racism, as defined by the dictionary and countless websites, is the absurd idea that superiority is measured by the amount of melanin present in one’s skin.
And what is melanin? This is the pigment found in your skin that gives the skin it’s varying colours. The amount of melanin is reliant on the amount of sunlight or Vitamin D the body is exposed to, and this depends on where you reside. For example, if you were to live near the equator, you would receive more sunlight and thus the amount of pigment produced is increased. And that’s it, completely broken down by science and clearly showing no relevance to human intelligence or personality or any other aspects other than the amount of pigment you have.
And yet, in a world such as ours, this particular biological fact is honed in on and used to express superiority. This feeling of superiority and this hatred and jealousy fueled by melanin, has spread as a virus. And just like many viruses we have come to know, it has a past and will likely be around for an uncertain and yet prolonged period of time.
It is a virus that we are all constantly exposed to and yet speak so little of. This virus that never infects infants, but is exposed to and infects toddlers and other children of younger ages. As the host grows, so too does the virus and its intoxicating and destructive ideologies. This virus then carries on through pre-school, primary school, high school and all through adult life and it’s host feels the need to discriminate against those with a differing amount of melanin. It infects the educational, medical and justice systems and the victims grow in number. In more severe cases, this virus affects the victim to the point of immobility. The victim is then unable to walk or perform normal tasks without fearing death. It suffocates the victim, and with their remaining time, they teach the next generation how to survive longer than they did, in hope that their children will never have to cry out the words, “I can’t breathe.”
It is one that has been passed along for ages and between generations. And now? Well now, generations later, we’re all under lockdown and craving the outside world. In this 21st century we’re all laying around inside our homes and at the same time fighting a large pandemic. And yet when the virus has gone and our quarantine has ended, we’re still left with a raging pandemic that’s spanned for centuries. Dating back to as far as the early 1000s when people began to care about the amount of pigment present in skin. In the 1800s, when people of colour were bought and auctioned off as unpaid and overworked slaves, the virus spread and made more and more melanin-lacking individuals believe that they are superior. It made them believe that it is their right to purchase and treat people of colour as lesser human beings. Slave women with spectacular coils, found themselves searching for and producing hair products from scratch, hiding much needed grains between plaits and plotting escape routes in their braids. And then shone a ray of hope and there were those who took a stand against the virus. Those who showed the first signs of a vaccine shining brightly in their hearts as some escaped slavery and led others on the underground railroad to freedom. Then on to the 1900s where the vaccine shone in the hearts of our now historical and awe-inspiring black role models.
The century where apartheid, the manifesting of the virus in the form of absurd government rules, reigned throughout our mother country and spread across the globe. The century where Steve Biko was beaten to death by officers for heading the Black Consciousness Movement and where Tata Madiba was imprisoned for 27 years for being one of the world’s greatest activists. The century where Marsha P Johnson fought at the Stonewall Riots as a black transvestite. The century where the virus spread so abundantly that it tore apart families, homes, traditions, religions, a country and more and redefined what it meant to be a person of colour.
But it is also the century where we see the vaccine shine through in the form of the first black South African president. The vaccine shone through in the form of Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It shone through in the form of Ms Maya Angelou’s countless empowering poems embodying the vision of a modern black woman. Shining through in every Michelle Obama speech and every rhythmical tune flying out from the mouths of black singers, rappers, poets. In every chant and every cry of “No Justice, No Peace” a ray of hope of a better, less infected future shines.
It’s crazy how that a century or two later we fight the same battle they have died fighting. Fighting for justice and seeking vengeance for those people of colour who have been wronged. Policemen barging through the doors of women laying defenseless in their homes. Officers tackling civilians of colour to the ground claiming defense against a hairbrush instead of a firearm. Screaming out the names of the deceased and injured with voices hoarse from countless repetitive battles. Movements, rallies, campaigns and protests in hope of finding a cure and bringing the virus to its knees. And yes, we may not succeed in this century, but just like our ancestors we take one step closer to a free world. A world free of discrimination and a world of humans. Human beings acting humane towards others and realising that in the end, we are all one species. We are all humans and although the world seems a lot less humane right now, the fights are bringing us one step closer. Taking that step to tearing down the ideologies of racism, the greatest virus of our time.
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Essay Writing Competition Against Racism attracted the attention of over 400 young people from across the country who shared their thoughts and views on the topic of racism. The overwhelming response from young people once again shows us that people are speaking about and even experiencing racism