Tabby Kamtala, UNT
My name is Tabby. I got involved with FOCUS at Collin College as a freshman after being a part of the youth ministry at Northeast. I transferred to UNT with a group of Collin students in the first years of FOCUS there. After I graduated, I did the FOCUS internship at Richland College. I am now in Denton and at Denton North and help out as a peer team leader with FOCUS. I have been asked to share some of my experience with you guys.
My story is one of many layers. I am a black South African immigrant woman who has been raised in the states by South Africans around Latinos, black people, and white people. I grew up in lower-income areas, but my classroom experiences were in rooms full of white kids and mainly white teachers, with about 5 of us colorful people in the more diverse classes. I can remember two years where the majority of my classmates weren’t white. One was when I was in fourth grade because we moved, and they didn’t have a honors/gifted class, and the other was during my junior year in high school when I took a Regulars class. The people I bonded the most with were Latinos because they were my neighbors. Their culture reflected mine more than the kids that looked like me. In school I wasn’t black enough for the black kids, not African enough for the Africans, and obviously not white enough for the white kids. Latinos were kind of my safe place. I was almost enough around them, at least until middle school. My lack of enoughness was not always communicated blatantly. It was subtle. Often through added disclaimers “…like for a black girl” and “… but you’re African”. Insider language was used to make it clear that I was an outsider.
Although I grew up here, the South African mentality came with me. To be black in South Africa is a very confusing thing. People are very proud of their tribes and therefore proud of their blackness, but white is the standard. That being so, the lighter you are the more beautiful you are, and the better you are. I was born to a black woman and a mixed man at the end of apartheid in South Africa. For those of you who haven’t watched Disney’s “The Color of Friendship” or read Trevor Noah’s book, a brief description of apartheid is an intense Jim Crow, with a separation of tribes and a system that rates and discriminates based on your skin tone, and honestly much more, but we don’t have the time to get into that. My parents got together in that system. They were not a super common sight then.
Black people were seen as one race and the lowest on the scale. Mixed people also known as coloreds were seen as their own race and above black people. They literally had areas designated for each group. But my father, being my father, rebelled and got himself a black woman. My brother came before me, and he was very light-skinned. He was so bright that people semi-joked/accused my mom of having an affair with a white man, which would have been illegal. Then I came along with darker skin. Because of that, I can not remember a time my color didn’t matter. People unknowingly showed their preference and compared. My brother was the pretty one and I was pretty “for being dark”. My mom often had to defend my beauty, and in some sense hers, all throughout my childhood.
Living here in the states, I saw a similar mentality among friends and classmates. Along with comments on my skin tone came comments on how I spoke. Both white and black kids told me I sounded white but in different ways. White kids said things like “…but you don’t sound black” like it was a compliment, and black kids said “…you sound like a white girl” in a more accusatory tone.Then on top of all of that, I wasn’t speaking my native tongue as much at home and when I tried, I was criticized for sounding like an American. I could not win. I eventually stopped speaking Zulu altogether. To this day, I do not like my accent when I attempt it. My Africanness never went away though. I still had my name that made it very clear I was foreign. It was my descriptor, how people attempted to define me. Even though I went by Tabby the role sheet said Bathabile Kamtala. I was the African girl. Black but not the right kind of black.
My immigration status didn’t really come into play until high school. It wasn’t really something my family talked about. It was kind of treated like a secret in our home. We talked about being South African and how special that was a lot, but rarely touched on that good ol’ status question. I know my parents had good intentions of not wanting to put that on me or stress me out because it was grown-up business. But then I turned fifteen. Up until that point, I could do a lot of the same things my friends could do. My limitations were their limitations too, like getting a driver’s license, working, and thinking about college. These topics that were exciting became obvious next steps for my friends, but, for me, they were long conversations with my parents on why I couldn’t, or how it would be different for me. It was here that I felt the need to not share who I was. If I shared, I had to explain, and my explanation was never enough. I decided pretty early on that information was on a need-to-know basis. That is when I became a really great listener. People like to talk about themselves, especially teenage girls, so I would just let them. I got away with it for most of high school.
I eventually learned to stay in the background in every group. I learned how to blend in. It turned out to be pretty helpful. Because of it, I learned how to meet people where they were and communicate from their perspective. That was rarely reciprocated. My experience wasn’t common enough for people to want to understand it, and I didn’t have the patience or the language to teach it. So I learned their rules.
It is in our community, and my time in college, that I learned to speak on this and not just internalize everything. When I started coming, there weren’t as many black people, or colors represented in general, as there is now. I remember being painfully aware of it. I had been in classes with mainly white kids throughout high school, and was not nearly as fazed. I‘m not sure what change, aside from trying to stay under the radar in high school.
While in our ministry, I majored in Sociology, a degree that made me focus in on race and other inequalities, while building friendships that didn’t allow me to just be the listener anymore. I had to have some pretty hard conversations early on, and even throughout the duration of my college career, because I knew this was somewhere I wanted to be. I remember during my sophomore year of college having a hard conversation with my friends after a group Bible study because someone had previously made a weird joke that felt like a micro-aggression. It wasn’t that the joke itself was super hurtful, but I was tired of letting things just roll off my back. All throughout high school, people had made black jokes in front of me because I wasn’t really “black” or I didn’t count, and that made me so closed off toward those people. I knew that these girls loved me and weren’t trying to be hurtful, but I didn’t want this to build up and keep me from a great community. I didn’t want this place to be another place where I felt like the “ other.” That night, I was affirmed that they cared for me and acted out of ignorance.
I learned that those hard conversations are good. They stretched both me and my friends. Now, it wasn’t a one-and-done, but it taught me that I could talk about it, and that I had a safe place. I still have these conversations, and they are still hard for me, but they bring so much healing. This once was an area of my life that I used to just experience, but never express. I am better known and understood because of those conversations. Knowing that my friends want to know my “struggle” makes me want to share the many layers and burdens I carry. I had always been the friend who helped carry other people’s burdens, and now I had people who would carry mine. I can not emphasize enough how our community has impacted me in that way.
To our entire ministry, I would encourage you to be willing to have these hard conversations where you dig deeper about your experience. I really believe Jesus made us to be relational people, which means we need to learn how to relate to each other. People are not going to know your experience unless you talk about it. People won’t know that something is hurtful unless you let them know. Take responsibility for each other, and care for each other by seeking to know.
Friends who want to know more about the minority experience, remember your friends are your friends, not an encyclopedia. They will not have all the answers for all minorities, even their own. They can only tell you about their experience, and that needs to be enough. Remember to be interested in them and that their struggles aren’t their theories, but their lives. I say that as someone who has felt like someone to be investigated, and not as a person who someone is genuinely trying to know. You know how to love us; don’t overcomplicate it. If you don’t, reference Jesus.
Colorful people, I would encourage you to see the good in your moments of feeling like “the other”. My differences are what drove me to Jesus. I could not find true acceptance and validation from this world, but I I found it in Jesus. My otherness has allowed me to understand people in completely different situations. Their hurt has become my hurt, and their triumphs my triumphs. I know now that is not an easily gained skill, but it is one that can be gained. My experience has taught me to think outside of myself. That is something Jesus calls us all to do. To you, the impassioned ones, remember that although you may have been processing race and being the other for years, your friends haven’t necessarily had to. That is not a reason to be upset with them or to belittle them. That is a reason for you to share your story. If God can minister through story in Scripture, then surely He can minister through yours.