Educating society on racism is tiring - actress Refilwe Modiselle
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Pretoria - A conversation that African American parents have with their kids, to keep them safe during encounters with the police in the United States, is something that all black mothers know in their hearts.
If you encounter the police, you as a black young boy, no matter what you do, just come home alive. No resistance. Asians walking down 5th avenue in New York are also told to go back to China.
Yes, in 2021.
Closer to home on the African continent people with albinism are persecuted, killed and mutilated every year, fueled by myths and tribal beliefs that perpetuate these crimes.
A wave of killings and attacks targeting people with albinism is driven by systemic failures in our criminal justice system which leave members of this vulnerable group at the mercy of felonious gangs and some (not all) witchdoctors who believe that there is magic in the bones of people with albinism.
So what are the conversations parents of children with albinism should have with their kids?
Refilwe Modiselle, Africa’s first successful model, and award winning actress, born with albinism, gives the following advice: “Instill a sense of love before having those conversations. Let them identify with themselves wholly, not boxed in a space because society says so. Develop their identity from love and then articulate the harsh realities. That’s how they grow backbone.”
But Modiselle also points out that she understands pain. As a person living with albinism, to continually have to educate society on racism is tiring.
“I want to live in a world where I don’t have to explain myself. It’s not mandatory. We live in a society that validates race. Boxes you where you belong. It’s not fair”, she says still with a memorising smile.
She goes on to say that it’s not just an “albinism thing”. It’s always having to explain yourself in this country because of the way you look.
She leans forward and looks me square in the eyes when she says, “Look at me. I am the perfect lesson for South Africans. A born in Soweto black woman with a white skin. What does that tell you? Respect me for my humanness. I should not have to explain that. It’s so unnecessary. So uncalled for…so tiring.”
She says that the hurt as a child came from questions behind her back. People asking mom if she had an affair with a white man to have a light-skinned daughter.
“I felt like a reminder of oppression for black people. It’s a silent painful thing. You don’t want to look like the history of what has happened to your own culture or your own people”.
Modiselle says that she feels the things people say to her. She tries not to take the hurt in. She does not need validation from outside. The hurt did not make her question her identity.
“It’s in my DNA”, she says. “My maker molded me in this way to fulfil a purpose. To be a voice. A changemaker. My strength comes from my emotional intelligence. Awareness.” She emphasises that she is grateful for the “way” she was born.
“That alone has given me the strength to be the person I am and who I am becoming”.
Modiselle, in a remarkable performance in the movie White Gold, portrays a character called Mansa, whose hand is chopped off by a witchdoctor to use for throwing bones.
It premiered in 2020 at The Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where it won the Best Narrative short prize, and has won numerous prestigious awards.
She did not take on the role because she lives with albinism. She took it to prove herself as an actress. An extremely difficult role. Because Mansa is not Refilwe. Their worlds are very different.
Refilwe is an extraordinary public figure who strives to live her best life. Mansa is a teacher in a village who has her livelihood and pride taken with an internal struggle between revenge and forgiveness.
A struggle that many South Africans, of all races, still live with. A deep seeded psychological trauma around this subject of past hurt and future existence. Mentally draining. Emotionally taxing and hurtful memories of her own life experiences surrounding racism that broke her inner child into pieces - the child who had to grow up fast at the age of 11 when her father tragically died.
Psychologically in moments of intense emotion, it is not uncommon to look for ways to regain control over your situation.
This is the pain that she brought to the forefront when she got into character to play Mansa.
In countries like Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, children with albinism are either killed or hunted for their body parts to be used in rituals by witchdoctors.
On January 10 2017, 19-year-old Madalitso Pensulo was killed at his friend’s house in Mlonda village in Thyolo District.
A passer-by heard him scream, but he died before the police arrived at the scene. The latest abduction took place when a nine-year-old boy with albinism, Mayeso Isaac, was taken by a gang of 10 men.
It goes without saying that no-one should be fearful of their lives because of the colour of their skin and no South African has the right to make any other citizen feel unwelcome in their own country.
However, this is very much a reality for people living with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa. Having your body parts violently removed or being murdered because you are different is a heartbreaking issue.
Modisele’s message to traditional healers (good and bad) is to be mindful.
“I don’t think anybody’s life should be placed in danger because of a misconception. It’s completely narrow-minded”, she says.
“This goes beyond albinism. It’s about humanity. There is nobody more superior to anybody. This should not exist. We should channel new messaging for the next generations to come.
In Tanzania Hundreds of unlicensed witchdoctors were arrested and held to account in a crackdown on the murder of persons with albinism, and in 2016 witchdoctors were banned.
It is becoming clear that the Tanzanian government has taken stringent measures to protect persons with albinism and it has been a factor in reducing the incidence of killings.
Refilwe Modiselle was not always Refilwe Modiselle. She remembers her name in school, Bella, because going to a model-C school, African children were addressed by their “so-called” English names.
She was Bella from primary to high school until she became fed-up. She wanted to reclaim her African heritage. Her identity.
Refilwe, meaning “we have been given”. She smiles when she explains that Bella means beautiful in Italian, “but”, she says, “I did not want people to mistake my identity. Refilwe. I’m black”. Not a black person living in a white person’s skin.
* Henry Bantjez (M.Psych) is a Behavioural Therapy Practitioner and Life Coach.