Nabeelah (22) sits in a hotel courtyard. With her bronzed skin, almond-shaped eyes and crop of curls, Nabeelah is beautiful. Her looks can be attributed to her mixed Indian and Zulu heritage. Nabeelah is confident too. Sheâ€™s researching child marriages and female genital mutilation at an NGO aiming to foster Africa-wide solidarity and unity. From the outside, she seems to have everything together. You wouldnâ€™t think that she had been victim to bullying and self-loathing because of the colour of her skin. She told The Daily Vox her story.
I was born and raised in a small town in KwaZulu-Natal. It was welcoming, there wasnâ€™t a sense of superiority. It was nothing like Johannesburg. I moved here when I was 10. I started Grade 4 in a Muslim Indian school in Lenasia. I felt a shift from the moment I walked into the school. I remember being confused at how people were looking at me. On my first day I didnâ€™t straighten my hair, and I have really curly hair. I asked my mother, why are they looking at us? She told me not to worry about it. They took us to my classroom and when I walked in, everyone kept quiet. I remember how uncomfortable I was. Nobody had ever looked at me like that before, as if I was someone to be suspicious of.
I tried to be invisible. But I stood out. They were all fair, with pin-straight hair, nice-coloured eyes and pink pouty lips. Iâ€™m nothing like that. I didnâ€™t know what to make of how I was being treated. I didnâ€™t know it was because of the colour of my skin, I just thought I was weird. I was also loud and opinionated and that fuelled the fire.
Grade 5 was the worst. I started struggling at school and I didnâ€™t know how to deal with it. The teacher would pick on me for answers and the kids would be say, â€œshe doesnâ€™t know the answers, her kind of people donâ€™t know anythingâ€. I never understood that either, but it got to me.
There was a free period once and that day I had a scarf on. A boy came to me and said, â€œthis doesnâ€™t hide the fact that youâ€™re a witch,â€ and he ripped my scarf off. Usually, I laughed off the bullying but that day it was too much. I just cried. Everyone laughed. That day, I stood in front of the mirror for a long time looking at myself. I asked God to fix me. It didnâ€™t get better.
I went through stages where my skin used to burn, it was like I needed to get out of myself. I felt suffocated in myself. I developed my anxiety disorder. I didnâ€™t realise what it was at the time, I thought everyone struggled to breathe at some point in the day. As I got older, the taunting got more frequent. I decided God is punishing me. I was angry that He made me this way. I used to get physically sick from myself. If I looked at myself in the mirror I would throw up. I hated myself.
I donâ€™t think anyone suspected what I was going through. I acted normal around my classmates and family because I felt guilty, like what I was going through was my fault. I used to compare myself to my sister. We look alike but she has a lighter complexion. Sheâ€™s also really smart. She always fit in. I used to ask why she fit in and I didnâ€™t.
Varsity helped me. There were so many different people from different backgrounds. I had a lot of black friends. They would always say, â€œNabeelah why are you so self conscious, youâ€™re so beautiful and energetic and positiveâ€. I told them how I felt about my hair and my skin. I straightened my hair every single day at that point, I even have scars from straightening it. They said, â€œembrace who you are because youâ€™re beautiful and God made you this wayâ€. One day, they made me come to varsity with my hair curly, but I couldnâ€™t do it. I ended up having a panic attack. My curly hair was painful for me. I had to leave campus to straighten my hair.
A couple of years ago, I rediscovered my faith and that helped me accept myself. God clearly thought me being this way is beautiful. If He didnâ€™t, He wouldnâ€™t have made me this way. Today I can go out with my hair curly, but that insecurity will always live inside me. Are dark-skinned people supposed to accept that other people think theyâ€™re ugly? When people say youâ€™re beautiful for a dark-skinned person, how is that supposed to be a compliment?
But Iâ€™m not the type to hold grudges. Kids can be mean but with Indian kids the problems are generational. If youâ€™re teaching your kids to treat someone with less respect because they donâ€™t look like you or have the same amount of money as you, thatâ€™s a problem. It creates an endless cycle of viciousness.
We need to be kind. People underestimate the power of kindness and the power of their words.
If someone is going through this, I would advise them to talk to someone theyâ€™re comfortable with. Keeping that toxicness in your soul is a wound. If left untreated, it will fester. Have conversations with yourself too. Separate what people say to you from you who are. Donâ€™t allow them to define you.