“I felt suffocated in myself” – growing up dark in a South African Indian community

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. She’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 wouldn’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 wasn’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 didn’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. I’m nothing like that. I didn’t know what to make of how I was being treated. I didn’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 didn’t know how to deal with it. The teacher would pick on me for answers and the kids would be say, “she doesn’t know the answers, her kind of people don’t know anything”. 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, “this doesn’t hide the fact that you’re a witch,” 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 didn’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 didn’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 don’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. She’s also really smart. She always fit in. I used to ask why she fit in and I didn’t.

Varsity helped me. There were so many different people from different backgrounds. I had a lot of black friends. They would always say, “Nabeelah why are you so self conscious, you’re so beautiful and energetic and positive”. 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, “embrace who you are because you’re beautiful and God made you this way”. One day, they made me come to varsity with my hair curly, but I couldn’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 didn’t, He wouldn’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 they’re ugly? When people say you’re beautiful for a dark-skinned person, how is that supposed to be a compliment?

But I’m not the type to hold grudges. Kids can be mean but with Indian kids the problems are generational. If you’re teaching your kids to treat someone with less respect because they don’t look like you or have the same amount of money as you, that’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 they’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. Don’t allow them to define you.

Featured image by Sumaya Hendricks