Updated: Jun 12
I lived in Sri Lanka from the age of five, up until I was sixteen. My key school years were spent in the Sri Lankan system. It was an experience. A good one, Sri Lanka is one of those places where children don’t grow up too fast, we stay innocent for the right amount of time. I will always be grateful for that. It was also a bad one, and it’s that experience I would like to share with you. It’s an important topic of conversation.
I was the only Black child in my school for the majority of my time there and I definitely felt it. There was one other girl who joined a bit later on and left before me. I didn’t know her at all but I found having her there comforting. I didn’t feel as alone. Looking back I don’t think I fully understood my feelings or knew how to articulate them but something always felt off.
I had a great group of girlfriends. I love them dearly. We would spend the majority of our time, trading pens, gossiping in free periods and thinking of the best ways to cheat in tests (hiding maths equations in the fold of our skirts was effective.) As much as I felt a part of that group, I felt on the edge of it. I was always looking in. Looking in at these girls who were smaller than me, had straighter hair than me, and completely different life experiences to me. I wanted to look just like them. I wanted to be just like them. “Normal”.
I wasn’t necessarily darker in complexion than my peers, but I definitely looked different. I was bigger made, had different features and a mop of curly (frizzy) hair that I didn’t know how to manage. Some of the boys in my year (boys I considered to be my friends, I still do) would line up in the corridors and shout “king kong” at me. I remember feeling embarrassed and confused. I remember thinking why “king kong?” I was too young and uninformed to make the connection. So were they. I don’t think they fully understood the long lasting impact their words had. The words king kong have triggered me for years. Even now, they fill me with a sense of dread and humiliation. To me it will always be more than just a film.
The most upsetting instance I can remember is being kicked on the school basketball court by one of my friends’ brothers and being called a “Jamaican Dog”. I am writing this post now and my initial instinct is to defend his behaviour, to say that he was joking. That wouldn’t be true. He was being cruel. I will never forgive him. I did nothing. This was someone I interacted with regularly and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was scared.
My siblings are ten years younger than me and still go to school in Sri Lanka. Through them I get an insight into what things are like in schools there now. I know that there are children in schools that make fun of their friends with a darker complexion. I know that there are children in schools that throw the “n word” around with no real understanding of what it means or how it may make somebody else feel. They think it’s “banter”. They think it’s cool.
A few months ago I was back in Sri Lanka visiting family and was listening to one of my sisters’ friends describe another child. She meant no harm but when describing him she mentioned the fact that he was dark skinned and proceeded to say “no offence”. I was shocked. I asked her, “why is being dark offensive”? She had no idea why she felt that way and quickly corrected herself.
I had a conversation with my brother not long ago, discussing why some of his peers felt the need to use the “n word”. He mentioned a couple of his Sri Lankan, darker skinned friends and said “they are Black so they can say it, right?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; he meant black in terms of their complexion and not their race. He had no idea. Sri Lanka is a very small country that is set in it’s ways. The boys I am referring to come from a place of relative affluence, which affords them the privilege of living in a small island bubble. They are not confronted with the realities of what it truly means to exist as a black person in this world. They are coming from a place of absolute ignorance. In this particular instance there is a very strong element of “boys will be boys” surrounding the matter, which is another issue altogether.
Sri Lanka is still a country that sells skin whitening creams called “Fair & Lovely”. A country where adults tell their children to not play out in the sun in fear that they will get darker. The issue is bigger than the children in these schools. They are products of their environment. What do we expect?
I am sad and angry. I am sad, because I know that these children don’t mean any real harm but are still being harmful. I am angry, for myself. For the little girl in that world who had no real understanding of or control over what was happening. My heart breaks for her.
I am writing this post with the new Sri Lankan school generation in mind. It is important for you to know that your words have meaning. Just because something does not affect you directly does not mean it is acceptable. Be mindful, the comments/jokes you make impact other people and leave scars that may never heal. You are better than that. You are smarter than that.