This is how it starts.
My brother’s school asks me to be a guest teacher for their Day of Mauritian Literature. His lycée is part of the French system: private, proud, with only three or four such schools across the island. They are the institutions of choice for wealthy Mauritian parents and Francophone expatriates, seeking the best education the country has to offer. These students only learn about Mauritius through our country’s literature; they are taught little to no Mauritian history. I feel part of an admirable, necessary initiative.
I won’t be teaching my brother’s class, but I will be teaching students of his age; they are seventeen years old, nine years younger than I am, and almost all of them are taller than me by a head. I see the students going into the classroom. A group greet each other near the class next door. They do not say hello, good morning, how are you. Instead they say ‘Hey, my n–, my n–, my n–.’ I can’t tell whether the word ends in an –a or in an –er. In any case, the word’s an abomination in their mouths.
I can tell by their accents that they are white Mauritian, descendants of French colonisers, of which there are fewer than 10,000 living on an island of 1.2 million people. Mauritians can’t refer to them as ‘white people’ to their faces, it is taken as an insult. We must call them ‘Franco-Mauritians’, ‘Francos’ for short.
‘My n–! How are you my n–!’ My hands shake. I walk in and forget what it is that I’ve prepared to say. I open my bag and fiddle with the books on the table, start with Nathacha Appanah’s 2003 novel Blue Bay Palace. I talk about the protagonist, Maya: low-caste, she lives in the slums of Blue Bay and not in the luxe beachfront houses of Pointe d’Esny, where some of these students live and where there is very little talk of racial and class privilege. I hear some of the students cackle.
I hear ‘Hey, my n–’ over and over again in the class next door, everyone does. Their teacher must be very late. The teacher in my classroom is unconcerned; she shuffles some papers in front of her, marks them. My fingers can’t find the extracts I want to read. I tell the students how Maya is used by her lover, Dave, a Brahmin who knows he’ll never marry her but sleeps with her anyway. She finds out that Dave is married when she reads the newspaper: there’s an announcement of his wedding to another rich Indo-Mauritian heir, an august union of two Indo-Mauritian sugar barons. Maya lies comatose in her bed for a few days, rises, monstrous, to seek her vengeance. She murders Dave’s wife then plunges into the sea, lets her body be carried by the waves.
There’s some nervous chuckling at ‘Indo-Mauritian sugar baron’. The students think the term’s an oxymoron. In my experience, Mauritians tend to believe that cane fields, mountains, the private sector mostly belong to the whites. It is often stated that 80 per cent of our economic production is tied to companies built on colonial sugar wealth; an approximate percentage, since essential documents that would allow historians to trace the history of white sugar capital are either private, lost or destroyed. I wonder if the students assume Indo-Mauritians are only to be found in politics and the civil service, not sugar, not the conglomerates that emerged from sugar.
I wonder just how much they know of Mauritian history. My brother, for one, isn’t able to trace even the faintest outlines of its exoskeleton. The ancestors of most of these white students came from France, settled here, built the country on the muscle and blood of their slaves, then on the backs of indentured labour. They are known for what they stood against: the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, universal suffrage in the twentieth century and our independence in 1968. For my brother, this white history is the only one that matters. For him, the only person of interest in my mother’s family is her Franco-Mauritian great-grandfather. Once, early on, before he learned such things were never said, he approached a white boy in his class with my mother’s maiden name and said they must be cousins. The violence in my family’s home started a year or so later.
The chuckling does it. I stop what I’m doing and tell them I heard some of them using the n–word. They don’t understand what I mean, so I must pronounce it for them. I tell them I’ve never used the word. I am light-skinned with slightly wavy hair. I walk with privilege. The word does not belong to me. It belongs – if she so wishes to use it – to my mother, who is Créole and identifies as Black. It belongs to my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. It does not belong to the students in front of me.
They scrunch their eyebrows, parsing out the terms I’ve used to the ones they know. Here one is ‘Catholic’ (Creole, Black), or ‘Hindu’ (Indian), or ‘Muslim’ (Indian). ‘Chinese’ and ‘white’ stand alone. This diction is new to them, alien in a country that melds ethnicity to religion, and these children see a Creole woman with Indian features, a product of our particular history, our own one-drop strictures, dissecting herself for their sake. An education.
I tell them n– is the ultimate insult. The teacher turns to the students and asks, casually, for the name of the students who spoke the n– word. It is a banal matter for her. She only asks the question for my benefit.
There is no secret to the way a dark-skinned child is born with a white surname. When it happens in white families, they cut the offender out of the family tree. I’ve seen my mother’s. My great-grandfather’s Creole wife, his Creole children do not exist in the sepulchral diagram, a black and white tree reaching from one page to the other like an outstretched hand. His name, Gerard, is a neatly amputated phalanx.
When I am twelve, my sister and I go to a Catholic school once run by Irish nuns where our white father’s unusual surname precedes us. In the first few weeks we’re scrutinised, kept at a distance. We are asked why we aren’t enrolled in the lycée.
The girls at school think it is incredible that my mother is not white. When they want to tease me they call me milat, mulatto. They watch the boys in the school next door, assert feverous crushes for those with light skin, light eyes. They wear coloured contacts – green, because blue would be ‘too much’ – and bleach their skin. They watch the boys who go to the lycée on motorbikes with awe and giggle excitedly at a respectful distance. To speak to a white boy is not done.
We sunbathe on the concrete playground during recess, but not for too long. The girls don’t want to darken their skin. The dream, they tell me, is a white boy. A white surname. There is nothing better.
My mother instructs me early on: ‘Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a white boy here. His family will never accept you.’
I don’t understand. My father is white. My sister appears white. She has green eyes and when she was young she had blond hair. My father’s body is unlike any that I’ve ever seen. His nipples are pink. Constellations in brown and red cover his whole body. I could trace his veins with a Pentel, so easy are they to follow.
I don’t understand what my mother is trying to tell me, so I probe. She says: ‘Never marry a Mauritian.’ She says, ‘White foreigners are different.’ I can’t parse the variances between white-foreign and white-Mauritian. They all look the same to me.
In the lycée I pay attention to the way the class is arranged. There are very few students of colour, they sit next to each other or they sit alone. After my explanation that the n-word is the ultimate insult, a discussion begins and the students have many opinions. A white boy in front says ‘it’s fine to say n– as long as it’s said well, right, like playfully?’ Another girl says: ‘it’s just the way we say hello. No one told us it was wrong’. In silence I wonder if I am the first to do so.
At home, my brother calls my mother n–, kafre before he hits her. He never learned those words at home.
A girl intervenes. She is stunning, with straight hair and copper skin, sits with Franco-Mauritians at the back of the class. I’ve seen her face on my brother’s phone. He speaks of her with a certain reverence, the kind of reverence he only uses when reciting his Franco-Mauritian friends’ names and surnames. Her name is Chloe. She’s a cool girl.
Chloe says she’s French but has lived here for a long time. She stumbles with her delivery; quickly, softly, she says her parents have African ancestry. Her eyes dart around the room. She says with more confidence that she has Créole friends and white friends, that she was taught never to use ce mot in her house. She’s trying to take a stand and I appreciate it. A Franco boy speaks. He says, ‘but n– is like saying “white”, no?’ I don’t know how to respond. I pour a glass of water. The bottle shakes, my glass shakes, water spills onto my jumpsuit. I apologize and continue.
It is in Prisunic, the ‘white’ supermarket, that I learn how racism dictates the way we navigate our bodies.
There, when the whites see each other, there is an instant congregation. We walk around them. We do not say that they are in our way. We move aside when they walk in our direction. We are moved aside, through habit, in shops when a white customer walks through the door.
It is in church that I learn how racism defines the places we occupy.
The whites still favour the pews closest to the altar, even though the rule that banned people of colour from occupying those pews was abolished in the 1970s. All I know is that my grandmother once tried to secure a seat in font. Mass was packed, it must have been Christmas or Easter. Congealed bodies squashed into benches, clotted bodies standing at the back and to the sides in the summer heat. My grandmother was heavily pregnant. She made her way to the front, where there was still some space. The whites barred her entry, ordered her to stand or leave.
My mother tells me how we imbibe racism until we cannot see the world in another way.
In the late 1980s, my mother dates my father. They spend weekends in the best hotels. Saturday afternoon, and my mother has laid out towels on the sand, rubs sun cream on her body. My father has left her to fetch cocktails from the bar. A Brown security guard approaches my mother, asks if she is Mauritian. She says yes. He tells her to leave. ‘Why should I?’ she says. ‘It’s reserved for guests of the hotel.’ ‘I am a guest here.’ He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘There’s a public beach just down there.’ He sees persuasion will not work, starts to threaten her.
In late 2018, my mother decides to stock up on cushions. She visits a shop owned by a white interior decorator. The salesgirl is Creole. She tells my mother that she probably won’t be able to find what she is looking for here, the prices are quite high.
My mother is well-educated. She left school at fifteen after her O-levels, top of her class. Her family couldn’t afford to pay for her A-levels and like most Mauritian women, she had to start working quickly to contribute to the family household. One of the top jobs back then was at the local bank. She was superlatively qualified, but didn’t get it. They employed a white girl in her year, with meagre grades. ‘She’s more presentable to our clients,’ was the bank’s reasoning.
When I used to work for a communications agency I’d walk into the offices of the major sugar estate-turned-conglomerate companies of the island. The top management are mostly Franco-Mauritian. Demographics suggest that Human Resources must have gone out of its way to skew proportional ethnic representation.
At the lycée, I pick up Nathacha Appanah’s 2007 novel The Last Brother. I explain that it’s the story of a young boy, Raj, who lives in a hut in Mapou. After torrential rain sweeps away his home and kills his two brothers, his family moves across the country to live in Beau Bassin. His father finds a job at the prison, where 1,600 or so Jewish immigrants were kept in appalling conditions from 1940 to 1945. Raj’s father is an alcoholic. One night, he beats his wife and son to such a degree that Raj has to be treated in the prison hospital. Raj meets David there, and the two become inseparable.
I tell the class that Appanah made sure that the novel wouldn’t just be about abuse and violence; it would also examine the systemic oppression that generates such violence.
Some of the Franco children take out their phones and place them on the desks. They cradle their faces in their arms. They hide from me. They do not want to hear. There are two Franco girls who have not taken out their phones. They look at me and their eyes are glossy and wide, like I am going to hurt them. One of the girls looks like she could be the daughter of one of the richest men of the island, she has his face. I was there when he gave a guest lecture at a local university, a decade ago. He scanned the room, joked that he hoped no Jews were present. He said that, for him, Hitler was a model of leadership. No one in the class disagreed or complained afterwards. I wonder what she hears at home.
A Franco-Mauritian who treats Mauritians of colour with respect is not called ‘white’. Or they are ‘white, but’.
I talk to my mother about her close Franco-Mauritian friend Anne, who leads my mother’s prayer group. One day, in private, she says: ‘I want to apologize for all the hurt my ancestors did to you, and what the community still do today. I am so sorry.’ It is the first and only time my mother has heard this from the mouth of a white person. It is a miracle.
My mother says Anne is not white. ‘I mean her skin is white, but she’s not – she’s Creole, she’s –’.
A Franco-Mauritian who wants to profess his non-racism will hark at his less-than-white origins, not knowing what else to do.
‘You see my skin?’ a white man fumbles. ‘We are not white, exactly. We are more tanned. We have dark hair.’ He marvels at the brown spots on his arms, the tan lines about his shoulders. He is just as pink as my father.
Not all of them are so maladroit. Some Franco-Mauritians who have emigrated, or who plan to emigrate, identify the mechanics of white supremacy and seek to remove themselves from the system as much as they can. ‘We moved when my children started school at the lycée. All the racist tropes that I knew twenty, thirty years ago – I saw my children repeating the same words, insults. I was disgusted.’ I tell them of what happened during the lycée’s Day of Mauritian Literature and they are not surprised. ‘It’s gotten worse there, apparently. Remarkable that it could get any worse, in fact.’ It was, after all, a school founded for the Franco-Mauritian elite in the 1950s; a place to get away from the British administration’s plans to anglicise education; a private institution exempt from the gradual diversification of the student body in other prestigious schools across the country.
I look at Chloe, then at the Creole boy who sits alone on the opposite side of the room. I introduce my next subject as gently as I can. I tell them of one particular moment in Appanah’s novel that embodies Jean-Francois Lyotard’s concept of the sublime, a moment of such force and violence it overwhelms the mind, refuses cognition. It’s when Raj and David meet a Créole man working in a rich colonial mansion, the governor’s house.
‘How did he,’ I ask, ‘a Créole mixed-race man in 1940s Mauritius, come to such a prominent position?’
‘Maybe he worked hard,’ one white student says.
I explain that, according to me, this man could possibly be the illegitimate son of the governor: it explains his position, his dress, his colour. I tell him that, though this governor is English, the practice of white men fathering children of colour – ‘enfants naturels’, they are called, ‘bastard-born’ – is common in Mauritius, from French colonial times to today.
I tell them how much of Creole blood is the result of sexual violence: that this is probably not a happy story of a governor falling in love with his maid. How, two hundred years ago, people of African and sometimes of Indian descent were considered as property, bien meuble, to be used however white owners saw fit. That such violence is a legacy that we carry in our bodies.
A boy raises his hand to speak. He tells me he disagrees with this idea of violence as legacy. ‘She was raped,’ shoots Chloe in his direction. The boy struggles to find a rebuttal. He is worked up now, and I am unbearable to him.
I turn to Ananda Devi and the 2016 state of the nation novel she presents in Eve Out of Her Ruins. I speak of poverty, abuse. I tell them how lucky they are to have such a wonderful school and pristine education, because most Mauritians don’t have that luxury. The boy interrupts. He says he completely disagrees with me. He is French and has lived here for a while, believes I am too pessimistic in my outlook. He says racism exists, but if everyone works hard they’ll get to the place they deserve in life. I understand immediately; I ask him if he is white. He tells me his mother is white but his father is darker than I am. ‘Maybe you should talk to your father tonight, ask him about the racism he faced in France.’ The boy is adamant that his father has suffered from no racism at all. I talk of microaggressions. He says his father is checked by the police in France ‘as often as everyone else’. That he is a brilliant man, an entrepreneur. I said I have no doubt about that. He says I propound an ideology of the victim. I’d have recommended Light in August if he were older, but even then Faulkner would slip through his fingers. He has bleached himself into oblivion.
In the early 2000s I look in the mirror and cry. My hair is thick, voluminous in the humidity of our tropics. It weaves itself into knots in the back of my head, snaps brushes. Conditioner is of little use, only oil will do. I tie my hair using six, seven, eight elastic bands, not because they keep my hair in place but because the tight pain grounds me, somehow. My nose is aquiline, too bold for me. My teeth are crooked and the girls at school say I have a man’s jaw. My thighs are thicker than my mother’s. In no way do I resemble the girls on glossy magazine covers, Keira Knightley, Mischa Barton.
Mauritians are enamoured by my sister. They clasp her face in one hand and pronounce her the next Miss Mauritius. She is uncomfortable with the attention. She tells me how she has to fight to be taken seriously in the new school she’s in, a half-white anomaly. We’re suspended in a place of belonging and unbelonging.
I am eighteen, about to leave the island to study literature in Durham. The coolest friend I have tells me men will come after me in England, and they do. The spray-tanned models I grew up seeing in Boots have set an ideal of beauty that I somewhat fit, with their temporary melanin, straight-ish hair. My own is now manageable with oil and the country’s dry air. I appear, incredibly, as a dark-skinned white girl. The English are quick to reassure me that I look Spanish or Italian.
I am treated differently to my aunts, who immigrated to Europe in the 1980s to work as nurses. They are stunning, with their coiled hair, their features we call African for lack of a country of origin. My aunts rarely speak of the initial years following emigration. ‘I have a blank across many years, don’t remember anything’, one of them tells me mock-cheerfully. I know enough not to ask any more questions.
My cool friend warns me to be careful of white men in Mauritius, too. ‘They won’t speak of their desire in public. They marry white women. But alone in the elevator with you, they’ll turn their heads to smell your neck, they’ll say your skin has such a beautiful scent.’
‘All the mistresses aren’t white’, my mother laughs, as if this is somehow a source of power. She is proud of her beauty. My father, after seeing her once at a party, knocked on every door in the neighbourhood – every door, it must have taken him the whole afternoon – until he found her, hair thick with oil, mango flesh in her hand. A vision.
The bell rings and the teacher has many thoughts about my lecture. She makes sure to point out that she has a PhD from France. ‘I disagree with Appanah and Devi,’ she says. ‘They believe the cycle of violence has no end. Look at today, for instance, what happened with the n– situation. Isn’t it a sign of progress that these kids use that word without a care for the past, that they don’t care?’ I ask her if she is Créole. She says no, she is Tamil. ‘Worse than a Créole’, she jokes, but stops chuckling when she looks at me. ‘If there was a word that embodied the torture and enslavement of your Tamil ancestors, would you be okay with these kids using it?’ She doesn’t reply. In the staff room ten minutes later, she hands me coffee and says she knows the white children didn’t react well to what I was saying, ‘but you must understand, they have a lot of weight to bear.’
All communities are the same, here. The consensus is, as an educated person of good standing, you must not see race. It is the only acceptable position. Racism is a general practice. Time and time again I hear ‘but look at the Chinese, the Hindus, the Muslims. They all have their own racist systems and methods. It’s not just the whites.’ Constant racial gaslighting.
She leaves for her next class, leaves me alone with the school’s Franco-Mauritian history teacher. I tell her about today. I ask her if she noticed the segregation in the classrooms, in the playground. She says yes, very little has changed here. The maintenance staff have come out for cigarettes. I ask them and they agree, too. The history teacher tells me that there’s everything to correct in their education.
I don’t attend any of the other sessions at the lycée on the Day of Mauritian Literature. I go home and make tea. My hands are still shaking and I can’t find the teapot, the strainer. I’ve been invited to meet the French ambassador’s wife at a cocktail party, at midday. All the other artists and intellectuals of note who have participated in the Day of Mauritian Literature will be there. I tell myself I have to go.
They are all there, gathered in a room. I wait until everyone is inside and close the door. I place myself in the centre of the room, break protocol, speak before the headmaster, the ambassador’s wife.
‘I am honoured to be here,’ I say, ‘but I’ve spent two hours listening to the most incredibly racist things. We’re here to celebrate Mauritian literature after all, but what’s the use if, minutes upon my arrival, I hear students greet each other by saying n–? I hate that I even have to pronounce it.’
The intellectuals and artists have formed a circle around me. They are of all ethnicities. They don’t react. Some look amused, can’t believe I am making a scene. I tell them of the teacher’s reaction, how profoundly disturbing it was. My voice is louder now, keeping calm is impossible.
I tell them that my grandfather was called n– all his life, the son of a rich white land owner and his maid, forced to bear his own grandfather’s name due to his father’s whimsy. My mother too was – is – called n–. There is still no reaction. I tell them my brother suffers from racial discrimination in this very school. Silence. Later, a friend who was at the gathering tells me he overhead the person next to him saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re hearing such violent opinions. I didn’t come here for this.’
The headmaster thanks me for my thoughts. He says, ‘Do you think, therefore, that we don’t do enough?’ I say no. Another teacher smirks and looks disdainful. He is tall, with a grapefruit-hued shirt that accentuates his pallor. ‘I cannot believe what you are saying. I am French. I’ve taught here for five years, I’ve never seen or heard what you are describing.’ I tell him what the history teacher and other members of staff have told me. The segregation in the playground. He shakes his head. I tell him and the headmaster that if I walked in the corridor and heard n–, said not in hushed tones but loudly, full of confidence, so clearly and with teachers present, then such greetings must be common. He shakes his head. I don’t tell him – I am too embarrassed to tell him – that I believed, until today, that this word was only ever muttered in secret.
The headmaster tries to regain control of the situation. Tells the audience that he, a white man, also knows what it is to suffer from discrimination. He comes from the Franco-Swiss border and for the longest time he wasn’t considered as properly French. He says language is a very important thing. He has taught in Houston and in Brazil. He says, ‘If I tell a Black man he is stupid, then that’s like telling him he’s a n–.’ He says n–. My friend, my only friend in this room guffaws, says he can’t be serious. I tell the headmaster that this is scandalous.
That night I go to the clinic. The doctor who takes my blood pressure sees that I am in shock, tells me he went to the same school ten years ago and he’s glad someone’s finally called them out. He doesn’t charge me.
The next day a shrill woman demands to speak to me on the phone. She is part of the administrative staff at the lycée. I hang up. In a series of ebullient messages she describes how she was incredibly distraught by my behaviour. She believed me to be an elegant woman. She says I’ve disgraced myself.
You broke protocol, my mother mouths, rocking back and forth on the bed. The ambassador’s wife. Oh my God. She thinks that I have brought white wrath upon my family, and now I will be castigated wherever I go.
Your brother, your brother, she repeats. If he finds out he’ll explode. Couldn’t you think of your brother before opening your mouth?
My parents are called into the school. The headmaster wants to know if what I said about my brother is true. ‘He calls me negre’ my mother says. ‘And I forbid you to talk to him about it. It’ll just make things worse.’
The headmaster is flustered, seeks reason in my father. ‘You see, though I sympathise with the anger of your eldest, it seems to me that her actions constitute reverse racism.’ My father nods. He wants to get it over with. My brother has his final exams this year.
‘And the teachers and I agree, the word they use, n–, they learn it from American rappers.’
The headmaster never speaks of my outburst to my brother. The school’s only too happy to keep the tirade a secret.
My brother hates himself. He is the darkest of all my mother’s children, with wavy hair that curls in the water, flared nostrils.
It starts with the print of his knuckles, neatly indented on our fridge. Door handles are broken.
Clots of blue appear on my father’s wrists, but it is my mother he cannot stand. The sight of her is too much for him. Pansies bloom on her arms and neck.
My brother is accepted into the circle of Franco-Mauritians by virtue of our white father and his wealth. He speaks with the Franco accent, uses withering, degrading terms for all ethnic groups, including his own. He spends his weekends at his white friends’ houses as much as possible. His violence is always worse on Sunday evenings, when he comes back home. One Saturday, his friend whisks him around the lagoon in a speedboat. His friend steers the boat though he’s underage, doesn’t have a license. He knows the national coastguard won’t arrest him. He approaches Ile aux Cerfs, then doubles back. ‘We can’t go there,’ his friend says. ‘There are animals there,’ pointing to all the non-white Mauritians who’ve come to enjoy the islet’s famous beaches for the day. My brother comes home and recounts the incident with pride. Later, before bed, he turns to my mother and says ‘You’re ugly. You’re fat. You’re Black. Tu me fais honte.’
My mother goes to the clinic a few times. The doctors who treat her are sometimes white, they’ve known her for decades. ‘It’s the school’, they tell her, without her having to say a word. ‘You won’t believe the number of mothers who come here, like you. White and Black and Brown.’
One night, when I think he’ll send my parents to the clinic or worse, I call the police. They arrive at my family’s house. The police chief doesn’t understand how money hasn’t made our problems go away. He is disgusted.
I get calls in the middle of the night from my father, asking if I can come home, impose an authority I don’t have on my brother. For years, I try.
‘You are not white,’ I tell him.
‘I am white. I am white. I am white.’ He hurts himself. Smashes his head against the wall, rolls around screaming. Another trigger is when I speak Kreol. He screams until I stop.
I am the only one in my family who sees a psychologist. My mother will only talk to God. My psychologist says my family needs intensive, collective treatment. This doesn’t happen. My brother agrees to see her alone. ‘He is a very, very difficult case,’ she tells me. ‘He’ll need a lot of work.’ He only sees her three times. I tell her my parents dismissed the warning signs – violence, tantrums – as bad behaviour he’d eventually grow out of. ‘He is a child,’ she says, ‘in excruciating pain.’
She attended the lycée two decades ago, one of the few students of colour. Her child is now a student there. ‘Like today, the school was very segregated, students of colour to one side, white students grouped all together. I went to our high-school reunion a few years ago, and you’d have thought nothing had changed at all. We were in the same groups as before.’
My brother’s ex-girlfriend’s mother thinks that the region we live in should be for whites only. She doesn’t greet her non-white colleagues at work.
The ex-girlfriend came to our house a few times. She seemed to genuinely like him. We liked her too, wondered if this was a sign of progress, or if the relationship was her one great act of defiance to her family, her form of teenage rebellion. ‘It’s not like she would ever have married him’ was my mother’s take on the matter.
I thought it was ludicrous to talk about marriage in high school, but I am told that white relationships are taken very seriously in the lycée. Franco-Mauritians tend to inter-marry, and courting begins early.
My sister dates a Franco-Mauritian man for a few years, but it doesn’t work out. She spends considerable time getting to know his friends and family, attending white-on-white weddings, white-on-white dinners. When they break up none of her Franco friends speak to her ever again. ‘You won’t be able to find a man to marry, now’ her ex-best friend sneers in a text message.
White supremacist documentaries on South Africa are making the rounds on Facebook. ‘White genocide’, Mauritians write, with teary, angry emoticons.
A white man I know quite literally rubs his hands in glee when he hears that white Mauritians in South Africa are returning to the island. There was a tradition of Franco-Mauritians emigrating, by choice, to South Africa in the late 1960s after Independence. Fears of the ‘Hindu Peril’ were written in the white-owned newspapers; fears that, even as a dominant minority, an elite, the Franco-Mauritians would be subsumed.
‘They went and they were treated like kings,’ he says. ‘Now look at them. They’ve lost everything.’
No-one speaks of apartheid.
We do not speak of racism in the press. We do not speak of it online – there’s potential jail time if we do now, too. And we do not speak of it in public, ever.
And I am only just learning how to speak. A local woman in a bar clutched my face, one night. We’d barely exchanged a word, but her husband was enthused with my one of my friends, telling him all about his white expatriate lifestyle. The woman was Mauritian, of mixed Indian descent, proud to be his wife. ‘You are Indian too, aren’t you?’ she said, holding my face, thumbs pressing down on my cheeks. ‘You can’t be Creole. Creoles, they have such vulgar traits. Ugly.’ I felt slapped in the lungs.
‘Let it go’ says my mother. ‘Just let it go. You won’t change anything. You can’t change anything.’
After the Day of Mauritian Literature, I spend the next couple of months talking to twenty or so ex-students of the different lycées around the island.
‘Once, a fight broke out between a student of colour and a Franco. The white girl ended it by saying “your ancestors were the slaves of my ancestors”.’
‘A boy told me he was shocked that I could speak French because, according to him, I looked like I could only speak Kreol. We were both in the same lycée. He justified himself by saying that I was Black. I am Indo-Mauritian. I thought it was all so stupid.’
‘There were these virtual ‘white-only’ areas in the playground.’
There are still other students of colour who have systematised the racist behaviour they witnessed, won’t even call it racism: ‘It’s normal that they only sit together. They’re pretty much all related to each other.’
I try to contact a few teachers; some are keen, but all are too afraid to talk to me. From what the students say, racial discrimination’s rife in the administration, too.
Franco-Mauritians are also terrified of speaking to me, but some do, under the promise that I never reveal their names, and only write their stories down, not record them.
‘They said n–? Out in the open? When I was at school, they’d say it in private, in the changing rooms, when it was only us. They’d say, sa pue le negre ici. It stinks of n– here.’
I learn of segregation in their own community. ‘At the top you have the Big Whites, the sons and daughters of some of the people who own and manage the biggest private companies in the island, or those in equally wealthy positions. Our parents work for them.’ The Big Whites have been Big since the sugar industry centralised its operations in 1867. ‘The Big Whites set the rules. You can’t cut your hair differently from them, for instance. They invent all these rules to exclude you. Swear words you can or can’t say. Lots of rules like that. Things only got better once the expatriates started to arrive, when I was fifteen or so – the control the Big Whites had over the rest of us lessened, then.’
I remember an anecdote my brother tells me, proudly, about the son of one of the ‘big whites’ at a nightclub. Some kid of colour accidentally spills his drink on his shirt. The white boy’s friends, including my brother, gang up and beat the coloured boy for having ‘dared’ to touch ‘the son of –’.
A girl explains that routinely, white people will demand that she recite her family tree, her many cousins and cousins removed, her many possible links to the community. ‘White isn’t just skin colour,’ she tells me. ‘It’s what you do on the weekends. It’s hunting, fishing, social clubs you belong to. It’s a postcode. A lifestyle.’
I’ve only been asked to conjure my family tree once. In the clinic after the events at the lycée, a Franco-Mauritian woman next to me asks me my name and surname, her eyebrows furrow at the ambiguity. She asks me if I have a maiden name. She is not satisfied. She proceeds to tell me of her family name, her maiden name, her children’s names, where they are employed, who they are married to, where they live. It is imperative that she tells me all of this. She doesn’t stop until she reaches the end of the line, her grandchildren.
Weeks after my outburst, the local literati talk of me on social media. They don’t mention me by name. The administration has carefully orchestrated a Facebook campaign to promote the Day of Mauritian Literature at their school. Different authors, poets, persons of local importance talk about how happy they were to contribute to the enrichment of our culture. On their private profiles, they discuss my ‘performance’; that my ‘act’ should be considered as ‘theatre’. I won’t – and don’t seek to – change their minds, wired to white supremacy. But I must write this down.
Image © Chris Lim