Review: Vivien Horler
A Person My Colour – Love, adoption and parenting while white, by Marina Dahlmanns (Modjaji Books)
What the subtitle of this absorbing book doesn’t tell you is that Marina Dahlmanns and her husband Alan’s three adopted children are black. The couple made a conscious decision to adopt the first two, a girl and a boy, and the third, half-sister to the second, more or less fell into their laps.
Although her name doesn’t appear on the cover, there is a co-author, Tumi Jonas-Mpofu, a dear friend of Dahlmanns, who is an important character in the book and who has written brief contributions giving her point of view of some of the events Dahlmanns describes.
You may remember a news story featuring Dahlmanns and Mpofu three years ago, when Dahlmanns booked a table at a Camps Bay restaurant on Mpofu’s behalf, and then Mpofu’s party were turned away when the restaurant saw they were black.
Dahlmanns, blond and blue-eyed, was born in Germany to war-scarred parents, and came to South Africa shortly after the 1994 elections. She describes herself as an unhappy child, an angry teenager, and lonely adult until the children came along, although by the time she met the eldest, Lele, she was already contentedly involved with the wonderful, supportive Alan.
In April 2004 during a walk on Noordhoek beach the pair decided to adopt a baby, and began the bureaucratic process of qualifying. Knowing they were unlikely to get a white baby, they cheerfully accepted it would be brown or black. Dahlmanns writes: “I am embarrassed to admit it, but my stance at the time was the colour-blind attitude unconscious racists all over the world employ: black, white, yellow, purple, I don’t mind what colour my child has, love has no colour…”
Within days of taking infant Lele home, Dahlmanns began bemusedly confronting apparently kindly remarks from strangers: “Such a cute baby, where did you get her?” “This is such a good thing you are doing.” Then a new acquaintance said friends of hers had recently adopted. “They were lucky, they got a white baby.”
Dahlmanns realised she had not thought this through. Jokes about blacks, about African time, things she had never noticed before, began to jar. A conversation with a friend about Lele’s colour led Dahlmanns to explode with anger. The friendship died, but Dahlmanns was left trying to work out why she was so angry.
In 2008 Kal came along, and five years later there was Nene.
Around 2011 Dahlmanns met Tumi, a member of her dialogue group. This was a group of women, black and white, who met once a month to hold conversations about race. By this time Dahlmanns had realised she needed to talk to and connect with black people. “Not the black people whom I paid, or who worked for the white people I knew, but black people who would not be afraid to tell me the truth.” She was unable to answer the questions Lele was beginning to ask, “and I could no longer ignore the observations you (children) made about a world in which white people were in charge and black people in service”.
Some of the early dialogue group meetings were difficult, and Dahlmanns kept a low profile, grateful she was not the white woman being spoken to sharply by black women for making thoughtless observations.
Tumi and Dahlmans became friends, but they were not always comfortable. If they went shopping or to a restaurant together, people – black and white –assumed either that Dahlmanns was “the madam”, or that they were lovers.
Dahlmanns decided to unite her worlds by inviting all her friends to a birthday party at her home in the City Bowl. Thandeka arrived first and announced she had nearly been arrested for loitering.
Then a group of black friends passed a cellphone around with a photo of a white man, cheeks unnaturally stretched into a wide grin, captioned that this was the “ostrich face”, the expression white people make when greeting a black person in their neighbourhood.
The white guests were offended. Conversations were awkward, with white friends asking the black friends: “Where did you go to school, you speak so well?” or “My cleaning lady says black men are lazy – is she racist?”
Dahlmanns’s white friends drifted away. She felt unhappy and embarrassed, and fantasised about flying home to Germany, where she was just a woman, not a white woman, and could live among her “own people”. And then she remembered her children were her people too, and they would never have the choices she did.
Nearly a quarter century into democracy so many whites in this country think it’s time blacks “moved on”, while blacks suffer varying degrees of anger at what is, at best, white thoughtlessness, and at worst, outrageous cruelty.
Dahlmanns describes how her own eyes were opened. It has been an often painful journey, and she says she still lives with her inner racist. She has, she says, no final wisdom to pass on, only her flawed and endless love for her children.
This is a thoughtful and honest book of our time, well worth reading.