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I experienced my first inter-racial friendship at the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994.

I was a 6-year-old black girl who was finally allowed to enroll in a white school following apartheid’s demise. I befriended Francis, who was a white girl my age, and we got along like a house on fire. She obviously spoke about me to her parents, because after a few weeks of friendship, she dropped the bomb on me by telling me that we couldn’t be friends anymore.

At first, she never gave me a reason for our break up, and after bugging her for an explanation, she told me that her mom disapproved of me because I was black. I was heartbroken and confused by this, but it wasn’t long before I found new friends from diverse cultures to play with.

I’ve always enjoyed being in diverse social groups, learning from different cultures, beliefs and lifestyles. I felt like this opened up my mind to the world as I exposed myself to things outside of my world.

But growing up, those in my world, both black and white, weren’t so accepting of my liberal approach to friendships.

In my teen years, I was often labeled as a coconut by black people who believed that my befriending of predominantly white people was my attempt at becoming white and removing myself from my black culture and heritage.

I was told that I was betraying my own people by my association with white people, as if I was not aware of the atrocities they had committed under apartheid.

All the above made me angry because it was a reflection of toxic impact of segregation. Instead of embracing our different cultures and heritages, we were taught to fight against each other. Apartheid also caused havoc on black heritage, rendering it inferior while aiming to destroy it.

I had to explain that befriending anyone who wasn’t black had nothing to do with running away from being black or being ashamed, but rather everything to do with forming relationships, regardless of people’s race or ethnicity.

My hand in friendship was often rejected by my white counterparts who often told me that friendship wouldn’t be possible because of the “vast” cultural differences, and that understanding each other would prove too difficult.

Sure, we have different cultures, but if you really want to get to know someone, you will. Segregation has long used differences to keep people apart, exaggerating them as if they were formidable.

As an adult, I’m not oblivious to racism’s causality of reducing people’s understanding that we’re all equal because we’re all human, but I am certain of the fact that friendship is a choice. You enter into that relationship not because someone is of a certain race, but because of their character as a person.

And I’m quite aware of society’s racist attitudes to diverse friendships because of the conditioning of segregation, but society won’t dictate how I live my life, and I certainly won’t change so that it remains comfortable with its ignorance.

I’ll continue to enjoy my multiracial and multi-ethnic friendships because I’m in relationships with great people that enrich my life.

*image from They BF.

Lebo Matshego  Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses and closeup is a Johannesburg-based journalist and writer. She graduated with an Honours Degree from Wits University, and has worked in the social media space with popular radio station YFM. She currently works as a writer for Africa.com, and has her own blog called LadyLebz.