Equality Starts With ‘Her’
UB English professor fights racial discrimination
Published: Monday, April 23, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 19:11
There was one thing on 7-year-old Hershini Young’s mind: Paddleboats.
She imagined herself and her father, Surendra Bhana, gliding across the waters in a small boat. She, of course, would do the paddling.
Bhana, a history professor, knew the boats were off limits to them, an Indian father and his multi-racial daughter. He could read the sign – White Persons Only. But his headstrong daughter, who believed she could be anything, wouldn’t listen. She snatched the money from her father’s hand and ran up to the dock with excitement.
She remembers the worker glaring down at her.
“Whites only,” she said.
Young turned and walked away slowly. How could her father have let her humiliate herself like that? How could he have subjected her to such disappointment?
How often would the disappointment continue for her?
Young, now an associate professor of English at UB, spent her childhood in Durban, South Africa under apartheid. As a child, she lived in a different neighborhood from white children, went to different schools, and drank from different water fountains.
Her parents, both academics, moved the family to the U.S. in 1987 when Young was 19.
But her early years shaped her – transforming her from that idealistic 7-year-old into a professor of English, passionate about race, discrimination, and awareness.
Young, now a confident, independent, and mystifyingwoman, walks through campus with her head held high while maintaining an ever-approachable demeanor. She teaches classes such as Contemporary African American Literature, Queer Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Race. Her research focuses on racial awareness.
Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, but for Young, issues of race persisted.
When she moved to the U.S. she found that it wasn’t unlike her home country. It was also a tortured place where skin color, connections, and cash matter more than many admit.
Young makes sure to teach that to her students.
“There’s no point in learning all of this. If you don’t change the world we live in, then it’s just an exercise,” Young said. “The point is to learn about how we live and to make some changes.”
When Durban started to experiment with integration in schools, Young was the first black child in an all-girl, all-white boarding school. To enter the school, Young first took an entry exam. They chose her because she scored the highest.
Bhana chose the school because he thought it would benefit his daughter. He was not scared of how the new learning environment might affect Young – the goal was to provide a better education.
That’s not to say the experience was painless.
Many parents did not want their children to share a school, let alone a classroom, with a black child so they took their kids out of school before Young enrolled in classes.
Even with such a remarkable opportunity, Young was still constantly told no.
No, she couldn’t board at the school with the other girls. No, she couldn’t use the same changing facilities as her classmates when they went swimming. No, she couldn’t sit at the bus stop while she waited to go home. No, she could not travel to other schools to perform the plays she was a part of.
Signs surrounded her telling her where she could and could not go. The words were different, but the meaning was clear: No.
Still, Young kept going.
Across the Atlantic Sea
Despite the odds against her, Young earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas University (KU), and she went on to complete her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. She took her first teaching job at the University of California at Riverside before coming to Buffalo.
None of that would have happened if her parents hadn’t decided to leave South Africa.
The tense atmosphere within the country and the encroaching of the country’s politics into Young’s parents’ academic sphere prompted their exodus. Bhana heard talk of his university falling into the hands of apartheid-supporting Indian politicians and he was forced with a decision that would affect his entire family.
He and his wife had offers for three-year visiting professor positions at KU. They had to decide whether it was worth it to leave South Africa for a period of three years or the rest of their lives. They were not given a leave of absence from their current jobs, but they quit, packed up their lives, and left despite the uncertainty of the future.
The family had mixed feelings about the trip across the ocean, but for Young it was a tangible escape from her problems. She knew one thing: she wanted to be any place but where she was.
With sandals on her feet in the middle of winter, Young arrived in Kansas. All she could think when she got there was: “it’s cold.”
“I went to an all-girl school [in South Africa]. It was very British so it was very proper and then I show up and it’s this huge American high school,” Young said. “People were kissing next to lockers and they were wearing all sorts of different [clothing]. There were [no] uniforms. I was totally overwhelmed.”