Being told to ‘go back to your country’ at the tender age of six: singers Ema and Maya on growing up black in Malta

Maltin Bħalek | Ema Vella & Maya Sesay | F.A.I.T.H. members Ema Vella and Maya Sesay discuss racism and its lasting effects 

Do you feel different?

I feel different, especially when I was young, for example I used to attend the Museum and everyone use to stop and stare at me, like why is she here?

With us?

Exactly, with us… And so, I used to ask myself, is there something wrong with me? But then in reality, I had nothing wrong, I was just different. All I had different was my skin, but everything else was normal.

Did you have any experiences where you realised, ‘I’m different’?

When I went to Disneyland when I was young, you know there are those attraction where they put makeup on you, and they did your hair to look like a princess. I was looking at them, doing other girls’ hair, all with straightened hair, and I was sitting on the chair, and I asked myself: Is it worth going there? Because I knew she was going to tangle my hair by using just one product – water.

No, and so I told myself I have more texture in my hair, and I realised I have an afro.

Compared to other children there…

Exactly, because they had straight hair, and so I told myself, yeah, I am different.

Did you ever feel the need to justify yourselves as being Maltese to get included in social circles and with friends, in school, during dance lessons…?

Yes, and no. I don’t feel I ever felt the need to go and tell everybody ‘I’M MALTESE!’ But then again, my surname is a little bit hard to say, and nobody knew how to pronounce it, that is the reality, it’s ok. It was not common, and so I had to explain from where it is, how you pronounce it, but that is something…

So, you had to justify yourself?

Not exactly, I mean they see me speaking in Maltese, I am understanding them in Maltese, in reality it’s a small thing. All I have is a different surname. I have to agree with Maya, because at the same time, yes and at the same time no. My surname is Vella, but still when they look at my face, they think foreigner. But then when I answer them in Maltese, they say ok, we’ll speak to her in the way we know. And I always understand them, and then they settle and say ‘ah she’s Maltese’.

Once you start speaking in Maltese they say ok.

And she understands… *laughs*

There are people who say that the Maltese are racist. How do you answer to such a statement?

I personally feel that every country is racist. There are people who will not agree with me. It is the reality, because everyone loves their own traditions, and they do not want to change, but others are more accepting, and are more open to other ethnicities. And so, not only in Malta, but everywhere you look you will find racism. I think that as Ema said, in society you will find a lot of opinions. You will find racists, you will find people who do not agree and fight against racism, you will find people who experienced racism. Everywhere is different.

So, you’re saying that it’s not just a Maltese problem, but in every country…

Exactly, that is the current situation across the globe.

Have you ever experienced racism?

I think every dark-skinned girl and boy will experience racism. For example, I was 10-years-old, I was walking on the promenade, on my way to buy an ice-cream and I did not know what the n-word meant at the time, and I remember my Maltese friend, who is white, had to explain it to me. I was walking, and someone started shouting the n-word in the middle of the road.

He started offending you…

He started shouting: (n-word)! I’m like hello! Now it’s like…I do not laugh, because it’s not funny, because you’re left traumatized, but you cannot argue with someone who is ignorant. The important thing is that you know what it means, you know yourself, and that you’re proud of who you are.

You shouldn’t stoop down to their level.

Exactly. I was still young and I used to attend ballet lesson, and the teacher was pairing us up. She paired me up with this girl, and I was dancing, and she just told me: Go back to your country.

The girl or the teacher?

The girl, and we were very young, around six or seven years old. And me being very young, my reply was, my mother is white. I didn’t know how I should react and in reality, I was never offended in such a way, even when I got older. That is the clearest memory I have, where I say that should that happen to me now, the reality is that if someone is racist, no matter how much you try, that person has their beliefs, as I have my own. Ok, if I have an opportunity to educate someone, and I can explain the origins of certain words, so they can realise what that word means, and how they should be careful when using it.

So, when you see these comments on social media, and groups against certain kinds of people, how do you feel?

It’s difficult. Because they can say it to my face. But at the end of the day, they’re just comments, and people use social media to cover their face, and they reflect their hate on others. You shouldn’t waste your time looking at them, you have to live your life, love your skin, love your ethnicity, even if you’re adopted or mixed, love who you are.

So your message is own yourself.