(This piece originally appeared in Ja Magazine, earlier this year)
“So what are you?”
It’s a loaded question that many coloured people get asked on a regular (and often infuriating) basis. In school, we’re taught that this minority is simply a mixture of black and white; half and half of colonial relations. Not only inaccurate, but also a simplistic way to describe a multi-faceted and genetically diverse community. The demographics show that coloured people make up 8.9% of the South African population – the same as white people – we live all over the country and we certainly don’t all look the same. Similarly it is so hard to explain and flesh out the term “coloured” beyond the South African context; we are a product of this country that can’t be ignored.
Thus, coloured identity is not a monolith and never will be. The misguided intention that we’re a homogenous society once again reduces us to nothing more than a trope. Brown people don’t just come from Cape Town nor do we all speak Afrikaans and that’s okay. The South African media is complicit in perpetuating this harmful stereotype. You know what I’m talking about: the violent gangster in a soap opera, the loud-mouthed promiscuous coloured woman, the fisherman with no front teeth, and of course, the alcoholic.
Prior to my own journey dealing with coloured identity, I would scoff at these kinds of people, because I wasn’t like them. However, in learning more via university, I discovered that apartheid left a legacy of wanting to align to whiteness to survive, especially amongst the people who were “too white to be black and too black to be white.”
I realised upon further reflection that these kinds of people exist because of the historical violence and displacement they faced, and still face as the supposedly outlawed dop system and the sheer oppressive forces at work continue to eat the community alive. There’s a bitter irony in laughing at what you have created, South Africa. Nonetheless, the mediocre depiction given in the media feeds into the fact that coloured identity faces erasure amongst the rest of South Africa.
The coloured community deals with plenty of issues from rampant drug use, human trafficking and teen pregnancy to alcoholism and gangsterism to name a few. There’s plenty wrong within my community the regarding colourism, classism and anti-blackness that exists around every turn. But we still deserve the space to be recognised when talking about our struggles. I wanted to write about coloured identity so I spoke to other coloured peers I’ve chatted to online and asked them what being coloured meant to them.
“It is my opinion,” Janine Adams, a writer, states, “that to deny the existence colouredness or to attempt to subsume coloured identity into a more global definition of black would erase a unique space in history.”
I struggle to know where I fit in at times, mainly because I am former Model-C kid who went to a predominately coloured high school and then attended Rhodes University. My identity is mapped by so many experiences and my race is often at the centre of it. And every day, when talking to my friends (both on the internet and beyond) we talk about the violence faced being a minority. As Matthew Foster, an English teacher in training, states, “It’s as if you’re constantly being intruded on so you feel a need to defend yourself on all fronts – like there’s a point to prove.”
As a coloured woman, my race is inextricably linked to my gender identity. I have countless encounters where I felt degraded but one stands out from the rest. While walking through Long Street in Cape Town, I was stopped by an older white man in a flashy car. He had assumed that I was a sex worker. This was not the first time this had happened.
The term coloured itself causes uproar, because it has roots in apartheid but also is reclaimed with pride in other instances. The cultural appropriation I’ve witnessed is rife. The culture being taken and made to look palatable because it’s not a brown person wearing or saying it is anger inducing. Like people who want to be black until it’s really time to be black – some only want to be down with the brown until someone thinks you’re a criminal on sight.
The equally frustrating aspect is that there is a lack of information available to the community. The more you become curious about what you could be or what your identity is, the fewer resources there are readily available to start your journey.
Despite this, gradually we’re gaining more access to our stories, with more people writing our stories and others showing that there are different ways to identify. I used to shun my identity because I too believed that I was nothing but a stereotype. I felt that by being out of the ‘hood, speaking a certain way and attending a “prestigious” university, I was better than “those coloureds”. In hindsight, I realise I have no right to be a classist and that whatever manner coloured people present themselves is an act of survival, really. The violent realisation of being a minority is seeing how other people will dictate to you what you are and knowing you have to fight to just have your own identity acknowledged.
What I know for sure is that the only people able to make the decision about coloured identity are coloured people. We’ve been told for so long that we’re not white enough, not black enough, not “something” enough – that the only parameters that exist for us should be made by us. We’re genetically diverse, culturally diverse and certainly don’t share the same cultural markers. So in that regard, being coloured can be proudly reclaiming the terms gham and bushie or choosing to reject the usage thereof. It’s choosing to tick the ‘other’ box or not ticking any at all.
All I know is that “What are you?” is a question I certainly won’t answer anymore.