Moving to South Africa meant my race was different, but not the realities of racism
My light skin and the proximity to whiteness that accompanies it has always been able to carry a violence in the US, even if it wasn’t named
By Kim M Reynolds
“So, you’re coloured?”
I get asked this question on fairly regular basis in Cape Town, and it’s no longer a jarring one.
I am a Black student and writer who moved to South Africa to do my second masters degree in media and communication. I picked the country as a place of study because of what I thought were resounding similarities between conversations around race and oppression there and the United States. It also became an opportunity to live, breathe, and think on the continent, a true gift and privilege to Black diasporans.
I was excited to live in a space that belonged to Black people and to understand my Blackness in a new place. But both of these ideas were turned on their head and reasserted when I realized I was no longer seen as Black and learned more about “coloured” culture.
Before my arrival to Cape Town, I spent time reading about and researching “coloured” identity. Coloured is a precarious racial classification created by the government that refers to those who are not “purely” Black African, but are also not white. It is largely based off of one’s skin tone. Akin to the brown paper bag test in America, the South African government used a pencil test instituted after the election of 1948, when the National Party came to power and formally implemented apartheid, a system of apart-ness. The test consisted of sticking a pencil in one’s hair as a test of afro texture. If it fell you weren’t considered Black.
I was lucky to have a brilliant friend and sister from Johannesburg, born and bred, who was my critical voice and insight into her South Africa. It was this friend who fed me literature and media about coloured identity, knowing that as a mixed race and light skin Black person, that was how I would be seen and treated.
I began digesting all that she gave me and did some research myself. From my readings alone, I concluded that the main difference between coloured people in South Africa and mixed race people in the US was just specifically naming them as “coloured,” something that intrigued me as someone from a country with a one-drop rule.
But when I touched down in Cape Town and began working and living, I came to realize that ”mixed race” could never cover the full reality of what “coloured” designates. Coloured is a culture where people come from long lines of racially and ethnically diverse people and have created unique traditions, food, and language that has been passed down for hundreds of years. South African comedian Trevor Noah has pointed out in his work how, while he looks coloured, he isn’t culturally because he doesn’t come from a coloured family, and his Black Xhosa mother was his cultural informant.
What was stark to me was the lack of overlap between coloured and Black people. I would see coloured people who clearly have Black ancestry, but apartheid had meticulously created a racial strata of white at the top, then Indian, then coloured, and Black at the bottom.
This anti-Blackness played out structurally in preferential housing and employment programs for coloured people over Black people, and it continues to play out in the comments and minds of some coloured people who believe they are indeed superior to Black people. They have no interest in being Black, which some view is no more than just the bottom of the totem pole of human dignity.
Because I was abruptly no longer Black, things associated with Black culture there no longer applied to me. I began to receive quizzical looks when I had box braids in or when I wore head scarfs (or doeks as they are called here). But the resounding reminders of my colouredness come in the form of white and coloured people telling me deeply anti-Black things, assuming I would be in on the joke. At the end of an interview I conducted with a coloured fishermen, he told me, “we were better off under apartheid, at least the white man gave us something.” I became aware that while coloured racial classification is precarious, in many ways, it is also very clear.
While I consider myself Black, I have always been a coloured person in the room, and sometimes the only one in Black spaces. This negotiation of what my presence brings to the space is not a new consciousness to me. My light skin and the proximity to whiteness that accompanies it has always been able to carry a violence in the US, even if it wasn’t named, and definitely in South Africa.
I realized how tricky coloured identity can be for South Africans. Being coloured can feel like being in an ethnic limbo in the larger landscape of the country. There is also limited capacity for discussions about identity in a country where the indignity of apartheid persists, where tensions are still raw, and material conditions have not changed from the white mansions to the Black townships.
There must be negotiation and realization of the pain coloured people experience, but it can’t be rooted in betrayal of the mythologized and racist promise of superiority over Black people, especially since that pain stems from anti-Blackness in the first place.
Coloured people in South Africa share the struggles of African Americans in trying to negotiate one’s self in the larger diaspora and inheriting a colonial language. Many coloured people (but not all) speak Afrikaans, which is a historically complex language, but is generally understood as a mixture of Dutch and indigenous tongues that became the language of colonialism. In inheriting this language, coloured people have created slang and a different way of speaking it, which has come to be known as Afrikaaps, much like the AAVE and slang we developed in the states.
So while my race changed drastically once I moved to South Africa, what hasn’t changed is my relationship to racism. While learning the lessons of coloured identity, I was also learning the realities of apartheid. I quickly realized that while South Africa belongs to Black (broad based use here) and indigenous people, it is white people who still own it, and that ownership is reflected in all of the interactions between its denizens.
It is reflected in a city like Cape Town which is often referred to as “Little Europe” or “The Colony.” It is reflected in the many land acts, the violent forced removals, and long time dispossession that has resulted in Cape Town’s clear segregation. It is reflected in the white people who live by the beach and in the city and the Black and coloured people who largely live in the outskirts, sometime without view of the mountains. And it is reflected in the power, apathy, racism, and liberalism that keep it this way.
Cape Town specifically reminds me of home—Cincinnati, Ohio, one of America’s most segregated cities. South Africa and America are both projects of amnesia and ring leaders of violence. Both countries have convinced of themselves that we have woken up in our melting pots and rainbow nations just yesterday, with no one to blame for the poverty, for the lack of education, for the stolen land, for the loss of life, and no conceptualization around the means through which we got all of these ingredients and colours.
Whiteness and white people commit their crimes and deem themseves the prosecutor and the judge. And while some Black and Brown people welcome white people into their own consciousness, it is still our lives that are the collateral damage. We have lost a Renisha McBride and a Tamir Rice, on top of the already lost Hector Pieterson’s. America has its COINTELPRO and the targeting of Black liberation through the CIA, and South Africa had its Apartheid government that included chemical warfare and surveillance branches, not to mention the legacy of apartheid.
South Africa is an infuriating and conflicting place. It is a country that is so unequal and so un-humane, so deeply complex, deeply upsetting, and ironically, deeply beautiful. America is infuriating in similar and different ways, although perhaps more time has passed since our segregation, which is a statement of fact, not one of progress. The fact that there is now a Black middle class cannot be mistaken as a barometer of progress because our participation in capitalism does not equate to human dignity. The solution to anti-Blackness in the US, SA, and elsewhere must be located outside of capitalism.
In the midst of our gruesome worlds, Black people across the diaspora have remained the most fiercely human. I have loved sharing food, dance, singing, poetry, and protest songs in this country. The stamping of feet seem to reverberate deep into the ground and harmonies of struggle songs become part of the air we breathe, making it more beautiful for just a little bit of time.
Surrounded by all different kinds of Black people in South Africa, I have learned to reaffirm my love—love in my new found friendships, in my relationships, in books and literature and music, in myself. And, for the time, I have the space and clarity to work towards a more dignified world.
Kim M Reynolds is a queer Black woman, race and media scholar, writer, organizer, and music lover currently based in Cape Town completing a double masters in media and communications. Twitter: @kimberland_1