Born out of the Apartheid regime’s desire to construct and classify racial paradigms into neat boxes, “coloured” became the catch-all phrase to describe those whose ambiguous features defied existing racial constructs. Descendants of slaves and their masters, the khoisan, sailors, merchants, and islanders off the coast of Africa, – we were now the same. Nothing that came before; not our language, not our stories, not our history, mattered anymore.
Our own unique cultural heritage was no longer valid. We were coloured. We were told that this was what coloured people were like, this is how we should behave, and this is the language we should speak. And so a herd identity was constructed by our oppressors, and soon we forgot our individual stories. Our individual identities, our sense of self— were lost to the tide of our newfound colouredness.
Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and that is what they become.
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From a young age I have been confronted with issues of identity, and human nature’s distaste for anyone who does not fit into their preconceived idea of what you should be. Even now, I am often filled with shame when strangers and acquaintances ask bluntly – “What are you?”, seeking confirmation of my ethnic background so that they can attribute characteristics to me that are not my own.
And time and time again, I feel a little less equal, a little less human, as I provide an explanation of WHAT I am rather than WHO I am, replying gently and reluctantly that I am coloured, not believing in the idea of colouredness as the syllables leave my mouth. And neither do they. I don’t look coloured, I don’t speak like a coloured person should speak (according to who I can’t be sure). I don’t resemble a single coloured stereotype. And these strangers, these people who see me as nothing more than something peculiar, enquire – no, demand – an explanation about what I am mixed with, what percentage, how many generations back, what did my ancestors do? And the truth is I don’t know. I don’t why I look the way I look, why any of my family members look the way they look. I don’t know why we speak English and not Afrikaans, why we have all our teeth, why we are well-read despite our relative disadvantage. I don’t know WHAT I am. Does it even matter?
Because as much as it hurts for being judged because of the colour of your skin, your sexual orientation or your gender – it is a unique, utterly isolating experience being judged because of who you are, when that “who” doesn’t actually exist.
The coloured community is at odds with itself. Never white enough, never black enough, never coloured enough – we want so badly to belong, to be in charge of our own image. We wage a constant battle within ourselves as we contend with our South Africaness in a time where being South African, just South African, is not good enough. So we try our best to live up to our colouredness, although it never feels too authentic. We mock each other for not having affected accents, we dismiss alcoholism and drug use as a “coloured” thing, and we speak of those family members who did make it to university as “play whites”. We try to live up to an image that isn’t our own, that was never our own, partly because we want to belong, and partly because we can’t remember who we were before we were told what we are.
Being coloured is a fallacy. Popular images of colouredness isn’t real. We don’t all look the same, or even similar. Our accents are regional. We speak different languages. Our cultural heritage is as diverse as South Africa itself.
I often hear people say that once we are all mixed, people will stop being racist, because there won’t be black or white people anymore. Being coloured in the new South Africa is a great irony, isn’t it?