It’s high time that Coloured people were permitted to proudly embrace their Colouredness, writes Lindsay Johns.
London - Say it loud, I’m Coloured and I’m proud. I know what you’re probably thinking, and to be honest, I don’t blame you. You probably thought to yourself, “Hmmm, what kind of misguided individual, brainwashed by self-hate into a feeble attempt at reclaiming the oppressor’s language, would write a thing like that?” Regressive. Jarring. Distasteful, even. A deliberately provocative throwback to the demeaning racial abuse of the past.
Let me disabuse you of any such notion. Coloured and proud is what I am. And what’s more, I didn’t put my hands up to make inverted comma signs.
My family are Coloured from Cape Town, a place that is now a perennial staple in travel supplements and magazines in Britain, the US and elsewhere, feted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
But to this day there exists an alarming degree of ignorance about the racial composition of the city and its inhabitants. All we’re traditionally fed is an erroneous diet of black and white, yet there are crucial shades of brown in between that, much to my acute chagrin, always get overlooked.
The word “coloured” designates a racial group that, as a result of several centuries of a métissage (mixing of blood) particular to the Cape, incorporates indigenous Khoi and San tribes, West African slaves, Dutch settlers, Malay indentured labourers and even some Caribbean sailors.
In short, coloured people are today black South Africans who are the closest thing to an indigenous people Cape Town has.
The fact that even today in post-apartheid South Africa, coloured people are not deemed “African” by the authorities – or even black (depending on who you ask) – is further proof that race is a debilitating social construct used to divide, conquer, and ultimately dissipate our common humanity.
To this day, Colouredness remains a sadly much misunderstood and even maligned racial hinterland – one that deserves now to be properly elucidated and discussed, especially given the precarious place that coloured people occupy in today’s South Africa.
Often deemed “too black to be white and too white to be black”, Coloureds have long functioned as a distinct subset of the black experience, divorced from “Africans” by different languages, together with a very different culture and history.
Being coloured is not actually about skin shade.
In terms of looks alone, I’d bet that 70 to 80 percent of African-Americans, were they to go to Cape Town, would probably pass for coloured if they didn’t open their mouths.
It just goes to show how our perceptions of race and ethnicity and the terminology that accompanies them can change depending on the geographical location. I’d equally bet that most white tourists couldn’t tell the difference between a Coloured person and an African one.
In fact, at Cape Town International Airport, in a distasteful nod to Eurocentric perceptions of Africa, the indigenous Coloured people who work in the African-themed shop are made to dress in traditional African tribal costumes, even though that kind of attire is in no way part of Coloured culture.
Today, however, there are many young Coloured people who see themselves as black. Much of Coloured youth culture consciously identifies with black America through its penchant for hip-hop music, yet its adherents are effectively prohibited from referring to themselves in that way.
Denying Coloured people their Africanness is just as wrong as denying them their blackness or, for that matter, frowning on their use of the word “Coloured” to describe their Colouredness.
Equally many other Coloured people, both young and old, because of the way they feel they are now being discriminated against by the black African majority, consciously choose to define themselves exclusively as Coloured, both racially and politically, so that Colouredness functions as a homogeneous, all-consuming social and racial entity, which serves as a means of self-protection.
Few in literature have better espoused what it means to be Coloured – incorporating the often-conflicting identities that can entail – than the masterly Cape novelist Alex La Guma in his debut work, A Walk In The Night.
In music, Capetonian hip-hop artist Emile YX stands supreme. His song Who Am I? is a haunting exploration of the painful idiosyncrasies and tragic nuances of Coloured identity in post- apartheid South Africa.
What is beyond doubt is that Coloured people were systematically oppressed, marginalised and disenfranchised under apartheid, when many were forcibly removed to unhealthy townships on the arid, godforsaken Cape Flats.
And it would be churlish to deny that inter-ethnic rivalries are also at work in the new Rainbow Nation, in which Coloureds, especially in the Cape (where they are in the majority), are still being marginalised by the ANC government in favour of bona fide “Africans”.
It seems that Colouredness has been unpalatable both to the old Afrikaner regime and now to the unashamedly Afrocentric ANC.
The quotidian realities, not to mention manifold injustices, of life in post-apartheid Cape Town are admittedly not easy to grasp. They intrigue, bemuse and anger in equal measure. It’s not easy being Coloured here at the best of times.
It’s high time that, both in South Africa and abroad, Coloured people were permitted to proudly embrace their Colouredness, and not be browbeaten by linguistic fascism and tedious political correctness into renouncing aspects of their identity, heritage and culture that don’t fit in with others’ expedient narratives.
It goes without saying that first and foremost we are all children of the universe and citizens of the world.
But, for me, the lesson is to not let others define us. We must be free to assert our own humanity and free to choose to define ourselves as we see fit. And if that means being Coloured and proud, so be it.
* Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He blogs for the Daily Mail online.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.
The Root/Washington Post-Bloomberg