Until of May 30th, 2019 I always thought of myself as a Black woman. I’m sure you’re wondering what happened on that day. Well, I’ll tell you. It was the day I arrived in Cape Town from the United States. I’d never been anywhere south of the equator before, let alone by myself. But here I was, part of an abroad program through my university, the University of Kentucky, to live in Cape Town for two months.
Prior to arriving in Cape Town, my knowledge about the country itself was limited – I knew about Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, and Trevor Noah, and that was pretty much the extent of my information. So I wanted to learn as much as I could.
Last year my mother came to Cape Town, and her experience is part of the reason I wanted to visit SA for myself. When telling me about her trip, she spoke to me about the racial tension she experienced, which is still a prevalent issue in Cape Town today. She told me she was mistaken to be ‘coloured’, as she is a fair-skinned African-American woman. In our discussions ahead of my trip we had assumed that I would be thought of as ‘black’ because my skin tone is significantly darker than hers.
When I first arrived in Cape Town I was not aware of all the names given to different groups in South Africa. I had no clue that this was how during the apartheid years South African law had broken down race in the country, and that this practice lives on in the new South Africa too. I learnt that Cape Town is primarily made up of four ethnic categories: Coloured 42.4%, Black African 38.6%, White 15.7%, and Asian or Indian 1.4%.’
In the United States during the early 1900s, before desegregation, there was a brown paper bag test. This test identified whether you could be allowed into certain events, churches, and even nightclubs – you were compared to the colour of a paper bag. If you were lighter you could enter, but if not your entry was blocked. Of course, this created and fueled the current issue: Team Lightskin vs Team Darkskin, where what skin tone you are becomes vitally important.
Here in South Africa I realise it is even more complicated. During my internship I was discussing the topic of skin complexion with other employees. I learned I may actually be considered ‘coloured’. I had assumed skin tone was the only feature that gave one this title of being ‘coloured’ or ‘black’. My South African friends said that I would be considered ‘coloured’ not only because of my skin tone, but also due to my hair texture and other features.
This was all crazy to me.
Firstly, it was crazy to even think of people being referred to by that word ‘coloured’. In the United States, ever since desegregation, calling someone coloured is a huge insult to their existence. In the USA the name coloured during the Jim Crow era was used to identify non-white individuals. Eventually this term came with restrictions: ‘the coloured bathroom’, ‘the coloured sections’, ‘coloureds sit in the back of the bus’. These were all various ways the term would be used in regular dialogue and signage around the area. Black people were referred to by many derogatory slurs, and ‘coloured’ was just one of these.
The word came to hold a deeper meaning – it wasn’t just a way to describe a non-white person, it was used to show a group of people they were less than the white people. Nowadays, in the States you may hear a group of minority individuals being referred to as ‘people of colour’, but never would you hear the word ‘coloured’ to describe someone.
The other thing that made it feel crazy for me is that it made me feel rejected in the one place I thought I would be accepted. Although I cannot track my heritage further than any country in Africa, I had this hopeful feeling upon arrival that I would be accepted here. However, in terms of looks, my features are different. That is because of slavery: I have traces of other ethnicities outside of Africa.
After getting over the fact that being called coloured was acceptable, I then learned that being coloured carries a different meaning in South Africa. I’ve learned that by definition coloured does not only mean you come from mixed descent. It is determined partially by physically features. However, I discovered it is also about culture – coloured people are part of a distinct cultural group here in South Africa. I guess the major difference is any non-white person in the states was considered coloured, whereas in South Africa, it is a term for a specific group of people and refers as much to culture as to colour. Coloured people have their own cultural traditions that differ from Black Africans and Black Americans.
Prior to my university experience, if anyone in the United States ever questioned my race, it was more than likely because they saw my mother and questioned hers. While attending the University of Kentucky, a few people have questioned my nationality due to my hair texture and other features such as my freckles.
On the other hand, individuals of African American descent have never questioned my race. I believe black people as a whole can range along a spectrum of qualities in their appearance. I have always seen a black woman when I look in the mirror and never really questioned it.
So it was an adjustment to say the least when arriving in Cape Town and finding out that I would be identified initially as coloured. I had to hold in that ‘excuse me’ that would usually follow if someone had called me coloured at home.
This experience helped me understand there is really only power in a word if you allow there to be. I had to understand that it is acceptable here, and that one word can have two completely different meanings in different parts of the world.
The world is a big place and it has been an interesting experience to discover how people outside of America view me.
Tell us: do you think terms such as ‘coloured’ are helpful ways to describe people?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.