Every time I went to a party, sat with my friends, or participated in a class or an event, the inevitable question would pop up. It was like an elephant in the room, and as soon as there was an opportunity to address it, all eyes would fall on me. “But what are you?”. That question, although only five words, was always so loaded with intensity. Every time someone asks, even to this day, I can feel my heart drop a little because no matter what answer I give, there is always a bit of disbelief.

I would tell them I’m coloured, and they would respond by saying that they assumed I was Indian, or maybe this, or maybe that. I didn’t look coloured, apparently. My nose was too sharp, my hair too straight, and my accent too white. And so I would sit unpacking and explaining a family history that didn’t really make sense. There would be looks of confusion when I couldn’t explain who my grandfather was or why my mother had such white skin. 

My identity would never align enough with the prescribed signifiers, which often made people angry. Without a well-defined box to set me in, I became a glitch or a stain on a black-and-white background. You see, race in my country is a means of control. During the Apartheid, humans were regulated and restrained using race. If your skin, voice and accent were alabaster enough, then you could enjoy the freedoms of land, business ownership and free movement. If you were black or coloured, you were forced to follow some discriminatory laws. In fact, many many laws. All of which ensured that you couldn’t access a good life. Laws like the Group Areas Act, The Population Registration Act, and the Pass Laws Act all made sure to systematically and legally disenfranchise people of colour. And that history still lives on today – most people in this country who suffer from poverty and unemployment are people of colour. 

The mixed marriages act also particularly affected my existence and my struggle to make sense of my own identity. One of the reasons I struggle to explain to people What I am is not because I’m ashamed but because I don’t know. My legacy was wiped out as a means of survival. The Mixed Marriages Act ensured that interracial couples didn’t reproduce without legal punishment. So love affairs were scandals, and marriages were incomplete; babies were born without birth certificates, and legacies were blurred. Detailed archival information became reserved for legitimate families with legal rights and acceptable societal positions. But for my parents’ parents, my parents, and eventually me, these formal ties to one particular lineage or culture gradually fell away. And so for these ambiguous people to exist in a strict world, we adapted and assimilated just enough to be accepted. 

But even then, we were never quite black enough or white enough. 

One clear example of legacies being erased, and how ‘coloured’ can be used as a catch-all is found in the campaigns of the Khoi, San, Nama, Griqua and Damara people. These people were descendants of unique indigenous groups. But when apartheid began, they simply became ‘coloured’. This group argues that the South African Human Rights Committee should recognise that they each have an important individual background that cannot just be lumped in as ‘coloured’. They say, “Stop calling people “coloured” and recognise our diverse subcultural heritage along with all other Africans of diverse heritage. Just as we talk of Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi et al, so too should we talk of Cape Khoi, Camissa, Nama, Korana, Griqua, Damara and San. This would go a long way towards restoring confidence that there is a dignified place in South Africa for all.” 

I think this just goes to show that, fundamentally, being ‘coloured’ is not a singular experience. Every coloured person has a different heritage that affects who and how they are. This is why I roll my eyes when people don’t understand why I don’t fit into their mould of coloured, and this is why not every coloured person has access to a perfectly tidy family history. It just feels so simplistic, so reductive to assume that all coloured people will be the same. 

So if someone asks me again, just know I’m just as confused as you are, okay? Unfortunately, I don’t fit into your boxes, although sometimes I wish I did, just for easiness’ sake. Being coloured doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘Cape coloured’. Many coloured people in the Western Cape have Khoi, Malay or Camissa descent. In my case, being born in Durban meant that I would have a large Indian background, with familial oral histories revealing an even bigger mash-up of African, European and Australian ancestries. And so, until I can afford an overpriced DNA test, I guess I’ll just have to keep defending my right to multiplicity and expansiveness. 

Because being coloured isn’t just being coloured. There’s no one way to exist as a coloured person. ‘Colored’ is just a word they used to remove us from our roots and merge us with the Western world, which evidently only has space for White, black and something in-between.