During my younger years, when my classmates wanted to be mean to me, they would call me a “Coconut”. My relation to the innocent fruit was inspired by their belief that I did not behave or speak the way a black child was expected to. Therefore, I was reduced to a dark-skinned vessel with a white persona. In short, a coconut.
It was during that time that a list went around the school and chat app (Mxit) titled, “you know you are black when-”. It had insane characteristics of what it meant to be ‘black’ in South Africa and a lot of children found it amusing. Most of them could relate to jokes about their shared mispronunciation of words or items of furniture every house seemed to have. Although the list was meant as a joke, it was hard to ignore the dark undertone of its content and disrespect for our race. Moreover, it insulted the living standards, behaviour and appearance of the majority. I hardly qualified for half of the things on that list. For my classmates, it meant that I could not fit into the stereotypical description of what a black person was thought to conform to. It became the proof they needed to justify labelling and treating me differently.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I left such torment behind or blame it on children being naive. They were simply a reflection of a social belief system. Recently, an elderly man overheard my best friend and I chatting on the corner of the street. He angry approached us because something in the way we spoke triggered him to question our manner of speech. He clarified that he was upset about our use of English and twirl-tongue accent. He further mentioned that we looked wrong, pointing to my relaxed hair and extensions on my friend’s head. He criticised our sense of fashion, our mannerisms and implied a potential tempering with our skin to appear lighter. These are things he considered to be a rejection of black pride and specifically referred to us as a disappointment to our kind. His alternative was that we avoid being drawn to worldly influences or the desire to be the same as others. He was adamant that we would never be “a part of them”, I could only assume that he was referring to other races. Therefore, he wanted us to reject the urge to transform into anything other than what we are, black people.
Definitions referring to an individual’s race, describe it as a social construct used to differentiate people by shared characteristics such as the colour of skin, hair and so on. Hence, the idea of “black” people was inspired by the mid-to-dark complexion (dark skin) that they have, relative to their fair-skinned counterparts. The racial classification of people came in the wake of colonialism, enslavement of millions and in South Africa, from the implementation of apartheid. It was a division strategy, used to separate and justify the unequal treatment of certain groups. Unfortunately, the gradual personification of the term allowed for it to be passed through the generations and remain buried in the consciousness of people. The true horror lies in the realisation that something that was once introduced to segregate, belittle and humiliate, is now used as a reference for our existence. Black is something we were taught and forced to become, never something to take pride in.
These accounts are a portion of the true depth of the racial problem. South Africans continuously sing of an inclusive and equal reality. However, this is the perfect front to hide the subliminal battle that rages on. Despite counting off the years we’ve spent basking in the joys of democracy, the real problem lies buried in the minds of people as an unshakable belief. It is a belief that is fuelled by constant reminders of the classification in everyday life and interaction. For example, I’m reminded of my race when I have to indicate it on legal documents and applications, or when it’s bluntly portrayed in media adverts. The more persistent reminders come from the children who teased me, those who wanted me to conform to a list and an elderly man who felt disturbed by a conversation. From these experiences, I have come to understand that the real battle to end racism will always be hindered when we continue to classify and perpetuate the differences between us.
There is no right way to be black. Although we have every right to take pride in our uniqueness, it should not serve as a barrier with which we segregate ourselves from others. Instead, we should be advocating for the right way to be human as that is all we truly are.
Read one writer’s take on the stigma associated with interracial couples here.
Tell us: Do you agree with the writer that there is no right way to be Black? Why or why not?