Grappling with my Coloured Identity

My relationship with my Coloured identity has not been an easy one. I have constantly been grappling with it, trying to make sense of it. I have been trying to understand this part of me that people want to rename.

Primary School

Ignorance is bliss yet I was never ignorant. I recognised that there were physical differences between my classmates and I. The texture of our hair was different, we spoke differently, the colours of our skin were different shades; shades I did not see in my family. I recognised these differences, all children do, but I did not have labels for them. I did not know that later in my life; I would be faced with issues of texturism being the discrimination against people because of their hair types. I did not realise that at some point in my life, my accent would be the opening line in comedian’s acts. I could not even begin to fathom that the colour of my skin would lead to my oppression, criminalisation and segregation. I did not comprehend that I would have to grapple with my identity daily.

High School

My identity became something I started speaking about more. At this stage, I knew that I was Coloured. It was imprinted in me every time our teachers had to fill out those census forms from the Department of Education. “Can all the Coloured people please raise their hands”- all three of us would do so.  This occurred every year but this did not make me understand that I was Coloured. I knew so because I was told by my family, by my school, by the forms I had to fill in, that I was Coloured. This was my reality, but it was also the reality of all my peers. Yet there was little knowledge of my identity in high school, not because I did not want to know, but because there was no intrinsic reason for me to state that I was Coloured. There was no reason for me to ensure that people knew who I was/am and that subsequently, I was proud of who I was. The politicisation of my identity became more prominent when I attended university.

University

It is in university that I came to understand the importance of my Coloured identity and where I was forced to grapple with the origins of it. The very idea of ‘grappling’ is that it is difficult, that it is a struggle and this has been the case of my relationship with my Coloured identity.

I made it my mandate to ensure that I would be vocal not only about the issues Coloured people face but also to represent Coloured people accordingly. As a result, I started my own blog in 2017, Colour Me Coloured: Different Shades of Poetry. The expectation with this blog was that I would only write poetry that related to Coloured people, as if Coloured people are not allowed to feel or be anything else but Coloured. As if Coloured people are one-dimensional. My blog contains poetry about everything because even though my blog is not technically centred on Coloured people, it is written about my experiences as Coloured woman in South Africa; being able to experience and feel emotions just like any person of any race.

I then decided that I wanted to create a platform solely dedicated to Coloured people. I created a Facebook Page titled, Coloured Chronicles. And that is what the page is dedicated to; telling stories about Coloured people of Coloured people by a Coloured person. These posts range from serious posts, one of which is titled “Coloured people do not belong in Africa”. This post was sparked by a comment made in my Political and International Studies lecture when a student said that, “Coloured people do not belong in Africa” while we were having a class discussion about belonging and citizenship. This was the first time I doubted my identity while being at university because of how personal her words were and how attacked I felt. It was personal as it was the first time I questioned my belonging in South Africa and subsequently Africa, as this is the only home I have known. I jokingly remarked that I finally understood how White South Africans feel when they are told to “Go back to where you come from!”

The other posts are more light-hearted such as the superstitions Coloured people have as well as the sayings Coloured mothers use a lot. But this platform was important for me to create in order to be able to control the representation of Coloured people, even if it was only on my Facebook page. What is important to note is that often, we have to create our own platforms in order to be heard. Two other people who do this well are Kelly-Eve Koopman and Sarah Summers, creators of the Facebook group, Coloured Mentality. They also wished to inform the public about issues that pertain to Coloured people as well as sharing positive stories about Coloured people and not only conforming to the stereotypes that have been set for them. They published two of my poems, “I’m Too Warm” and “Colour Me Kleurling” that received astounding feedback.

I was never really confident about the material I produced about Coloured people as I am aware that all of our (Coloured people) experiences differ. Our histories and lived experiences are not the same and this is something I try to disclaim as often as I can. I might have a blog and a Facebook page about Coloured people but it does not mean that I have all the answers or that I can even speak on behalf of all Coloured people. It would be ignorant of me to assume that all Coloured people had the same views. Yet through the feedback I received, I realised that many Coloured people experience the same things I have experienced and were able to relate to my work. This inspired me to write more as I knew I was writing with a purpose.

Friends

Most of my friends are Black, don’t worry , I checked and they are fine with me using the word ‘Black’ to describe them as that is the identity they ascribe to. Yet I have never felt out of place with them or like I did not belong. I know that we are different and that our histories; although both oppressed, are not the same. We recognise this and have never tried to compare oppression (it just does not seem like something that should be compared). But when I speak to my friends, I use my White accent, automatically but also consciously. Many people switch accents subconsciously yet I do not subscribe to this. My accent changes as a means to fit in, to be more acceptable in that space, to sound intelligent because we are told that if we articulate ourselves in a certain manner, that we sound ‘educated’. But I have also known that I was Coloured, despite being able to understand and speak IsiXhosa and to adorn my head with ‘doeks’, I was and am always aware of my race.

Family

My family is proudly Coloured. There is never a missed opportunity to talk about how they were affected by Apartheid. They are always ready to analyse the past and how it affects the present. My cousins are very passionate about the Afrikaans language to the extent that my eldest cousin encouraged us (strongly) to visit the Afrikaans Taal Monument in Paarl. This was done as a means to ‘get in touch with our heritage’. It is obvious that language is an important part of being Coloured in my family.

My family has never been confused about their identity, they have always been Coloured; that is all they know, it is who they are. Sometimes I envy them for not having to change their accent in different settings and for not being faced with comments such as “Coloured people do not belong in Africa”. But perhaps they are facing struggles, systemic struggles. Perhaps they are followed by the security guard when entering the shop, perhaps they are denied that job because the quota had been reached, perhaps they are overlooked because the assumption is that they are not qualified enough.  

Perhaps my struggles and theirs are not the same, yet I am no longer trying to debunk or critically analyse this relationship with my identity. I am now starting to grapple with the idea that perhaps their struggles will become mine. It is at that moment where I will realise that you do not necessarily choose who you are but that the system does so for you.

Feature Image taken by Jenna Sutcliffe

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