Earlier this year I found myself in the midst of some new people, in a small town in South Africa that I visited for the first time.
As conversation rolled on, eventually one person could no longer contain their curiosity and simply blurted out to me, “But what are you?”
Another, equally baffled, said, “Yes, what are you?”
The first person expanded on the question. “Are you white, Indian or coloured?”
I squirmed in my seat. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this and it always makes me uncomfortable.
Not only do I find it forward and impolite, but suddenly a bright shining spotlight beams down on you. All eyes are on you. Everyone is waiting with bated breath for the answer that will solve the greatest mystery of the evening.
“Errr…ummm,” nervous stutter and deer-in-the-headlights look in my eyes. And the thought racing through my mind is, “But isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, umm… I’m coloured…”
Right – there – I said it. Are you all happy now? Can we get on with it?
Surprised responses as the mystery is finally solved.
“But do you have Indian ancestry?” says the woman who put me in the spotlight in the first place.
Really lady, drop it already!
“Errr… No. Not that I know of,” I say.
Finally, with curiosity satisfied, the group can put that issue to rest and the conversation moves on to something else.
Relief on my side. Can they see the beads of sweat forming on my forehead?
I hate being put on the spot like this over my race.
I am somewhat of a curiosity to some people. It seems the fact that I’m lighter-skinned, have ‘straight’ hair and don’t behave or speak like the stereotypical coloured person, causes people to become confused.
I worked with two people who were confused. One thought I was white – just a more olive-skinned white person. The other wasn’t sure if I was Indian or a mix of Indian/coloured or Indian/white.
Still others (some of the other coloureds I worked with) made snide remarks that I was trying to be ‘white’.
In South Africa black and coloured are two separate races. Coloured people are placed in a certain box and labelled with only ONE label when it comes to the way they look, speak, use slang and behave, despite the fact that not all coloureds fit in to that box. It seems the fact that I don’t fit this stereotype makes people nasty. Well, I make no apology for my upbringing, the way I speak, behave and carry myself. As I bluntly told my charming co-workers, if you have a problem with it, that’s YOUR problem.
The world is so obsessed with race. We are expected to tick a box and seal our identity. Race is a sensitive matter. Crimes have been committed in the name of race. Wars have been fought in the name of race. In America the Native Americans were first attacked and killed, then dumped on reservations and completely marginalised by European immigrants. In Australia the native Aborigines were viewed as less than human by British settlers, even hunted like animals and nearly exterminated. And in South Africa, an entire system, Apartheid, was based on race.
I am so tired of ticking boxes when it comes to race. Mainly, being classified in such an arbitrary group, i.e. coloured is so… well… it’s only applicable in South Africa. My German friend thought I was white. Americans thought I was Hispanic. Nowhere in the rest of the world do people think I am black and they certainly do not think I’m ‘coloured’ as this term does not exist anywhere else (except in America where it is used interchangeably with ‘black’).
This presents me with a dilemma. What happens should I immigrate to another country?
For instance, while in the US I noticed the race categories – none of which I fall into.
I applied for a drivers licence in Texas. The official behind the counter told me I hadn’t filled in my race. Mmmm, now there was a conundrum.
I looked at her and said, “Well, what do YOU think I am?”
Utter panic flashed across her face. Isn’t it just amazing how matters pertaining to race make people panic. They fear saying something wrong or being politically incorrect.
So I leaned forward slightly, cocked an eyebrow and asked, “Is there a category for ‘other’?”
“Yes,” she nodded in relief.
“Okay then,” I smiled. “Other it is!”
‘Other’ or ‘Mixed Race’ always works for me when I’m trying to place myself in a box somewhere outside of South Africa.
Because let’s face it. I’m not quite ‘white’ (even though I have some European and Scandanavian ancestry), and I’m not exactly the picture of ‘black’. And what is the coloured race? The coloured race, as the Oxford Dictionary so succinctly points out, is mixed.
The Oxford Dictionary describes ‘coloured’ in the South African context as:
Adjective (Coloured) South African used as an ethnic label for people of mixed ethnic origin, including Khoisan, African, Malay, Chinese, and white.
As much as the following may make some white people in South Africa feel uncomfortable, let’s just call a spade a spade. White settlers in South Africa bonked black people and had babies. And bada-bing-bada-boom – the coloured race came about.
Now many people in South Africa like to cling to the fact that coloured people are descendants of the Khoi and San tribes. White people, in particular, are a lot more comfortable with this belief than the fact that their great-great-great-great grandfather shagged a black woman.
Yes it’s true, some coloured people are descendant from the Khoisan (the native bushmen and hunter-gatherer tribes of South Africa). However, this is not true for ALL coloured people. The European influence cannot be denied – that’s why you have the lighter-skinned coloured people with silky straight hair. DUH. Now when you do have ‘straight’ hair as a coloured person, you are immediately pegged as being from Muslim or Indian descent. Again, people are more comfortable with that belief than the fact that European blood flows through the veins of coloured people. And again – the Muslim or Indian lineage is true for some coloureds, but not for all.
Therefore it also stands to reason that it’s highly likely many white people have some black or coloured somewhere in their own lily-white family – a darker-toned skeleton lies buried deep in their closet. The truth is our forefathers mixed with one another and there’s no getting around it.
There is so much confusion and misunderstanding of the coloured race in South Africa, that most coloured people themselves are confused. Many have decided to call themselves black. Those with Khoisan roots are fiercely protective of their heritage. And the rest are just wafting along not entirely sure how they ended up on the planet. With such a complicated bloodline and range of physical features (some who look black, some who look white and the rest who are in-between) it’s no wonder confusion reigns and the debate rages on.
But, to once and for all solve the mystery of my ancestry, here’s a snippet of it.
- My surname ‘Norling’ is Swedish.
- My mother’s maiden surname is Petersen – also Scandanavian.
- My great-grandfather was Dutch with the surname Theunissen. He married a darker-skinned servant girl from the island of St. Helena, and my maternal grandmother was born. My grandmother was therefore classified ‘coloured’ while all her sisters were white.
- My paternal grandmother was Stander – so somewhere along the line there is Dutch in her genealogy, although she is decidedly more dark-skinned (pointing to black in the genealogy).
- There is a dash of French in the mix.
- And in and amongst all of this there is black – Robert Norling arrived in South Africa from Sweden many moons ago and hooked up with a black woman.
- I also suspect there’s Malay in the pot as well – which is where I think the ‘Indian’ attributes come from.
So there you have it – what I know of anyway.
Now with that ethnic mix, I ask with tears in my navy blue eyes (brown eyes actually) – when it comes to the race issue, if I land up in another country one day – WHICH BOX DO I TICK?