Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

You say I’m not African – but that’s where I’m from?

… And my parents were also born and raised in South Africa?

Those were the questions running through my mind during an encounter with a senior member of the English Department, Julia*, at a university here in Auckland where I was studying in 2014. We were pleasantly discussing possible PhD courses I could look at and we got side-tracked into a conversation about “globalising identity”. I said to her, “I am an African”. I was gobsmacked by the way her face changed. It looked as if she had dipped her face in freshly squeezed lemons then spat out the pips, the idea of me asserting my identity as an African was so repugnant to her.

Julia was fine with me referring to myself as a South African. With my biltong and veldskoen accent, it is clear where I come from to any Aucklander. But she was most offended when I removed that humble, place-marking adjective. I said it again, a little more slowly, almost teasingly: “I am an African”. I watched her face as she winced (literally), then looked away. She was now very uncomfortable with me. I shrugged my shoulders, somewhat offended myself, intrigued by my wish to hold onto my “identity”, which I didn’t realise till then was one I had, one I would defend and desire to substantiate. I said, “I was born and raised in South Africa as were my parents who also died there; some of their uncles and aunts and a grandparent were born there.” Julia, probably in her late forties, refused to reply or make eye contact. Her lips were now a string of barbed wire.

“What else can I be?” I then asked. “We were talking about globalised identity … perhaps I am an Irishman simply because I live in New Zealand with Kiwi residency in my Irish passport — because an EU passport is a lot handier than my South African …?” I let my words trail off while she turned away from me to look at her PC screen, switching the subject back to giving me advice on PhD matters. The atmosphere was charged, arctic.

Let me give some background explanation, which is no explanation — in the sense of being any reasonable justification for Julia’s behaviour. Julia is proudly part Maori, part Samoan and partly of British descent, among others. I say proudly because these identity markers are displayed all over her office door along with her resume as a poet and an academic. As an academic and as a citizen she is engaged in restoring and upholding Pasifika (specifically Maori) identity and is opposed to — wait for it — discrimination. Yet, for all the apparent truth-seeking implicit in genuine scholarship and erudition which should go with someone of her high-ranking status in a prestigious English Department, her attitude to me was one of unexamined racism. If I had been a black person, as an “educated” person she would have had no problem whatsoever with my assertion, “I am an African”. So … what if I was an Egyptian or Libyan?

What am I? I am not only an African, of course, but that part of me is inescapable.

In terms of birth, culture(s), and that deep honeycomb of stored memories of Africa: the sounds of Afrikaans, Zulu, South African English and the smells of the land — from the townships I taught in to the wet, earthy smells of the Magaliesberg, the dry fragrance of Namaqualand, or childhood braai smoke combing my face, the ash and dirt ingrained in the soles of my feet … if I am not an African, what am I?

AFP

AFP

How did our conversation get to that frozen silence? It began just before my appointment with Julia, as I stood outside her door, about to knock. On her door, among the other posters, was a line from a poem which banged my heart open before I knocked. As an immigrant with some personal experience of xenophobia and other prejudices, I breathed in the line of verse, which was as startling and bright as a trail of seagulls lifting off waves. Here it is:

The only land I have is that between my toes.”

The line struck true and sweet in me while I mouthed it again and again as an itinerant who has not known anything like home for more than a decade. (The verse has been attributed to different poets.) What a majestic line! What a deep sense of history, of living in any country that has been colonised, the original natives oppressed and disenfranchised. Be they Maori victims of the Waitangi Treaty, or all those, including their descendants, who suffered in the aftermath of the Battle of Blood River.

The word “land” is exact, with its sense of both earth and nation. That it is clinging between one’s toes suggests travel, no fixed abode, and “freedom” from possessions, yet the earth is precious in its ephemerality. The speaker avers there is nothing to possess. Some months later, when I thought of the line again, I misremembered it. The words had become the following in that alchemy, the honeycomb of my memory, and because of my own backstory as a “homeless” person: “All that I am is the land between my toes, or “ … the earth between my toes”.

I am and I have. Is there a difference, anymore?

Spiritual values are in danger of fading away. (Think of what that term resonates with: inner transformation through disciplines like meditation, caritas, prayer, art, self-sacrifice, simplicity, even chores like gardening.) In this super-materialistic global culture, the distinction between “have” and “am” is thoroughly blurred. Do not possessions, that which we have, now determine what we are, in ways we cannot fathom, including having a false sense of national or iwi identity? It was more or less in the space of this sort of discussion between a South African wanderer who has finally, legally, settled in New Zealand, and a “learned” academic who constantly asserts her Maori and Pasifika identity, that I unwittingly dropped the bombshell, “I am an African”. After that, we both retreated into our identities. Through her awful silence she showed she did not value my identity. After careful reflection I realise I did not value hers as I felt she was using her sense of jingoist identity as a post-colonial victim (and recipient) of the Waitangi Treaty to impoverish my personal, unique sense of individuality and roots.

To be honest, I am, to this day, some nine months later, quite angry with her and her shitty attitude. I am angry with the fact this deplorable manner came from a “scholarly” person who upholds human rights and dignity for all — or so I readily assumed. It is also because this is only one incident — perhaps a bit more striking than others — among many disturbing moments of racism and other prejudices I experienced while at the university, which came from people I would have thought were more “educated”. My seven years in China have made of me an innocent, a naïve person used to teaching kids. For me, education collocates very closely with enlightenment, with courageous truth seeking, rigorous honesty with oneself, or so one would like to believe — not blinkered, unscrutinised viewpoints or digging yer heels in.

But then, am I not also at fault, in my inability to fully forgive, to not feel a greater compassion for Julia’s background, complex as it is with her politically correct claims to many diverse roots? The key seems to remain identity-less, if that is possible. Is that possible?

Is Julia what I don’t want her to be, an overeducated person, head somewhere up in the cerebral clouds, with a huge chip on her shoulder whilst celebrating Pasifika identity through oral poetry and so forth, yet deeply prejudiced because, as I am not black, how dare I say I am an African?

All that I am is the muck under my feet. All that I have is those crushed diamonds between my toes, the bits of earth through which both kings and ants have been milled.

*Not her real name.

Follow Rod on Twitter @Rod_in_China

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    • http://batman-news.com Tammilee Pike

      Thank you for writing this. I am living in the UAE and everyone asks “What nationality are you? Where are you from?”. These are common to and from everyone. I am apparently white and English is my first language. I must be british or even american. They can accept that I was born in SA but when I try and explain that my parents and grandparents were, there is disbelief. Where are my “people”? Africa…I don’t have a single family link anywhere else.

      I work with many south africans, from all races and backgrounds. Trying to get people to understand that we are all african is just impossible sometimes.

      The british and the americans throw around the acronym “TCN” third world country nationals, they mean bangladeshis, nepalese etc. I then have to explain to them ,that by that defintion, I am one of the people they are being disparaging about.

    • Simon Page

      Thanks for writing this Rod.

    • russell swanborough

      You weren’t an underdog; she couldn’t like you. I have seen and felt it many times around the globe.
      A year or two ago a white African boy from SA, now living in the USA, entered a competition for ‘best African’ in his school. The officials were outraged that he could pretend to enter such a competition even though he was the only PROPER African there. Prejudice runs deep.

    • Peter

      What a brilliant article, itjust shows there are problems all over the world !

    • John West

      The question now becomes, were you always African and just how did you become “African”? Let’s look at the argument from birth from another historical angle. Can all peoples, with the exception of the Tribal Nations of North America, of course, say they were “Americans” before 1776, when there was no such entity as the United States of America? And on the opposite cultural end, too, can any African tribal peoples have blood lines tracing to Europe? Curiously, the author does!
      From a legal standpoint, and not by self appointment, the African American and Afro Brazilian are legal citizens of their respective countries by ADVISE AND CONSENT of some representative body called congress, a body which the majority of South African tribal peoples were not party to and had no input in the decision making process. It must also be the case that all immigrants to England become citizens by ADVISE AND CONSENT of parliament or some such legal body representative of the wishes of THE PEOPLE. And weren’t the Normans eventually absorbed into English cultural by some legal process agreed upon by all interested parties?
      So this argument from birth is problematic at best and ultimately proof of nothing. Can peoples born in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong claim to be Chinese? After all, the British were there some 100 years, weren’t they? Amazingly enough, the Portuguese, colonial masters over many territories, including Angola and Mozambique, do not advance any such notion as being African. Or Brazilian, for that matter.

    • John West

      Why, then, do you not look like an African? Just how did two ethnicities so completely different physically develop not looking like one another although inhabiting the same space?

      On another subject involving color, I find it amusing that someone born blond and blue eyed yet finding an African ancestor in the family line somewhere back cannot claim ever to be Caucasian owing to the “one drop rule.” Please see “One Drop,” by Bliss Broyard, an interesting look into the subject

    • John West

      Questions of color are oftener than not confusing. Take the author, for example, who states he’s without reservation “African.” Yet North American singing star Mariah Carey is considered “black” and not the Caucasian she looks like. I guess the matter depends on who’s making the rules!

    • Docpam

      Thank you for sharing this. Those whites from South Africa apparently do not come from anywhere as they cannot be ‘African’. I have also experienced this.

    • Bernard Leeman

      Best never to mention it. It is impossible to escape stereotyping.

    • Allan R. Troskie

      I may not be AN African, but I AM African…

    • Chez

      I love this! My worst is when people refer to blacks as African and me as white. Huh? There is no continent or country called “White”. I am African; my parents were born here, 3 of my grandparents were born here and 2 of their ancestry’s (not sure how to put that) go back hundreds of years. I have never been to Europe and quite honestly, have no huge desire to either.
      I AM AFRICAN! As African as anyone else born here. And I am white.

    • Gary Smith

      I fully understand how you feel Rod! I’ve never thought of myself as anything but ‘African’. (in my case, 4th and 6th generation.) Isn’t it strange how one can come up against that kind of antagonism outside of Africa, often from people who’ve never even been here, and yet one may never experience it here? I have black African friends who see no problem with my sharing their ‘African’ identity. I guess some people just feel called to carry grudges, even they’re perceived other peoples’ grudges!

    • Candice Carrie Holdsworth

      Keep writing stuff like this. It’s brilliant and fascinating.

    • Jon Quirk

      Sadly I have noticed similar traits; generally in lesser universities and from rote-taught academics hanging on by their fingernails rather than from truly thinking and as a consequence still curious, academics.

    • http://blogsausbetties.com Walter Köppe

      “But then, am I not also at fault, in my inability to fully forgive, to not feel a greater compassion for Julia’s background, complex as it is with her politically correct claims to many diverse roots? The key seems to remain identity-less, if that is possible. Is that possible?” There you have it, I think. Julia’s response could be interpreted as: ‘You were never treated as an African – you have no experience of that aspect of subjugation – how dare you call yourself something that is the very opposite of who you are. I am speechless.’ Is it really necessary to claim a particular identity? In what context? Passport, citizenship are there to register you as tax payer while you might identify yourself above all as a Muslim. Is there a shared African identity from North to South? In what context? The recent Omar al-Bashir incident highlights the complexity of African identity. Maybe you should qualify your African identity in terms of the South African paradox that you are what you are not and that you are not what you are. – We recently had a visitor from Hamburg, Germany, born and educated there who’s parents had immigrated from Nigeria and settled in Germany. What kind of identity would he want to claim? As an African he is not a German, as a German he is not an African? Who then is he? To me, he is just another German. Others might see him as an alien. He himself couldn’t give a toss. He is both. That is the paradox. And we should strive to life with it.

    • solitoliquido

      Beautifully written; it shows, doesn’t it?

      At the root of much human evil, discrimination, hatred, prejudice, is one word: socialisation!

      How each one of us raises his/her kids; how we were raised; the ideas that were planted in our young minds by often well-meaning parents/guardians/society end-up shaping us forever. They shape our thinking vis-a-vis the world we interact with and vis-a-vis ourselves. Often, we’re not even aware of this influence. Unquestioned, this influence can build or break our world.

    • Mike

      A balanced and eloquent discussion on the “problem” of being a white African.

      I have had similar experiences in the UK.

      Most of the time it is from uninformed people who have been brainwashed by a politically correct media and education system.

      When I point out that they have no problem in seeing a West Indian or Pakistani born in the UK as British, then ask why a white person born in Africa cannot be African, most are willing to at least reconsider or rethink their position.

      Unfortunately, I have also been told that Africa “belongs” to black Africans, and that whites do not belong there.

      As long as racial identity is used for political leverage, I don’t think we will change the perception of Africans being black.

      But that’s OK! I have the smell of the braai and bushveld, and those magnificent sunsets to remind who I am.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      @ John West “why then do you not look like and African?” has to be a winner for questions displaying utter, staggering ignorance. How is an African supposed to look? A Libyan? An Egyptian? A Zulu? A Kenyan? A Rwandian? A Hottentot? A Khoisan? A Cape Coloured? A Greek? A Portuguese from Angola, say? A Moroccan? A fourth generation Chinese?John West, just taking a flyer, I would guess you are a Northern American, correct or not? I can hear that arogant, brash know it all, braying accent declaring the alpha and the oh-meeega (said with that nauseating Bible Belt drawl) on this subject about which you clearly know less than fudge all. LOL

    • Russell “rusty nuts” Geko

      I do hope you pointed out that if whites dont belong in Africa then blacks dont belong in Europe. Perhaps we could do a population exchange. Not could…should.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      I genuinely don’t remember such a sign. I remember the ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites’ or the ‘blanke’ and ‘nie-blanke’, but I seriously do not remember any sign saying anything about europeans. Maybe that was some place that I didn’t go to.

    • Richard

      Is it not for others to assess that? I mean, I might feel I am, say, Khoi, but if they don’t think so, can I say that I am?

    • Richard

      Yes, I concur. Some people, in their desperation to find some sort of “belonging” ignore the obvious. It is more of an insight into their psychology than anything else. It is really like a giraffe, being born in a stable, insisting on being called a horse.

    • Richard

      You do have family links elsewhere, somewhere in Europe. You just have to look for them. Only if you are black African can you truly say that you have no family links outside Africa.

    • Mark Linderoth

      The concept of having identity linked to a geographical space, with borders defined by a nationally held concept of a country, is a bit wierd to begin with. Then the need to hold onto this abstract sense of identity? I can understand why the ‘Julia’ in your article feels the need to hold onto hers, and perhaps her anger was a reaction against you not understanding the need to hold onto identity when it is being erased by globalisation. But I understand the need to hold onto an African identity in South Africa, when ‘whiteness’ and Eurocentricity is under constant bombardment and backlash from black nationalism. Perhaps it’s not about the name of the continent, but a search for identity beyond your whiteness. And for this I commend you. It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to. You claim for yourself what others would own under the banner of reactionary nationalism.

    • Chris911

      John West you are on point, I recently met an Englishman who was born and bred in India , a 3rd generation Englishman in India which was a colony of England. We got to debating this issue i.e. if he recognises himself as English or as Indian and without mincing his words he said,” I am British first but my home is India”. I didn’t need any convincing from there on.

    • Lynne Correia

      Why shoud it be for others to decide my identity. Oddly enough, we are instructed to allow people to self-identify gender identity, but not origin identity…even if that origin is backed up by centuries of documentation!

    • Lynne Correia

      I agree…but that is a different argument, surely.

    • Jamo Taylor

      I agree with you for the most part. Being African, in the sense that it means being a black person, is what most people mean when they call someone African (which is probably a bad idea to begin with) and of course that’s how the term African American came about. But I resent, as a white South African, being referred to as ‘European’. I’m a few generations South African – it’s either 4 or 5 on my Dad’s side, 3 or so on my Mom’s. I have no passport for any other country, and I have lived here for all my life, bar one year. I’m no more European than a black American or Frenchman is African. Yes, I’m white skinned, call me white, I’m not European. And culturally speaking, well, I couldn’t claim to be African because I don’t speak any African language or fit in with any originally African culture, as you say, but, as someone mentioned, we do as white South Africans cling on to what African identity we have and we don’t want to be considered foreigners in our own country. I am South African, both by birth and by culture, let’s all just leave at that and stop worrying about to what degree we are South African. Most of us have come from somewhere else beyond what are now our borders. It’s a complex country with a complex history and that is part of our shared culture. Remember the Rainbow Nation? Whatever happened to that phrase that gave me so much hope as a teenager? Ok I’ll stop before I get carried away… :)

    • http://www.wildcoast.com/ Wild Coast Web

      I enjoyed the article and discussion immensely. However the issue of national identity is one thing. While categorising oneself continentally is altogether another. It’s so ironic that people have missed the fact that “Americans” are also trans-continental wanderers, whilst the original natives are called Indians – just because old Christo missed the mark. Geddit?

    • Josh Juma

      of course you ain’t african the rest of you folks went back to your countries. You stay that doesn’t make you less of what you were just a few decades ago

    • Erhard van Zyl

      My best guess Mphikeleli, about 5%. Most of us whites are committed to this country.

      If it pleases you, you can call me Eurafrican, some people feel the need to label other people.

    • Helizna Kilian

      Surely you mean centuries, not decades…

    • Helizna Kilian

      Well, these days even that isn’t true anymore… with the African invasion into Europe… also, the Northern Africans have extensive genetic linkage with Mediterranian peoples due to the 2nd World War…

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Gary, I especially liked your remark, “often from people who’ve never been there”.

    • Morenike

      Rod. (You will probably hate me for this) Your South African identity has a date. You are a national by way of passport and birth. Your cultural, linguistic, philosophical, behavioral identity alludes to Europe, not to that of an African. It can never hold such intimacy with an African identity. Your experiences are of a European in Africa. I, whilst living in Britain must affirm to British culture but I can never be English. From my parents I could not inherent England, my experiences are African, my features African and thus the notion of being African transcends the ‘land between my toes’, transcends residence and finds its place in experiences, feeling, culture, feautures and inheritance.
      You don’t know racism, until you look African- sorry to burst your bubble.
      Allow me to expound; If I see a large forehead, skin like mahogany and hear words that stretch whilst rolling the tongue and ending each phrase with ‘eeee’, thereafter confirming my assumptions of ethnicity, with a name like Nagawa Kimuli – I would ascertain I am talking to a Ugandan (at least East African).
      If I am placed before a hooked nose, blue eyes and pale skin accompanied with a name like Jack Dean- well I assume Europe.

      I am black here. I have no identity other than black. Amongst ‘black’ peers that term loses itself, and characteristics are attributed to country of origin. Your country of origin is in Europe. And whilst it is imposed that I must assimilate accordingly to Britain, you have South Africa as your own. Your history is in conquering it. How would you know what it is to feel African? It’s been removed from the majority of us! You are a national of SA, yes. African has a more sentimental meaning. If I were to call myself English in front of my grandma, she would most certainly beat me!
      You look like the colonizer, I the colonized. I’ve inherited that history, and subsequently I’ve ackowledged racism as a fact of life outside of Africa and what you speak of above may feel like racism but everything is ok, you’re white.
      Let me keep my African identity and its authentic history free of european intervention.

    • Morenike

      ‘proper’, because of birth in Africa. Does actual descent not carry weight?
      I am African, I don’t live there, am I a proper African? I am not considered European despite living here.

    • Morenike

      Being African is so nuanced and complex and to be quite honest I am afraid of losing what it is to be African because of assimilation, colonisation & imperialism. There is one face that has pioneered the latter in Africa. I’m tired of my nieces learning English before their Mother’s tongue, that is painful. I’m tired of Africans experiencing racism in Africa. And I am afraid one day I will just be black. Or if I’m lucky black African.

      What does it actually mean to be African to you Rod? Is being born there enough?