Trevor McArthur

Race is too much of a sloppy concept to assist us in answering the coloured question

The “coloured question” revived itself, again. This time, not by politicians hoping to gain sympathy votes from the coloured majority in the Western and Northern Cape provinces. Jamie Petersen, a 22-year-old Cape Town resident, writing about her experiences of “being coloured in a black and white South Africa” sparked this latest wave of the debate. Gushwell Brooks responding to Petersen’s piece suggests that instead of holding onto one’s racial identity — that of being coloured [or not] — we should instead champion a national identity — that of being a South African. Like an older brother, Brooks informs of the internal contradictions and complexities he battles with. To me, it seems, based on his experience, it is a fruitless exercise to invest too much of who (and what?) we are on the colour of our skin (read: race). It seems, to me at least, that Brook’s advice to Jamie comes from a good place and was indeed sincere. Our next respondent, Danielle Bowler, begins to unpack the danger of assuming that a national identity will translate into equality or, better yet, lead to the eradication of racial tension and racism (I assume?). After all, it was in that vein that the “coloured question” resurfaced.

Bowler, in her column titled “Coloured identity and nationalism: no easy answers”, makes important declarations that deserves restating here. She notes, “the entire project of race is built on ignoring, compressing and abandoning difference, to make neat categories of identification. To make everyone the same, even when they are not. Race requires simple boxes to house people’s experiences, and does not easily accommodate the differences within communities that are only natural and inevitable.” I fully agree, and shall proceed from this point in my response to the “coloured question”.

To Brooks, I’m am sure you appreciate that in South Africa our spaces continue to be racialised, and our social ills (such as those you mention) continue to be disproportionally more prevalent among black and coloured communities when compared to Indian and white communities. This reality is a product of colonisation, slavery and apartheid — a fact we concur with. Even though the black majority are no longer enslaved by a minority elite race — though some may argue that 1994 simply replaced a white ruling elite with a black one; that is a debate for another day — the structural ramifications of apartheid remain intact. In light of these realities, I, too, like Danielle Bowler, would caution the prescription of a national identity as the panacea for racism and racial inequality persistent in present day South Africa. It is well argued — and there are many examples elsewhere in the world, but we do not have to travel that far, just look in our very own backyard — the rainbow nation was a dismal disappointment of the liberation. What you fail to engage with is how a national identity (whatever that is) will practically, materially and substantively counter the value and significance we continue to place on race in our individual and/or group identity construction/formation?

To Bowler, I can relate to you when you talk about your “personal rebellion of self classifying as both coloured and black”. I know the feeling all to well and, like you, and I think Jamie too, and possibly even Gushwell, the question “what it means to be coloured” continues to (re)surface in (re)discovering who and what I am. This is a deeply sensitive and personal journey, and at times to talk and write about it triggers emotions — as it does writing this response. It is precisely due to the personal nature of my journey, and, I am sure, that of others who may engage with our discussion, that I am penning my thoughts. I do, however, first want to deal with the concept of race — that seems to central to the idea or the notion of coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

I note with great discomfort the continued reliance on race as a lens through which to view the coloured identit(y/ies). It is even more frustrating to note the convolution of race with culture. For example, almost all commentators writing on this subject mention (but fail to unpack) how many “shades of coloured” there are, and yet each shade has the audacity to lay equal claim to such an identity (irrespective of their shade). Furthermore, authors continue referring to the “things associated with a particular race”, i.e. stereotypical habits and traditions associated with coloured folks, whether it be singing with Judy Boucher after we long passed the legal drinking limits with tears in our eyes (I confess: I do this very often), partaking in die Kaapse Klopsedie Rieldans, or eating Koesiestus (not koeksusters) as part of Sunday morning traditions (before going to church or curing the hangover from singing with Judy Boucher the previous night). I have to confess that these traditions are what I grew up (in Lenteguer, Mitchells Plain) and, even though I have moved up the social ladder, I continue to actively embrace and reject many of these traditions.

Race was never intended to account for the nuances and differences people experience. Race is too much of a nonsensical concept to provide for such tools of analysis. Furthermore, studies on blackness and whiteness (particularly in sociology and anthology) have long since disposed of race (as the primary tool of analysis), and have adopted other theoretical tools to better understand society. Yet, particularly in the South African context, we continue to insist that colouredness (as an example) should be understood through the lens of race. Before I continue, let me state: this does not mean that race is no longer a source of oppression. Even in the so-called “post-racial” America the wheels are falling off. So, I am not suggesting that we ignore race. I am, however, suggesting that we go beyond it.

Going beyond the simplicity that race offers, i.e. that we fit neatly into this or that racial category, allows us to better interrogate the ramifications of colonisation in contexts such as South Africa. I want to propose that we utilise culture as an analytical tool, since it provides us with much more possibilities. Through that lens, answering the “coloured question” makes it possible for me to dare say that colouredness is no different to Zulus or Xhosas. That Xhoi and San, just like Sotho and Xhosa, women were raped by settlers (some may argue to different extents — but that, for now, is irrelevant), and today (many moons later) nobody questions the “legitimacy” of (what we now refer to as) “yellow bones” — that is, light of complexion Xhosa and Sotho chicks or dudes!

Culture accounts for how we are socialised, the values and social norms we hold dear, and which may define us. Culture allows us to consider the teaching and the learning of behaviour, beliefs, traditions, etc. Culture affords us the opportunity to explore the contradictions, the complexities and the nuances of different groups of people in South Africa. Culture, Danielle Bowler, allows you and I to be comfortable with being both black and coloured. Like you say, Bowler, “race requires simple boxes to house people’s experiences”. Indeed, colouredness is complex and, like Gushwell reaffirms, there is no hegemony of what coloured people are. They indeed accept, reject, remake and embody the experience of being coloured in different ways, in different time and spaces, and outside of South Africa. And that is okay!

Race is too much of a sloppy concept to help us understand why South Africa (and many parts of the world) continues to oppress people on the basis of the colour of their skin. In that way, I refuse to engage the “coloured question” through the lens of race (because race essentially is limited to the colour of my skin). Ironically, I am darker than many of my friends who the apartheid government would have classed as black. So, technically, “I am not a proper coloured” — as somebody from my distant past asserted! That’s just it. There is no pure anything. All of us are share an ancestry, some more recent than others.

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