“But you’re not black” (part one)

“But you’re not black.”

This is a phrase (or something to that effect) I hear often when I introduce myself and say that I am South African. Not that I am from South Africa but that I am actually a South African.

Depending on my mood, I say something like this in return:

cheeky mood: Yes, well, used to be black but now I have been in Finland so long and away from the sun, I have turned white, blonde and blue eyed.

historical mood: “Well in 1652, the first white settlers came to the Cape to set up a refreshment station…”

more cheeky mood: “Have you heard of Apartheid or Nelson Mandela?” They answer: “Yes” I say, “Well, who made all those problems… white people” then I point to myself.

Confident mood: “Did you know that Charlize Theron, the actress, is from South Africa? She’s white and blonde.”

Sometimes I just want to stand up, put my hand over my heart, get dewy-eyed and recite Thabo Mbeki’s I am an African speech. Yes. the.whole.thing.

Every now and then I get follow up questions along the lines of “how can this be”. Were my parents missionaries? (No) How long has my family actually been in South Africa? (300 years) Is my whole family white? (Maybe, maybe not. I have not looked into it) What is my home language? (English, but I also speak other languages) Did I go to school in South Africa? (Yes. And university too) Am I going back to South Africa? (YES!)

When I posted about this situation on facebook, I found out that many non-black South Africans experienced similar questions when they travelled to places that were not overrun by white South Africans (i.e. London, Australia and New Zealand). This warmed my heart, because I realised that I was not alone. I was still South African, even if some people I talk to think I am just trying to be novelle or silly like a child saying she is a fairy because she wears fairy wings.

I said “non-black South Africans” but this is a very awkward phrase. In Europe I seem to be seen as “not black” and therefore not African. There seem to be few questions about what it means to be classified as black or white or chinese or whatever here. But in South Africa, I would write about the terms of race in inverted commas, trying to point to the fact that these are constructions of ideology and not ahistoric notions. Apartheid was very clear in demarcating races through various measures: A person born in South Africa was labeled as a race which entitled or dis-entitled them to various rights. The racial classifications were: Black (but people who were put in this category were not considered South Africans. they were seen as citizens of fake homelands within SA’s borders); Indian; Cape Coloured; Malay; Griqua; Chinese; Other Asian; White and Other Coloured. And in present day South Africa these labels continue to be used often uncritically in day to day conversations and descriptions of people although they are no longer legal tender.

How South Africans conceptualise race might seem strange to those not familiar with the complexities of South Africa. For example, BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) policies that favour the employment of non-white people over white people are still a hotly debated topic. Also, the concept of white privilege – that just by being white, white people have been and continue to be extraordinarily privileged in South Africa – is a hot potato. Just have a look at this “I benefited from Apartheid” t-shirt campaign and the hoo-ha it raised. At the same time, race is also the basis of much of South African humour (i.e. Leon Schuster and Trevor Noah). Maybe we laugh about it, so we won’t cry about it?

It used to frustrate me so much feeling like I had to justify my Africaness to foreigners. Like I had to prove how truly African I was. But recently, I realised that they just don’t know and they want to find out, so they asked. It was me, who was trying to prove my Africaness rather than them trying to trip me up with questions. And I had to ask myself why I was doing this.

I am going to leave my personal thoughts on being a white African living in Europe for part two otherwise this post is going to get waaaaaaaaay too long.


One thought on ““But you’re not black” (part one)

  1. […] a previous post I dipped my toe in the mighty ocean that is understanding conceptions of racial difference and […]

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