“But you’re not black” (part 2)

In a previous post I dipped my toe in the mighty ocean that is understanding conceptions of racial difference and national stereotypes. Today I continue to wade in those waters. I will stay in the shallows because I am not sure if I can swim in this ocean yet with its rip tides and powerful waves. I promised last time that this post would be about my experience as a white South African in Northern Europe. So, here we go…

I have never thought of myself as “not black” as so many people have described me here in their statement “But you are not black.” I have known for a while that I was seen as a white person but never as not-black. In fact the term “non-black” is probably not even a concept in South Africa (while “non-white” is very common, despite years of Black Consciousness). Sociolinguists would have a field day on this lingual distinction. With regards to appearances, I have never defined myself in the negative… a non-anything. It has always been in the affirmative. I am this. I am that.  In a similar way, I have always felt seen. I am part of a minority racial group and if I ever step out of places where white middle class Cape Townians congregate (certain shopping centres, beaches, dance clubs and churches), I stand out. But never as a “non” always as an affirmative. I think this is part of the Apartheid legacy that lives on and part of the effect of being part of the “privileged”.

And how does this relate to living in Northern Europe? Well, I think you have to understand where I am coming from to understand where I stand now. So, coming to Finland [land of many (but not only) blonde and blue-eyed people] as long as I keep my mouth shut I am sort of within the phenotypical norm. Here, my race is not noticed but it is observed. Here “white” is the norm while everything else is other and requires description, naming and classification. It would sound ridiculous for a French person to say “I am a white French person” or a German to say “I am a white German”. And this is what I mean by white race being not noticed but still observed. It seems that race though, is an awkward description in Europe and so other names, that denote the same thing, are used: Somalian-Finn; Morrocan-French etc. Here (like in South Africa), I think people assume a similar set of values, knowledge and  understandings based on exterior.

That’s why I think this statement “but you’re not black” is always said with such a surprised tone. Assumptions of shared experiences are made faster than the speed of the light reflecting off my pale complexion and into the back of their retinas. So, when my origins prove I have different experiences to Europeans, that I don’t really have a shared cultural basis, it challenges the questioner. And it’s true… I don’t think like these Europeans. I feel so different here. This is not my home. So many things feel strange and bizarre here. I smile at strangers. I hold doors open for older people (yes, even if they are only 40). I play in snow like a child. I don’t think a good system or process solves everything. I know what it feels like to have 50 hours of sunshine a week and not just in a season. I do not try to evade pain, death or complexity – these are an everyday part of life. Even if I look a bit like I do come from Europe (or there abouts), I want to point out that I really don’t. I really am not from here.

But the situation is further complicated. Because I am more familiar with “Europeaness” than I may like to admit. I grew up with Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm’s fairy tales as bedtime stories. I know more about the French Revolution in 1789 than I do about Mozambique’s war for independence in the 1970s. The stories of Mary Poppins and Jack and the Beanstalk have no South African equivalence in my cultural knowledge. Not that these did not exist… it’s just that I did not have have them in my life growing up. My school was so similar to Enid Blyton’s series “Malory Towers” that it was not a difficult jump to imagine the same things happening in my school boarding house. I also see my own racial and national stereotyping as I assume every person I see here who is “black” is from Africa. I want to walk up to them, ask them where they are from and point out that I am not from here either. Not considering for a moment that they might be from Europe.

Of course, now we get stuck with this idea of what does it mean to be “African” and what does it mean to be “European” and what has race got to do with. I think it’s far too complicated to write out here on this little blog and also, it’s far too complicated for me to even grasp fully. So what I have offered here are the beginnings of  my thoughts and feelings on a convoluted topic. Do you have any thoughts on this?


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