Once Upon a Time When I was Coloured

Reflections on Being a Light-Skinned Brother in the New South Africa

Editor’s Note: I had the privilege of living in South Africa in 1998 during Nelson Mandela’s last full term as president while working as a volunteer journalist in Johannesburg. This piece was written on July 30, 1998 — seven months after arriving in the country. #ThrowbackTuesday

Growing up, I was not self-conscious about my skin color. Raised in a predominately Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by a spectrum of skin tones — brown sugar, coconut, honey iced tea, golden yellow. In my childhood mind, Black skin came in a variety of shades and sometimes with distinct physical features that I never imagined. (I still remember the time I met a Black person with blue eyes.) But for the most part the color I saw around me was brown, a tone I subconsciously identified with even though my mirror reflection was yellow.

At the end of the day, I was Black.

But after seven months in the “New South Africa,” I often wake up in the morning and wonder what new identity or racial classification will be imposed on my epidermis. It’s an imposition that occurs because of a peculiar racial cataract born of history that floats in the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. It is as Ralph Ellison said, “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” Their eyes graft foreign representations onto my flesh twisting, molding and distorting it into a representation alien to me.

“Do you call yourself ‘African American’ or ‘American black’,” asked the neighbor of Beryl, a woman whose family I stayed with during my first visit to Soweto. I told her I called myself the former, but the discombobulated look on her face as she raised the question said more than the question. What she was really saying was, “How can you call yourself African and American?” Yes, I told her, it is a bit complex and even though I am Black, I prefer to use “African” out of respect for my ancestors who survived the Middle Passage.

She found the statement interesting, but seemed to have problems with my use of the word “African.” As if to make a point about how un-African I am, the conversation soon changed to a discussion about how I looked. Beryl and her neighbor said that although I could “pass” as a light-skinned Black (read: Zulu, Sotho), I leaned more towards the Coloured category because my hair wasn’t “kinky” enough. I sat and watched the discourse about what I represent — not about who I am — take shape. Two Black South African women were having an evening conversation about me, yet it wasn’t about me at all. Before I could interject, I had already been caught, dissected and classified.

Me (left) in Johannesburg in 1998 with my friends Liz Gakuo and Eric Njuguna.

History superseded me. Indeed, prior to its first democratic all-races election in 1994, South Africa had been a pariah of the international community known as a land where a white minority oppressed and exploited a Black majority for centuries ultimately institutionalizing that oppression in 1948 under a system known as apartheid. Under apartheid, a system of racial classification was engineered whereby one was either white, Coloured (a person of mixed racial heritage), Indian or Black.

It is a history that has become a part of me because it frames my present. New stereotypes confront me. There is a perception that due to their racial confusion — they don’t know if they’re Black or white — Coloureds use drugs to escape their “tragic mulatto” predicament. A few months ago in the central business district of Johannesburg, a Coloured man called out to me from the crowd of the street. “Howzit, my brother? I got something for you,” he said patting his pocket with hand. He offered to sell me drugs.

It wasn’t the first time. Once as I sat in a parked car, a Black man came to the passenger window to sell me drugs. “Hey. You want ecstasy, marijuana…,” he said, listing his repertoire of drugs. “You Coloureds need drugs,” he said. I told him to get away from me.


I am between two racial classifications in South Africa: Coloured and Black. If you look somewhere between the “d” of the former and the “b” of the latter, you will find me there, trapped.

Here, the hybridity symbolized by my fair skin shapes me into a representation of what “Coloured” can be. This is in blaring contrast to America where under the “one drop rule,” one drop of African blood has shaped me into a representation of what “Black” can be. In South Africa, the emphasis is on the non-Black blood this is within you; in America, it’s on the non-white blood. If I had let it, I’m sure traveling between these two countries could have made me schizophrenic.

It must have been strange for South Africa’s Coloureds to see me, but not really see me. They see me in the mirror before they start the day. But they don’t hardly ever see the possibility of me, the possibility that I may not represent what they think I do. The possibility that there’s more we have in common than how our genes manifest in physically similar ways. I’m not in the mirror with them. I’m out of view. That’s why people always look so surprised when they see me and I tell them I’m Black.

While some Coloureds do identify as Black in a Pan-African sense, there are those who don’t. They complain that things were better under apartheid because at least they got preferences for jobs. Now they say it’s difficult for them to find work because under the government’s affirmative action programs that give priority to Blacks, they find they are not “Black enough.”

Some are so distraught with the country’s unemployment rate, high levels of crime and education crisis that they plan on voting for the National Party (NP), the very party which instituted apartheid, rather than the African National Congress (ANC). It’s a self-interested move to protect the small legacy of racial privilege afforded to them.

When I tell them that they would be considered Black in America, they seem a little taken aback. No matter where you travel in the world, one axiom remains true: Nobody wants to be “Black.”

Gaynor, a 24-year-old Coloured co-worker of mine who identifies herself as Black and voted for the ANC in 1994, couldn’t hold back her anger after she got off the phone. “I can’t believe it. What’s wrong with these people?” she asked. A Coloured friend of hers had just shared her intention of voting for the NP because she was upset with how the ANC governed the country. “After the way [that party] manipulated us to suit their political needs over the years, how could she do such a thing?” she wondered. The way Gaynor sees it, Coloureds are also the Other because they are “non-white” and therefore need to align themselves with a political party which seeks to move the marginalized to the center.

It’s not as if Coloureds are not in the margins. The Coloureds who make up Johannesburg’s homeless and destitute see me walking with my dark-skinned Haitian colleague and bypass her to ask me for money. “Baas (boss), could you spare some change?” pleaded a wiry, Coloured boy on whose frame hung clothes worn ragged by street life. “Sir, could you please help me,” asked an old, wrinkled face Coloured woman who could have been my grandmother. In me they see the familiar.

But I’m not. “I’m Black,” the words seem to be on repeat in my mind, spilling over into my speech. Whenever a Coloured person approaches me as if we were family, as if we were part of the same tribe, this is my defense. Classifying myself as a Black American makes me feel in control of my identity. I know what that label means; I don’t know about being Coloured. My American sense of blackness distanced me from foreign classification.

Not that my sense of what it means to be Black means much in South Africa. It seems one prerequisite for being Black — here synonymous with being African — is the ability to speak an African language. I never will forget the time my Zulu co-worker Lindiwe lamented: “I feel so sorry for you. You don’t know the culture, traditions or the language of your ancestors.”

Not being in touch with his ancestors was the accusation leveled at an African man who exited a mini-bus (called taxi here) that I was boarding. I witnessed a Black South African call another African a makwerekwere (a derogatory term for someone considered an outsider or foreigner) in part because of his inability to speak one of South Africa’s African languages. “You’re not African. You don’t even speak in African, coming in my taxi talking in English,” the driver said to the man.

Perhaps another prerequisite for blackness is how dark one is. Given that the Zulus are the dominant African ethnic group here, those who are “light” are often classified as anything but Zulu. Of course, being “light” is a purely subjective description determined by the classifier for, in addition to being considered Coloured, I’ve also been labeled as Sotho on occasion.

I don’t speak Sotho, so when a friend’s wife addressed me in Sotho after I missed her initial remarks in Zulu, she was dumbfounded again by my lack of a response. Finally in English she said, “Where are you from?” When I said California, she apologized. “I addressed you in Sotho and you didn’t respond. We shouldn’t assume that just because a person is light that they speak Sotho,” she said.

One of my assignments took me to a squatter camp on the grounds of an abandoned factory in Johannesburg where Roland (third from the right) invited me to write about the city’s homeless. (Photo by Johnathon Briggs)

Recently, Pamela, a fair-skinned African American woman I met at a friend’s house warming party, recounted how she was approached by a security guard while shopping for a dress in a department store. The guard, a Black South African, addressed her in Sotho, but when she responded in English, he said: “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a Black woman.” She was offended.

It is an offensiveness that I’ve shared at one time or another. Walking along a beach in Durban, one of the country’s major cities and gateway to its KwaZulu-Natal Province, I was called a kaffir (a derogatory term for Blacks). Or so I thought. Although I took offense at the remark which came from a young, white South African of Afrikaner heritage, it had been aimed at my more visibly Black friends who accompanied me. The young Afrikaner did not see me as Black enough to qualify for the remark.

It’s not surprising. I am often addressed by older white South Africans in Afrikaans, the language of white South Africans known as Afrikaners that derives its vocabulary from Dutch. If I do find the language itself ugly, I must confess it’s because I associate it with the language of the conservative, racist white Afrikaners who dehumanized Black South Africans.

It often happens that as I wait at a bus stop, a white woman will approach me — not the Blacks around me — and ask in Afrikaans if the bus has passed. It’s not until I respond in English with my American accent, that she realizes I’m not from here. I often speak long enough for white South Africans to realize I’m from America as if somehow that might make them realize I am a Black American. Other times, I would say a few phrases in Zulu to them, so they would think I was perhaps a light-skinned Zulu.

I’ve become a chameleon of identities, in the process imposing on myself the very thing I’ve been trying to escape: classification.

I’ve been so quick to say that I’m not Coloured, the intermediate category between Black and white, one which I equate with confusion. But I have no problem classifying myself as a Black American. Am I not entrapping myself in a comfortable classification, just with different restrictions? In the end, aren’t I still non-white and therefore, under colonial discourse, not representative of being human?

“You guys [African Americans] are so preoccupied with race,” my friend Eric said to me not too long ago. Born in South Africa, raised in Kenya, he was commenting on a conversation he’d witnessed between myself and one of my African American friends who lives here. Growing up in a cultural context where one is classified by one’s tribe, not race, he expressed his observation for my response.

“Whether I like to talk about race or not, the history of America is a racial one and that very much has shaped how I’ve come to perceive myself within and outside of its borders,” I said. The preoccupation with it is a side effect from being socialized in a racial context.

I’ve come to understand just how much I am a product of my culture, one that has rightly or wrongly caused me to grow attached to my blackness, when I should instead value my inherent humanness.

We are not defined by our genes, but by our culture. Our culture gives us a lens through which we gaze upon the world and ultimately determines how we view the physical expression of our genes. The “double consciousness” which Black American philosopher W.E.B. DuBois described applies even in the South African context: I know what makes me Black in a Pan-African sense; I also know what makes me “not Black” in a South African one. Our identity is not a genetic one, but rather a culturally determined one. Until the culture changes — in America and South Africa — the discourse which negates our humanness by locking us into categories will remain fertile.

Through it all, I’ve learned that the histories of being the Other in America and the Other in South Africa, are so similar that the attempt to distance myself from the Coloured representation by holding on to my American sense of “blackness” is foolish. We are both non-white. While they are not identical, they are similar. What we have in common is the struggle to realize our humanness in spite of history.

The reflection in the mirror is human, even if this truth is obscured by our need to comfortably classify ourselves. The reflection will stare back at us until we see clearly.

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