A friend of mine recently asked a group of our white friends what they thought about race. His question was “Do you feel like we have to tolerate one another? Or is it just harmonious and effortless being around the diverse group?” This question was asked in the aftermath of two more black people (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) being killed by the police in America, which again brought attention to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, even here in South Africa.
I am neither black nor white and therefore have never experienced the oppression and fear which I can only imagine black people experience every day, nor the inherent privilege which comes with being white. I am pretty much somewhere in the middle: formerly disadvantaged, but still allowed to speak my mind because my relatively light skin tone and ‘white’ accent means that people listen to me before they shoot down my ideas and opinions, or dismiss me as being bitter about Apartheid.
I have often heard my dad say that we were too black to be white during Apartheid and that we are now too white to be black. It was funny to me when I was younger, but I realised eventually that it wasn’t a joke, but that instead, the words masked a deep-rooted anger and bitterness towards the system which led to an identity crisis for many coloured people like myself who still do not quite know where we fit in.
Nevertheless, as a coloured person, I can do my best to answer my friend’s question from my perspective:
As an extremely outspoken person (often with little to no regard for the consequences), I never felt any different to any other race until an incident in grade 8. A white boy in my class said that he would never marry a person of colour because of cultural differences. Coming from a Christian household like him, I honestly did not see how my culture was any different to his, but he insisted that he could never engage in any sort of romantic relationship, let alone marry, a person of colour for that reason. It was only then that I realised how different I actually was.
A few years later, when I was at university, I wanted to take my mom out for some cake. As we entered this little coffee shop, one of the ladies who worked there told us that they were closed. It seemed peculiar because the sign said “OPEN” and everything seemed to be in order in the shop, but because there were no customers in the little establishment, I brushed it aside and we left. My mom, however, angrily said that we were turned away because of our skin tone. That was a major moment in my life because it really dawned on me then that even my mother, who is the kindest, most long-suffering and sweetest human being on earth, had been so badly affected by racial discrimination in the past that even the slightest hint thereof now angered her (she never gets visibly angry).
These two experiences stand out because they truly opened my eyes to the more entrenched forms of racism which are considered to be acceptable (in the case of my classmate) and the more long-lasting effects of Apartheid on the people who experienced it (in the case of my mother).
To answer my friend’s question: There have been moments at the University of Cape Town when I felt uncomfortable and ‘less than’ my peers, especially my white peers, not because they treated me differently, but because I always felt that my white peers had this confidence which I just did not have. It is not that I am an unconfident person in general, I just always felt a bit dumber compared to the people around me who knew what a corporate bond was without having to Google it, or who had a favourite Woolies salad when I would not dare to enter a Woolworths for fear of spending my entire bank account in one go (student life was tough). However, I have never felt the need to tolerate anyone. Being around a diverse group of people has never been a problem for me because although I cannot claim to be colourblind (I definitely am not), I have never thought that anyone was any less or more deserving of anything than me simply because of the colour of their skin.
Of course, it is different for me. I am part of a newer generation where those of us who were privileged enough were able to attend schools where we were exposed to a number of different cultures from a very young age. Although I bear the secondhand scars of Apartheid, I have personally not experienced the horrors and pain of Apartheid firsthand like my parents did.
However, even for my generation, race is an issue. Institutional racism and inherent biases shape the world at large, especially the opinions and ideas of the generations before mine that lived through Apartheid, which are then transferred from generation to generation. This can be seen in debates about affirmative action, selection of sports teams and often on social media (the Penny Sparrows of the world).
These forms of racism are extremely hurtful and can easily cause disillusionment and bitterness in young people like myself. As a member of the first born-free generation, I have dreams of an equal and fair society where respect and success is earned on merit, where affirmative action is no longer necessary, where all young men and women are able to trust the police to protect them and where racial stereotypes are no longer perpetuated. Unfortunately, this is not yet my or anyone else’s reality.
To answer my friend’s question: for me, it is effortless to be part of a diverse group, but I am not blind to the fact that it is more difficult for others. As a coloured person, the most difficult issue is identity: where I actually fit in in this rainbow nation of ours, but that is a topic for another day.
Until next time
The Coherent Rambler