“Are you black?” he bluntly asked me from the front of the taxi; a casual question, likely prompted by the boredom of our long and motionless wait behind a never-ending sea of traffic following the New Years celebrations in Cape Town’s city centre. I told him my dad was from Ethiopia. A grin spread across his face. “Ah, then you are a child of Africa,” he replied, with a certain air of approval in his voice. I was instantly filled with happiness at his remark. I nonchalantly smiled back, trying to conceal how embarrassingly overjoyed I was on the inside as I thought to myself, ‘a stranger actually knew I was black.’
I knew that coming to South Africa, race would be something I would be confronted with at some point. Early on, I realized that race dynamics here weren’t necessarily worse than what you’d see in the U.S., but simply more overt. While racism is not something you actually encounter on a daily basis in Joburg (it also might depend on where you are… Cape Town, for instance, seemed somewhat worse in terms of racial divisions), something that does constantly stand out are the definitions. Simply the word “coloured” – something not so politically correct to still use in the U.S. – has survived here as a non-offensive matter-of-fact term to refer to basically anyone who is not white, black, or Indian (the three other political categories during the Apartheid era). Whereas in the U.S., people seem so cautious to use any term which might offend, so much so that the words black and white must sometimes be diluted with African American and Caucasian (words that aren’t necessarily any more accurate in their labeling), in South Africa, the remnants of old racial classifications don’t seem so hidden.
And in this context, something I didn’t necessarily prepare myself for, was an inexplicable pull towards defining my own race. Constantly surrounded by these categories, and even the evident racial divisions linked to economic circumstances (again, not something unique to South Africa, but perhaps something that just stands out more when white people are actually the minority), I’ve just felt a strange need to somehow declare my own place. And in particular, a need to make known my African side. It is largely irrational, I know – a feeling I think arising from the history of racial divisions here and somehow not wanting to be associated with the side that only 20 years ago was the oppressor. And yet, while irrational, especially considering how much has in fact changed since then, there are still certain stereotypes, assumptions, and in some cases, unsettling power dynamics that do remain.
This fear of stereotypes and assumptions is all the more heightened within my particular field of work: humanitarian aid. While I am not the foreign white person barging into African communities, handing out food, and taking pictures with the hungry children I’ve “helped,” I am still the one helping to write reports and web stories that give visibility to other foreigners who do so. This is not to say that the work my organization does is not absolutely vital and life-saving for millions of people, but just that the kinds of images produced by humanitarian and development work as a whole still tend to lend themselves to divisive racial stereotypes (often by request of the donors themselves).
And by extension, partially because of stereotypes that have arisen through aid work, the matter of entering new communities as a foreigner, and trying to build meaningful relationships with people of different cultures becomes complicated by a range of assumptions. In my own case, at least, I can’t help but worry any time my actions seem to fulfill the expectations of the stereotypical white person going into an African community and trying to make a difference. My concerns of having to overcome these stereotypes, actually, are less about those in the community, and more about those of the outside world.
I’ve been going to one of the townships near my house each Saturday, for example, to help out another lady who’s been running a childrens class there. I’ve been facilitating a Baha’i junior youth group (basically meeting with a group of 12-14 year-olds to do a workbook and art projects that focus on spiritual/moral education). I am keenly aware of the fact that I do not live in the same community, and that my accent is sometimes difficult for them to understand, and that I cannot speak the language that many of them speak at home, and yet I also am aware of how well the kids respond to the group and the lessons and songs and quotes they learn each week. Sometimes I step back and think, from the outside, I probably just look like exactly what is described in billions of articles and blog posts about how harmful voluntourism is: a foreigner going into a community and trying to make a difference. But I know that this is not the same – I do in fact live here, and I do have the chance to invest time in building relationships with these kids, and more than anything, this is not something I would only do in Africa – this is something that I would aim to do anywhere I am in the world, and this just happens to be where I am now.
And yet, a part of me still worries that because of my skin color, my actions and intentions will become skewed somehow. And with these concerns, I’ve also become more aware of the uncertainty that surrounds how I actually define my own racial identity. I realize with the fears I’ve just written about, I’ve basically described myself as white, and also just previously mentioned how happy I was that someone saw that I was black. It’s honestly not something that I’ve felt the need to really decide which I identified more with until now – until questions surrounding racial stereotypes and assumptions of privilege have become a silent, underlying factor in my daily activities.
I still have no idea what my “racial identity” is, but in this context at least, I’ve found myself more and more self-conscious and even resistant of my “whiteness” …of the fact that regardless of how many times I declare myself to be African-American, or “black” by some definitions, or at least, equally as black as Barack Obama…the truth of the matter is, that from straight outer appearances at least, I am still a light-skinned foreigner. And in this day and age, particularly with this topic of race and ignorance and stereotypes and white privilege seeming to pop up constantly all over the internet, I worry that anything I say on the matter may be interpreted as a manifestation of my own white privilege….and yet, if I can be considered “black” by some in the U.S….or “coloured” here in South Africa, then can “white” privilege even technically apply to me? (also. don’t even get me started on all the “what not to say to a mixed person” articles I keep coming across and the endless confusion/guilt I feel for not getting offended by all the things that I am apparently supposed to be offended by as a mixed person….it’s not that I don’t get the reasoning behind why calling someone exotic or asking them “what are you?” has its issues, but at the same time, I just can’t personally get myself to feel offended by such comments. And sometimes I feel like there’s just waaayy too many potentially offensive things in the world to keep track of these days. In fact, even just stating that opinion makes me feel like I’ve probably just offended someone.)
Either way, in the simple fact that for basically my entire childhood, I never remember even thinking about the fact that my parents were different colors, or what my own racial identity was, or wondering where I “belonged” as a kid (for instance, you always hear of people saying they never felt white enough for the white kids or black enough for the black kids)…in that, there was privilege. In the simple freedom to live my life without a thought towards what role race played in my daily interactions or the opportunities I would have later in life, there was immense privilege. Whether that can be labeled “white privilege” or not, I honestly still don’t know…but I think it is irrelevant. Privilege is privilege.
And, when society actually forces you to define yourself, you also begin to realize how completely ridiculous the whole concept of race is in the first place. The first time I ever even used the label “Black or African American” to describe myself was when I applied to colleges, and my parents suggested that I should tick that box. “If Obama is African American, then so are you.” And so it went. From then on, I was suddenly a “black” person by definition. The arbitrariness of race as a category never ceases to amaze me…and yet, as arbitrary as the definitions and labels themselves are, the social implications caused by their mere existence still remain. So for all those who like to argue that race is arbitrary and that by continuing to bring it up as a topic only serves to create tension, they are ignoring the ultimate fact that our imaginary categories of human differences still perpetuate very concrete social and economic divisions. Ignoring race as a whole becomes an excuse to ignore the deeply imbedded inequalities in our social systems.
I think this is the perfect place to end my rant on race. I realize this has been rather long and rambling, and essentially reached no real points or conclusions, but you know what, I think that quite nicely reflects how I feel about the topic as a whole – one big confusing mess of things that don’t really make sense, and yet still need to be said.