As soon as he stopped me in the streets of Braamfontein to ask, “What are you?” I knew exactly what would follow next. To some, being asked, “What are you?” instead of “Who are you” may seem strange. But to me it’s almost normal.
As I took the time to explain my heritage, he responded flatly, “At least you’re not really black,” before walking off and leaving me to brood over his off-the-cuff statement.
What am I?
I’m a South African, with a South African-Indian mother; British-Jamaican father; an uncontrollable mane of curly hair; and don’t belong to one culture that fits convention. So defining myself using racial norms has not always been easy.
The curious glares from strangers, usually followed by questions about whether my hair is real, and if they can touch it, are a repetitive reminder of my lack of representation in our globally glorified “Rainbow Nation”.
While growing up, I flitted in and out of race groups like a chameleon: Indian today, coloured tomorrow and Black the next. I realised that my racial identity meant a lot more to others than it did to me.
I remember my frustration in high school at having to tick which race I fell into. I’d decided to go with “other”, in protest of how inconsequential the race groupings were. “Other”, my teacher said to me, was reserved for foreigners – “You’re not Chinese,” she responded. All of a sudden, everyone got involved in a race discussion. My Indian friends claiming me as one of them; and my black and coloured friends doing the same.
So, despite having the privilege to pass for multiple races I was still forced to choose only one.
While on my journey to finding my racial identity, I struggled with accepting Indian as an actual race. If Jamaican isn’t considered its own race, why is Indian a race in South Africa?
I see no significant differences between my mother and father besides nationality. So why have I been stuck in a racial identity crisis when the answer’s been so obvious – I’m black.
Colonisation and slavery affected my ancestry, on opposite ends of the world, but my parents’ shared experiences of racial oppression compels me to see them as equals.
My mother’s family tree was imported from Asia to South Africa as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations in Natal. My father’s forebears were enslaved Africans also brought in to work on the sugar plantations of Jamaica.
As a young person born into a democratic South Africa, I am witness to a new-found racial arena, where we’re all supposedly equal. I think South African Indians claiming a nationality to a country that many will never even visit prevents them from breaking down the racial barriers and accepting their newfound African blackness.
I am a black South African so stop saying I’m not “black enough.”
What is blackness?
For me blackness is multifaceted and can suggest a diverse range of definitions to every individual, but blackness can also be our strongest unifying political tool.
In the words of Biko, “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”
If we all – black, coloured and Indian alike – chose to embrace our blackness, we would use our race to bring us together instead of pulling us apart.
Photography by Kyle Kheswa