The fact that both under apartheid and even today in postapartheid South Africa, Coloured people are not deemed “African” by the authorities or even black (depending on who you ask) is another testament to the arbitrary craziness of racial delineations in that country, and yet further proof, if it were needed, that race is a pernicious and debilitating social construct used to divide, conquer, subjugate and ultimately dissipate our common humanity.
The vagaries of Coloured identity undoubtedly have their roots in the apartheid-era “divide and conquer” classification by which South African society was racially stratified and segregated by and for the benefit of the racist Afrikaner regime. Yet to this day, Colouredness remains a sadly much misunderstood and even maligned racial hinterland — one that deserves now to be properly elucidated and discussed, especially given the precarious place that Coloured people occupy in today’s South Africa.
“Coloured” Is Not Always About Skin Color
Often deemed “too black to be white and too white to be black,” Coloureds have long functioned as a distinct subset of the black South African experience, divorced from “Africans” by dint of different languages (Coloureds traditionally speak English and Afrikaans, as opposed to tribal languages like Xhosa and Zulu), together with a very different culture and history.
Contrary to what you might think, being Coloured is not actually about skin shade, although a lot of Coloured people are brown. There are, in fact, many Coloured people who are dark-skinned. What’s even more confusing is that South African “Africans” (like Nelson Mandela, for example) are comparatively light-skinned when compared with other Africans, such as Senegalese and Gambians, which results in there being many Coloured people who are actually much “blacker” (in skin tone) than those Africans who are officially designated black. Still following me?
I’ll be honest with you — it can be very confusing. In terms of looks (phenotype) alone, I’d wager that some 70 to 80 percent of African Americans, were they to go to South Africa and Cape Town in particular, would probably pass for Coloured if they didn’t open their mouths. Denzel Washington and Usher, to name just two high-profile African Americans — and two proudly and unambiguously black men — both look exceedingly Coloured. It just goes to show how our perceptions of race and ethnicity and the terminology that accompanies them can (and sometimes should) change depending on the geographical location.
I’d equally wager that most white tourists couldn’t tell the difference between a Coloured person and an African one. In fact, at Cape Town International Airport, in a distasteful nod to Eurocentric perceptions of Africa and a conscious pandering to what European visitors think Africa should be, the indigenous Coloured people who work in the African-themed duty-free shop are made to dress in traditional African tribal costumes, even though that kind of attire is in no way part of Coloured culture.
Today, however, there are many young Coloured people who see themselves as black. Much Coloured youth culture consciously identifies with black America through its penchant for hip-hop music, yet its adherents are effectively prohibited from referring to themselves that way. Define irony.
Most Coloured people, in any other country in the world, would, without thinking, be called black, but in their own country they aren’t called black by those who rule. Nor are they called African, even though they were born in Africa. Of course they are also African. Denying Coloured people their Africanness is just as wrong as denying them their blackness or, for that matter, frowning on their use of the word “Coloured” to describe their Colouredness.