Say It Loud, I’m Coloured and I’m Proud

Not black, not African: One man says it's not easy being "Coloured" in South Africa.

Lindsay Johns (; South Africa (Thinkstock)

Editor’s note: The spelling of the ethnic term “Coloured,” used within the context of South African history and culture, reflects the writer’s preference.

(The Root) — I know what you’re probably thinking, and to be honest, I don’t blame you. You probably took one look at the title of this piece and thought to yourself, “Hmmm, what kind of misguided individual, brainwashed by self-hate into a feeble attempt at reclaiming the oppressor’s language, would write a thing like that?” Regressive. Jarring. Distasteful, even. A deliberately provocative throwback to the demeaning racial abuse of the Jim Crow era, painfully evocative of segregated water fountains, restaurants, the backs of buses and despicable “Colored Only” signage.  

Let me swiftly disabuse you of any such notion. Yes, you read the title correctly. Coloured and proud is what I am. And what’s more, I didn’t put my hands up to make inverted comma signs around the word, as if asking for special dispensation for the benefit of the politically correct brigade, whose knee-jerk reaction is to see it as an intrinsically bad word, without wholly understanding its usage or history in a broader, global context. I’m certainly not trying to be needlessly provocative but instead am trying to make a serious point. Just hear me out before you rush to judge or, worse still, take offense.

Let me make it very clear. I know full well that in an American or a British context, the term “colored” (or “coloured”) is an outdated and undeniably pejorative epithet. On that we are in wholehearted agreement. So you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m not using it in that context; nor would I ever.

My family are Coloured from Cape Town in South Africa. And here’s the rub: In a South African context, “Coloured” is a wholly acceptable word. But, pray tell, I hear you ask, what exactly do I mean by “Coloured”? I can almost hear the confusion in your voice. That’s another word for “black,” right? Or do I mean “light-skinned”? Or does it mean “mixed-race”? In fact, it can mean all and none of the above.

Cape Town is now a perennial staple in newspaper travel supplements and magazines in both the United Kingdom and the United States, continually feted (with good reason) as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with its stunning backdrop of Table Mountain, its pristine beaches and its delectable fusion cuisine. But to this day there exists an alarming degree of ignorance surrounding the racial composition of the city and its inhabitants. All we’re traditionally fed in the media is a somewhat erroneous diet of black and white, yet there are crucial shades of brown in between that, much to my acute chagrin, conveniently always get overlooked.

My family are Coloured and are immensely proud of it. Employed in the wholly nonpejorative usage specific to the South African context, the word designates a racial group that, as a result of several centuries of a m├ętissage (mixing of blood) particular to the Cape, incorporates indigenous Khoi and San tribes, West African slaves, Dutch settlers, Malay indentured laborers and even some Caribbean sailors. In short, Coloured people, as a result of some 300-plus years of cultural and racial collision, are today black South Africans who are the closest thing to an indigenous people Cape Town has — a Creole mixture of many generations of black and brown people.