(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 I know full well that in an American or a British context, the term "colored" (or "coloured") is an outdated and undeniably pejorative epithet.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 métissage (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.
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.
Equally many other Coloured people, both young and old, because of the way they feel they are now being discriminated against by the black African majority, consciously choose to define themselves exclusively as Coloured, both racially and politically, so that Colouredness functions as a homogeneous, all-consuming social and racial entity, which effectively serves as a means of self-protection.
Few in literature have better espoused what it means to be Coloured, and the often-conflicting identities that being Coloured can entail, than the masterful Cape Townian anti-apartheid novelist Alex La Guma in his debut short novel, A Walk in the Night. In music, Cape Townian hip-hop artist Emile YX stands supreme. His song "Who Am I?" is a haunting exploration of the painful idiosyncrasies and tragic nuances of Coloured identity in postapartheid South Africa.
Coloured People Seek Remedies for Apartheid
What is beyond doubt is that Coloured people were systematically oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised under apartheid, especially the ruling National Party's invoking of the Group Areas Act in 1966, when many were forcibly removed to unhealthy townships on the arid, godforsaken Cape Flats.
And it would be churlish to deny that interethnic rivalries are also at work in the new Rainbow Nation, where Coloureds, especially in the Cape (where they are actually in the majority), are still being marginalized by the African National Congress government in favor of those deemed to be bona fide "Africans."
It seems that Colouredness has been unpalatable both to the old Afrikaner regime and now to the unashamedly Afrocentric ANC government. Should not Coloureds also now qualify under Black Economic Empowerment quota schemes, as were previously disadvantaged segments of the populace?
This much is also clear: The politics of Colouredness, the searing questions of identity that it inevitably throws up and the minefield of linguistic terminology that pertains to it, both in South Africa and abroad, are a fascinating (yet also heartbreaking) historical hornet's nest, a tragic reminder of the evil that man has inflicted on his fellow man in this beautiful but heinously unjust country.
The quotidian realities, not to mention manifold injustices, of life in postapartheid Cape Town are admittedly not easy to grasp. They intrigue, bemuse and anger in equal measure. Indelibly scarred by the city's nefarious past, and now forced to come to terms with a country in a very apparent state of flux, it's not easy being Coloured here at the best of times.
It's high time that, both in South Africa and abroad, Coloured people were permitted to proudly embrace their Colouredness, rejoice in it and not be browbeaten by linguistic fascism and tedious political correctness into renouncing aspects of their identity, heritage and culture that don't fit in with others' politically and racially expedient narratives.
Contrary to what Shakespeare's Juliet famously opined — "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet" — I believe that names and labels do matter, especially when it comes to the politics of identity and how we perceive (or, perhaps more tellingly, are made to perceive) ourselves.
For me, the lesson we must learn here is to not let others define us. We must be free to assert our own humanity and free to choose to define ourselves as we see fit. And if that means being Coloured and proud, so be it. If that also means identifying as black, African or mixed race — whether only some of those labels or all at once — then so be it, too. In my opinion they do not need to be mutually exclusive, and one should be free to be proud of and to assert whichever aspects of one's identity one chooses.
That said — and I don't wish to sound too utopian — it surely goes without saying that first and foremost we are all children of the universe and citizens of the world, and then colors, races and cultures a firm and resounding second. So perhaps I should change that title after all — yes, I should: "Human Being First. Coloured and Proud Second."
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.