Mandy Rossouw

Being coloured

2011-12-20 13:00

While travelling in other parts of Africa in the last few months I came to a startling revelation - according to my fellow Africans north of the Limpopo, I am white.

Although in South Africa no-one will ever doubt that I'm a coloured girl from the Cape, in the rest of Africa my skin is a shade or two lighter than the average Zimbabwean or Zambian and therefore I'm immediately classified as white.

According to my colleagues in Zimbabwe the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), who spread fear and trepidation on behalf of Zanu-PF, would tread with more care around me "because you're white".

Bigwigs would be more willing to talk to me and give me the time of day, they say, because "they like talking to white journalists".

And when a local guy clumsily tried to pick me up in a hotel bar, my friend explained: "He thought he had to try something different, because you can't use the same tricks with white women."

I found all of this to be offensive. I have no problems with whites - I am oft an out and proud "my best friends are white" type. But I am more proud of being coloured, and I don't want to be mistaken for anything else.

That made me think of the age old question that coloured families and communities have been struggling with over the centuries - what makes one coloured? Clearly, if I can be mistaken for white, it is not your skin colour.

My coloured friends and I occasionally tackle this question over a beer and a braai. But we don't do it in an angst-ridden, where-do-we-fit-in kind of way; we do it for a good laugh.

Is being coloured still wearing white Levi jeans and a bomber jacket - the type with the orange lining - like it was in the early 90s?

Or is proof of your colouredness dropping the suspension of your 10-year-old second hand BMW and adding mag wheels that cost you half you salary?

Or is it to start every sentence with “djy my broe” in an appropriate Cape Flats accent?

We never find any conclusive answers, my friends and I. I refuse to wear white jeans because they are utterly unflattering, mag wheels have a tendency to get stolen and I’m from the Cape Winelands, not the Cape Flats, so my accent always sounds fake.

A coloured friend from Grahamstown recently derided a TV show devoted to coloured people called Colour TV. Every coloured person found in the show someone we know - be it a neighbour auntie who would shout over the wall separating homes or the drunk uncle who never worked a day in his life. The village gay also got a look-in, as well as the girl whose three illegitimate yet charming kids all celebrated her 21st birthday with her.

My friend was outraged. It was terrible, he said, how every stereotype about coloureds is being put on show and laughed at. He said it was degrading, and made coloured people seem like nothing but the happy native.

I think he is wrong. That is the core of being coloured - being able to look at ourselves, be honest about what we see but not judging ourselves too harshly. Accepting who we are and at the same time trying to do better is to me essential for a fulfilling life, and what being coloured means to me.

Despite my friend's intellectualising, he jumped at the opportunity to appear on the show. And he had a lot of fun doing it. Maybe now he understands more about being coloured. Or maybe he just needed a good laugh.


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