The New York Times published a piece of writing a while back - “Black? White? Asians? More Americans choose all of the above” that I found moving and interesting. Perhaps I found it so because much of it resonates with my own life.
In it, the writer sympathetically and sensitively tells the story of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association on the campus of the University of Maryland whose students are grappling with deep identity issues and their consequences on daily life.
Their quandary is summed up in the telling of the struggles of two of them. One just wants both her ancestral races to be acknowledged. For the other, she wants race to not matter.
Those of us in South Africa best able to relate to these conversations too want our races to be acknowledged, and we too want to race to disappear, and so we are constantly caught between the horns of this dilemma. Whatever we do, until race matters to no one in this country, it matters a great deal to us.
We keep our races hidden, says University of Cape Town historian Mohamed Adhikari, partly because we are ashamed. We have been told our beginnings were sinful, and we bear the burden of hundreds of years of exclusion and marginalisation that has built into self loathing. Being called a mongrel, a half-caste, and a by-product of the worst of both formative races will do that to you.
These hurtful constructs within our souls causes extremes in behavior. We try to throw off our beginnings and our ancestry every now and then at other times we embrace them warmly and publicly, like show off lovers. But, we are troubled and ill at ease, with who we are and where we fit in.
Zadie Smith, an extraordinarily gifted mixed-race British writer has also looked into her own heart and life. Her thoughts bounce between her own British – American experiences of mixed heritage and in her essay “Speaking in Tongues,” published in the New York Review of Books in 2010, she bounces her thoughts off the experiences of President Obama described in his autobiography.
Smith writes piercingly of a particular conundrum faced by those of us with mixed genes, the need to “pass”, or as my less forgiving peers of years gone by would have it known, “playing white” or “playing black” – the need, in other words, to belong elsewhere, anywhere but where one is.
Smith recounts a moment that must have given Obama pause, when he filled in his 2010 United States census form. Why did he tick “black” when all the globe knows he had a white mother and grandparents who brought him up? More broadly speaking, what do we tick when faced with race classifications on a form?
Smith writes: “This business of being biracial of being half black and white is awkward. In his memoir, Obama takes care to ridicule a certain black girl called Joyce who likes to say ‘I am not black, I’m multiracial’,….(she) is the third bogeyman of black life. The tragic mulatto who secretly wishes she passed. It’s the fear of being mistaken for Joyce that has always ensured that I ignore the box marked ‘Biracial’ and tick the box marked ‘Black’. I roll my eyes at anyone who insists that Obama is not the first black President, but I also know it is an equivocation, I know that Obama has a double consciousness, is black and, and at the same time, is white, as I am.”
Our confusion is no less deep. What, after all, is a Coloured? Even the redoubtable Adhikari does not know. When one ticks that ‘Coloured’ box, what is one admitting to and affirming?
Perhaps what has affected me most in the New York Times article is the related struggle of these young people who are determined to make space in their lives for those who whisper from their past. These young people are determined to not be ashamed by them. They are as determined, whether their races are acknowledged or race comes to mean nothing, to acknowledge their past and their heritage and to learn inclusiveness and belonging.
I know this, when next I fill in a form of whatever sort, one that asks for my race, I will be aware that at my back stands a long line of people I will not ignore again. Whenever I stand over that form to tick a box, I will hear the Scot, the Irish, the Afrikaner, the Xhosa, the French in me and I will demur – instead I will write in a new box: Multiracial. For what is a Coloured anyway?