Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Complex as the Shades of Chocolate

By Anonymous (name withheld by request of the author)

In reading about South Africa before I came here, I knew that race was going to play an interesting role in daily living. At the time, I decided though that the issue of race wasn’t going to be as much of a focal point for me as it was the culture behind the race that was more important to learn about. However, as culture and race are frequently intertwined, associated, and often conflated with one another, I soon came to find that the politics of one involved the other. So even though I wanted the issue of race to remain ‘at bay’ it didn’t and hasn’t. It is as such that it happened one day…the issue of color and race had finally hit home and it did so through two separate yet related incidences.

The first occurred at home. I was sitting there on my host mama’s couch watching my 9-year-old host sister, who so happened to be practicing her dance moves, twist and turn until she finally ended up doing a split near my feet. She saw the look of amazement in my face and then in a brief but still moment paused what she was doing to ask (in a telling way), “Are you white?”

Now, this is being directed to a 25-year-old woman who has defined herself as a Black American since she could long since remember. This is also being directed to a 25-year-old woman for whom race has played a secondary role to culture for her entire life. The minute she stated this, I could feel a surge of anger rising up in my chest. Anger, directed at the fact that I was being associated and in fact being defined by a classification I never associated myself with being. Anger, also in the fact this definition was coming from a nine-year-old host sister who asked this question so innocently but also so casually and flippantly, as if she was just flicking the question off of her shoulder, like a fly. I always have defined myself as being Black—that wasn’t of question to me—but what was of question was why my nine-year-old host sister was asking me this? I could see that this was a remnant question which lingered from a previous conversation I was having with another 9 year old about where I came from and what I considered myself.

Anyhow, continuing with the story, I replied to her question with a “No, I am Black…where I come from Black people come in all shades and colors.” She responded with a, “But why is your skin white?” She followed this by putting her arm next to mine and after careful inspection, as if with proud justification, declaring, “see, ‘white.’” I could see that this battle with my nine-year-old host sister was going to require a lot more ammunition than my throwing a fit. So I started pointing out examples. I first started out with a picture of a White woman which she had cut out for her homework. I pointed to the white woman and asked, “What is she?” to which she promptly replied “white.” I then pointed to my skin (which is honey in complexion) and said, “My skin looks a lot different from hers,” to which she replied, “But how come your hair is this long?” and she pointed to her shoulder. She was referring to the time she had seen me take my hair out of my twists and had made it into a ‘fro’ to wash it. Now ironically enough, I have always called my hair ‘Shaka Zulu hair’ depicting its stubborn, bold and sometimes even war like characteristics (and for anyone who has seen me in a fro or has done my hair you know what I’m talking about)! I began untwisting one of my twists, combed it out, and said, “see same as yours.” She then said, “but you speak English,” to which I responded with, “Yes, but this is my mother tongue and I speak other languages also just like you do.” It was at this point that I started to wonder whether she was calling me ‘white’ not so much because of my skin color but purely because she knew that I was American and because I spoken English. I however, decided to leave this point to argue over another day.

I then started stating examples of people with whom I thought she would be familiar. After a whole assembly line of people, I came upon two that made her stumble. I said, “So what do you think Alicia Keyes is?” She paused for a moment and said, “Black” and then I said but Alicia Keys speaks English, her hair is longer than mine, and her skin is lighter than mine…so why do you consider her Black?” I then took out a Newsweek and found a picture of Barack Obama and said, “He’s about my skin tone, what do you consider him?” To which she said this time and not asked, “Ok…but you are white!” I replied by saying, “Your skin color does not make you who you are and even though you may see me as white, I am Black so please call me by that if you are going to call me anything.” I could see that the battle hadn’t been won with her yet (and that this is what these two years are for) but it did get her thinking about these terms ‘black’ and ‘white,’ what they meant, and also how people weren’t as simple as ‘black’ and ‘white.’ I hope it began to get her to see that people were as complex as the shades of chocolate and that they came in white chocolate, hazelnut, honey/caramel, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate! ☺

I use this example to show that race is a deeply ingrained concept for many people, as even from the innocent question of a nine-year-old, race can have a deep impact. I also use this to show that the notion of ‘color’ and ‘race’ varies from culture to culture, from continent to continent, and even from nationality to nationality. The notion of being ‘black’ or even being perceived as such, in South Africa, is derived from a long legacy of apartheid which has shaped race to be a concept which is highly relative to social class and culture. In the end, I think South Africa, as with many other nations, is coming to see that you are who you are no matter whether you consider yourself “Black,” “White,” or any other color in this beautiful Rainbow Nation.

E-mail jade.lamb@gmail.com if you’d like to write something for this blog. Submissions on any topic, of any length, are welcome.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Link to AJ's Blog

Check out AJ Kumar's post about his experiences related to being South Asian in his village:



"The Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere

“Lekgoa! Lekgoa!” the children scream as they run behind me. Well, I guess it’s not surprising; it’s what you expect as the only white person in the village. Every Peace Corps Volunteer is told to expect it. Wait a second…

I’m not white.

There is no mob of little people trailing me in adoration. There is no verbal labeling of “Whitey”. But there is another type of labeling.

My white colleagues may at first find me in an enviable position. As an American of South Asian decent, I fit rather well into my Tswana village. There are roughly half a dozen Bangladeshi and Pakistani shop owners (in addition to the Somali and the Chinese couple). When I showed up in the village, I wasn’t a rock star. People assumed I had come to sell biscuits and cooldrink (pop…or soda…or coke…whatever). Granted, it’s been almost a year now so people have mostly figured out that’s not my shtick. ..."

This is one example of the sort of entry we'd like to post here. E-mail jade.lamb@gmail.com if you'd like to contribute anything, short or long.