Firstly, let me start off by saying I vehemently disagree with the term “(Better) Coloured” it has way too many links with the ‘amper baas’ (almost boss) apartheid assertions. I struggle with being confined to the label “Coloured”, I myself am still grappling with it. Although, I understand to some extent that for people to make sense of me I have to fit in some category. I would like to have the option to decide for myself where I should fit in for the sake of the comfort of others or if I want to fit in at all.
There are many things about being a lighter shade or almost pale skinned “person of colour” that is sometimes hysterical, violent, shocking, so unbelievable all one can do is laugh and try to deconstruct what is behind all of that. Once these incidents occur, it is hard to go outside of yourself to assess what just happen and yet you must. If you are to survive the constant onslaught of being ‘othered’ you have to find a way to debrief yourself because there is no one else who can.
There are two things that are common in my experience of being deemed a “better coloured”
One: Excellence is a “white thing”
Wherever I have worked my professionalism has been praised. It has even been met with surprise and fascination mainly because it appears to be unexpected. One of my bosses even called me a “white-coloured” because apparently being excellent and efficient is a “white thing”. I enjoy working hard and applying myself. I am good in a crisis and excellent at relationship building. I take God’s word seriously and try to live out Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”
This idea that me being excellent in my work is somehow linked with attaining ‘whiteness’, as if it were a thing to be grasped is downright absurd. I do not wish to be ‘white’ or aspire to assimilate to ‘whiteness’ in any way. I want to be a person who lives to honour Jesus. That would mean that I will have to do the really hard work with God’s help of living a ‘woke’ life in Jesus. The fact that traits of excellence have been reserved for a special kind of people i.e. ‘whites’ is testament to the stereotypical discourse of persons who are ‘othered’.
Two: Language is the access to another dimension
I am currently living and studying in a place that is very Afrikaans. I see all the time how being able to speak Afrikaans gets me into spaces that others can’t access. I have become privy to information that others would miss or lose in translation. Although, this would seem a great way in, it makes my tummy turn. I am treated with less hostility and disrespect than someone who is a non-Afrikaans speaker. The thought that I am viewed as “better” because I can understand Afrikaans and communicate fairly well is disturbing.
In some ways I am in a privileged position but I am still the ‘other’. The message I get from this is: You sound like us, but you are not one of us and because we can understand you, we will tolerate you. When I am met with these moments it is not always easy to navigate. I have so many more questions than answers. On the one hand being able to speak the language is helpful and on the other hand it excludes and looks down on those who do not understand it.
These labels don’t help me at all. I am in a process of making sense of the slap handed down over generations of oppressed people. Listening to the elders in my family and what they lived through as if it has passed, only to find that it lives on. When people see you as a “better coloured” and treat you as such. The message is clear you can take your opportunities and adventures but know your place. The myths of “we are all free” and “equal opportunity is a real thing” is seen clearly when you hit the infamous glass ceiling.
The thing that keeps me pushing forward is to rewrite the narrative someone else wrote. I mean, how can you write a story that you did not live? I refuse to allow anyone to define me that is God’s business. I want to live out John 10:10b “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” I want to see what happens as this life unfolds and not be limited by the chains of the past. Chains that wish to keep me inferior for their comfort. Work it out yourself!
I have enclosed a poem on my experience of racism titled “The enemy within”:
The enemy within won’t let me live
The enemy within seeks only to win
These structures that they built
Before I felt the warmth of my first quilt
They told me how to stand
How to fix my hair (like it needed fixing?)
How to dig my head in the sand
Change my stare (when I felt it was not fair!)
Inconspicuous me doing all I can to not stand out
Worked so hard to be invisible
They wrote my lines before I could speak
Set the stage before I could think
Trapped in this cycle
Socialised to idle all the things I’m not
Telling me that what I do got
Well that just ain’t enough
Foulness in the air, can you smell it?
Pollution of my soul, pollution of my mind
Polluting what I cannot change
The context of me
Eyes so hazed over I cannot see
War rages on inside
From the battle scars I cannot hide
Every defeat takes up all of me
I am spent
But that never stops them
Those ill-fitting words
Spewed out on me like hot lava
Who will comfort?
Not my mother not my father
They’re trapped here too
Oh Man! What we gonna do?
Out this rubble I have to get
There are others on the way
Some innocent to these scenes
Others calloused by the structures
Telling them this is just a dream
Making every effort to hide our eyes
They’d rather we become numb
So we would act foolish and dumb
Who is wise enough to know?
Who can break us from this deathly state?
There must be a balance
This can’t be the end
This won’t be my end
By Juliet Paulse
06 April 2016