P: This one is going to be a doozy.
South Africa has to be one of the most culturally diverse places that I have ever lived and some of my friends and family are beginning to wonder why I haven’t really written anything about this diversity. They raise an interesting point. As one of my favourite people in the world delicately pointed out, I have spoken about violence and class but not race. I have a reason and its not a really good one but here it is anyways. I don’t really understand “race” here. For example, should we really be talking about ethnic origin? By the way, the difference for me is that race is mostly about skin colour and ethnic origin is about culture. I could be wrong.
P: Why don’t you look it up Lazy?
I just did and I am basically correct.
P: By the way I like my new bold look.
I’m ignoring you today.
I read terms like “black” and “white” and I think I understand what they are intended to mean. I am currently focused on how the terms mean something different to me here in South Africa than they do in Toronto.
In North America, to me, Black means African American and White means European.
Obviously the terms are problematic on many levels (for example like, what about everybody else)? and I thought they were quite outdated too but maybe not.
In South Africa, there is a third category, “coloured” which I think originally referred to European South Africans (Khoi and San) but may include more ethnic blends. Whatever its current incarnation, I feel uncomfortable using the term because I understand it to be a derogatory one. Yet in South Africa many of the white people I know use the term and I see it regularly in various forms of print media as a reference to a large and important segment of the population. But a quick google search confirms my suspicion: “Coloured” is not a universally accepted descriptor and not surprisingly is contentious.
P: It’s contentious? How? Where’s the link?
I also feel uncomfortable using the term “black.” What is black? I was taking a course in Toronto and queried a woman who was talking about the “black woman” experience. What is that? Is a black woman from Nigeria supposed to have similar experiences to a black woman from Egypt? I’m sure they both have a menstrual cycle. What about a West African black woman experience as opposed to a woman from Somali Land? What about a Zulu and the Xhosa — are they to be squeezed into the same category too? Is a Cape Malay from South Africa to be included in this discussion? How on earth can the term “black” mean anything if it is meant to mean everything?
Listen, don’t get me wrong. I recognize that there are shared experiences. I recognize that the purpose of language is to communicate and sometimes in service of communication nuance (or more) is left out. I also strongly believe that there are issues of race/ethnic origin that ought to be discussed particularly in relation to violence, economics, natural environments and in the context of place and geography. I do. But the terms “Black, White and Coloured” currently don’t work for me. So in a small, maybe inconsiderate way, maybe racist way, I have chosen to speak and write about race as I experience it.
For now that means this:
I live in a mostly white community where the labour is black.
P: She is very flexible with her proclamations. (The terms black and white don’t work until they do).
The bulk of the labour that I see, is not white.
The two domestic workers at my house, Lucky and Alamson are Malawians. They live in a small apartment on the property. I genuinely like Lucky. She has a warm smile and she likes my nonhumans. I regularly buy food from a deli where there is a person in charge who looks to me to be of Indonesian descent and who wears a scarf in such a way that makes me think she might also be Muslim. For those interested in skin colour, she is dark brown. In the village at a restaurant my family frequents regularly (like Fukui Sushi on Bayview), the staff appears to be of mixed ethnic origin. There are blacks, whites, south east Indians, Indochinese and a Croatian woman. They all seem to be educated — they speak English well (and most certainly at least a couple of other languages); they manage money easily, they engage in small talk in a way that suggests to me they are formally educated.
The gym that I joined is predominantly white. The hockey game (yep – ice hockey) that we went to see consisted of mostly white players. At the mountain hike around the corner from us, there are mostly white people walking but by no means exclusively. At the mountain hike a little closer to Cape Town the demographic is substantially more diverse. The concertgoers at the concert I attended in Phillipe were almost all Afrikaans Cape Malay. I think.
I realize I have a lot to learn and I look forward to it. I hope that the people I offend along the way will educate me. Feel free to comment.