Posted on May 8, 2015 and edited on February 17, 2016
(I know this is long…but complicated issues do not care about character limits).
isZulu word of the post: -mhlophe
isiNgisi: white (an adjective)
As in: a generalization for the color of my skin
I have a confession to make. I struggle to identify as white. There are many reasons for my identity confusion but for those who know my immediate family, my mother/the Math Teacher is half Sicilian with beautiful olive colored skin. Even though the racial deciders in the US threw all Mediterranean residents (including Italians) under the “white” label, my “white” mother often experiences incorrect guesses about her ethnicity from Hawaiian to Peruvian to Indonesian. I on the hand, I got the light Irish complexion and on the day of my birth shocked her family with my pale skin. Growing up in New Mexico, assumed I was Latina or that I was adopted when I was out with my mother. There was more than one medical appointment when people would look at my file in a waiting room and say “Catalina?” Nope Caitlin, wrong side of Europe and peninsula of heritage. Yet when my 17 year old sister (who inherited my mother’s beauty) was in middle school, she was called a terrorist by a classmate although she was in preschool during 9/11 and does not share my vivid memories of that awful day.
Granted my pragmatic father has referred to me as the “white one” in my South African photos (and my mother classified me as the Gringa in the Yellow Dress in my folklorico groups) but beyond government classification it does not generally compose my identity. White privilege has absolutely benefited me but as an autistic woman, I still deal with stigma because I do not behave like most white American women. Right before I left one of my best friends (who is half Latina, a quarter white and a quarter African American) was venting about America’s social injustices and annoying white people. I surprisingly pointed out that on the US Census that is what I am classified as, but my friend quickly responded, “Yeah Katey but you are not white with a capital ‘W’.”
Well, I have become white with a capital “W” in South Africa. There have been several incidents when this happened. I have been spoken to in Afrikaans several times (by both Afrikaaners and my 90 year old Ndebele Gogo) and people are upset when I do not understand the language. During PST, I walked into the Voortreker Monument and Apartheid Museum and left numb as opposed to crying tears of pain for my ancestors. During my initial site visit, I went to bed as my director and her Afrikaaner husband watched 12 Years a Slave because a blockbuster’s take on North Carolinian ancestors could have done to some of my friends’ ancestors hit too close to home. I spent that night in the rondavel thinking of two incredible and intelligent women in the next cluster over from mine, who have been very open about how the color of their skin impacts their life in the States and now they have to put up with similar crap in South Africa.
Monday, was a rough day at work. Since the Response Volunteer is still here until June I do not have a real desk. I occupy the table with the organization’s computer. I was working on grant (and stealing information for the Community Needs Assessment…you can see a trend here) that was due on Friday but received an extension, when our data computer in the other room breaks down. Our substitute data staff needed online access for the database, so I moved to provide computer access and spent the day on my supervisor’s floor. That afternoon I did not make any progress because we had to reformat the virus-riddled data computer and had to check periodically on progress.
At 4:30 PM in the afternoon I was done and my office was occupied by our substitute data staff, the response volunteer, and a local learner (who is a friend of our host family) working on a school assignment on the response volunteer’s Mac. I was sitting on our pile of donated magazines trying to extract recipe ideas from magazines since I could not type or layout papers. Y’all I was done. I dislike walking home in the dark and started to close the center by shutting the windows. The response volunteer walked outside to close the soup kitchen and the learner responded by anxiously showing me the one page of his tourism assignment (an overview of Gauteng Province the home of Pretoria and Johannesburg) He told me in broken English that he had so much work to do and showed me 6 pages of written work that had not been typed.
Zama: What is the deadline?
Zama (realizing she used American Jargon): Sorry, a deadline is the date a paper needs to be done. When is the paper due?
Learner: Yes see I typed the first page and I have 6 more pages
Zama: You showed me that, when does this need to be done by?
Learner: Zama…I am not used to white people. I cannot understand the way you talk.
For a second I was irate. Our struggle to communicate did not have anything to do our skin color. It probably had more to do with the English language’s adoration for slang or my exhausted autistic mind. I was this close to saying, “I am American and this has nothing to do with my skin color” when I took a mental pause. At the moment I am working through a dense historical overview of South Africa and is high school learner was raised in a country that was constructed on attitudes towards visual characteristics since the 1700s. He did not have the luxury to contemplate how he would like to identify or how he views white people. It is true, white people usually do not come into my valley unless they hike the mountains that buttress the end. He lost his parents before he reached metric (completed high school) and had much more on his mind than the accuracy of his perception of white people. Expecting him to see think that there is more to communication styles than race was unfair.
I took a deep breath and tried to ask when he had to give it to his teacher (and whipped out an isiZulu word). He said Thursday…we have a victory! Thankfully we had two more days for him to use the response volunteer’s laptop. Once we eased his fear, I tried to widen his perspective of communication and English. I talked about how English is not a unified language in America or South Africa, and how people speak English differently (Compared to some Americans, my grammar skills are poor).
When I was a child life volunteer in high school, I made an awful mistake when I assumed a child was Mexican because of their jaundiced skin. I also have a last name that can sometimes been misconstrued as a derogatory name towards Native Americans. Since then I have tried to get rid of the inaccurate Crayola colors when discussing ethnicity. My attempts to be more humanistic are not working in South Africa, because people willing identify as white, black, or colored (specific race originated in the Western Cape). People call themselves black and do not appear hurt. They call me white because pale skin people in South Africa are clumped under that label. It does not matter if you are Afrikaaner, of English decent, a German missionary, or in my case an American PCV. It is not malicious, but a polite way to remind me that there is no way I will be able to fully comprehend who it is like to be black in a post-conflict society. Despite my efforts to limit my white privilege I am facing it head on and also using white and black in regular speech.
One of my pet peeves is when people reduce South Africa to its racial past and apartheid. I cannot remember who said this initially in PCSA (I think it was our medical officer or PCMO) but South Africa is like an onion because here are many complex layers to how life works here. Just as peeling an onion makes your body uncomfortable or induces tears (not ashamed of the several times I have cried in the past month), uncovering South Africa’s layers can be downright agitating. For this reason, most people are scared to look beyond the academic books. The easy thing to do is call the onion skin apartheid and use it to describe the only reason behind South Africa’s social inequities. The center of the onion could be general inequity between ethnic groups that lasted hundreds of years before apartheid, but 4 months in this country is not enough time to classify the center. South Africa is more complicated than the circumstances that happened under the 40 years of apartheid policy, just like the Civil Rights Movement does not determine everything in the United States. Both experiences were fueled by multiple past situations and historical events.
This is probably not going to be the last time race impacts my time in South Africa. I would like to encourage people reading this stateside to start thinking about how we view race because we are not “better” than South Africa when it comes to inequity. The countries may have different population dynamics and histories, yet there is clearly a need for this hard conversation often. I come from a country where we have a black president, because there is a fear to identify him as biracial and acknowledge half of his background. Life is much too complicated to be categorized in limited boxes of race.
Thanks for reading my soap box.
All the best,