On being White with a Capital “W”


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.


The Math Teacher and White Katey, c 1993, Yebo we are biologically related

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?

Learner: What?

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,



Caregivers, Camp, & Culture

On my “creative” photos of people.

My photos of people tend to be non-identifying (not National Geographic cover worthy). I support an organization that was founded to provide relief in an area with a significant HIV/AIDS prevalence (ask me about the specific rate after June 15th when the community needs assessment is complete…I am still calculating). My director and I agree that as long as the photos are non-identifying it is okay to blog them. As someone who lives with a medical label that is often misconstrued, I firmly believe that it is not my place to accidentally “out” someone’s diagnosis full stop/period. I also really value privacy and while I ask before posting any photo of people, it is hard to see if they can fully comprehend the potential impacts of having their image online (my isiZulu is not capable of those conversations…yet). I really wish I could share the photos of the Gogos’ disgusted faces with their first taste of American Smores, but it does not feel right. This probably will not be the coolest Peace Corps blog on the internet, but it is not about me. I welcome the challenge to share the South African perspective while maintaining host country nationals’ privacy. Nyigabonga for respecting my decision.

isiZulu word of the post: umnakeleli
isiNgisi: Caregiver
Meaning: An example of the most resilient and knowledgeable South Africans I have been lucky to meet.

My second weekend at site coincided with my org’s camp for primary caregivers of HIV positive children and adolescents. Most caregivers at this camp, were the primary guardians of children who attended a camp for HIV positive children last fall. Everyone cared for an HIV positive child that would have qualified for the camp. My supervisor came up with the idea to have their caregivers to attend a weekend retreat so that they would have the skills the teenagers obtained and a chance to have a camp experience. My roommate obtained a Peace Corps grant to fund this event and I was able to witness the awesome potential of VAST grants (and at that point I was a PCV for less than 15 days). I think I learned more than the caregivers from camp.

Credits to my talented roommate/camp director!

Credits to my talented roommate/camp director!

Like how my American definition of a magazine collage was translated into delicately folding a picture that symbolized something important to the caregiver and using that to cover their notebook.

IMG_0985bThere are magazines printed in Afrikaans and apparently many crafty South Africans.

IMG_1034bEveryone still has a bit of little kid in them when water balloons come out.


South African S’more Materials: When there are no Graham Crackers (but Tea Biscuits give the same effect)

Most of the caregivers disliked Smores but loved pink marshmallows by themselves.

IMG_1056Nothing can top the magic of isiZulu praise songs and dancing around a campfire.

Yes I can stick an entire s'more in my mouth, it is one of my weird talents that provides entertainment at campfires. This camp was no exception, the caregivers were whipping out the cellphones!

Yes I can stick an entire s’more in my mouth, it is one of my weird talents that provides entertainment at campfires. This camp was no exception, the caregivers were whipping out the cellphones!

And how putting my big mouth to use will always entertain people abroad or stateside!

However, the biggest take away from camp was breaking stereotypes for me. I now know that not all caregivers of HIV positive children are women. Most are but we had a caregiver who was a man who lost his wife to the illness and loved his 12 year old son dearly. Also, not all caregivers are necessarily HIV positive. A lot are due to the nature of the condition, but the big bag of oranges I kept in my room at night were not just for taking ARV (antiretroviral) on a full stomach. They were also for diabetes (or Sugar as they call it in the valley) and high blood pressure. Also I saw how ARVs impact the body. Not my finest moment, but I thought one woman was very pregnant as she was waddling around with a big torso and I was wondering if we had a plan to get her to a hospital if labor started. Thankfully I had enough tact to ask my director in private, who answered that she had a big stomach due to the medication.

IMG_1006The other important take away was the diversity of the AmaZulu within my communities. I can sometimes generalize people based on what language they speak and forget that many concepts are involved in defining culture. While I may reside in a traditional area (In the Berg I have seen pants worn by a woman once…and that was my fashionable 17 year old host sister), My SA 31 friends serving in Msinga, other areas of uThukela, near Richards Bay and Durban probably have very different experiences. We may all attempt to speak isiZulu, but the culture is so diverse.

IMG_1049I could not establish a female caregiver as “traditional” or “modern” whether it was through their ideas or their dress. We had an exercise where the facilitator read off statements about life with HIV and the caregivers had to stand in designated areas of the room to show that they disagreed, agreed, or did not know. My isiZulu comprehension is limited, but I knew there were passionate discussion that ensured when a gogo in a print dress and dukas(head covering) stood in a different area than expected! Similar discussions occurred when younger women in long skirts and dukas had surprising views. Even the younger women who wore leopard prints and tight fits, still wore skirts. It was incredible to watch how each of them contributed knowledge to the group.

IMG_1028bIt is usually viewed as superficial to focus on clothes, but even though South African dresses are not generally made of the dramatic colors of West African batik fabric, but they still create a vibrant story. Within the “Rainbow Nation” there are threads of different colors that bind together the myriad of cultures in South Africa. It was a powerful reminder of the danger of the single story.

The wonderful caregivers and privacy courtesy of the intense South African Sun!

Credit to my talented roommate/camp director: The wonderful caregivers with their certificates and privacy courtesy of the intense South African Sun!