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Ryland Fisher

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Is there a coloured identity?

Some media forms work better than others for different things. For instance, it is difficult to describe a song in writing because one can only appreciate its nuances when one is listening to it.

In the same way, it is probably impossible to try to have a debate about something as complex as “coloured identity” in five minutes on television. This debate is probably best suited to a documentary, a radio programme, a newspaper or magazine article, or a book.

Yet last Sunday, I tried to have this debate with two other studio guests on Weekend Live on SABC2. Apart from a host of mess-ups, like us not being able to link to the guest in Tshwane and my connection from Cape Town being lost when I was trying to make a crucial point about why I call myself black as opposed to coloured, it was also difficult to have this debate in the limited time available.

As it was, we were not treated to any of the views of the representative of a website called Bruin-ou.com and I would have loved to have debated his views. Maybe somebody involved in another media form will take up the challenge and get us together to debate this issue once again.

I have never considered myself to be a coloured and prefer to describe myself as black, in line with the definitions explained by Steve Biko in the 1970s. At the time, the apartheid regime called us non-whites and Biko questioned why “white” had to be the standard against which everything was judged. He asked why “black” could not be this standard. He argued that we should all call ourselves black (Africans, coloureds and Indians), and whites should be called non-blacks.

These definitions have, of course, been entrenched in our law and our Constitution, so I can legally call myself black.

The issue of whether there is a coloured identity is not new, but it surfaces every now and then. It seems to surface more every time we are heading for another election.

At first I used to reject the notion of coloured identity out of hand; recently I have become much more sensitive towards it, but I still cannot see myself adopting this identity. However, I understand completely why some people say they are coloured and proud of it, like I believe the singer Vicky Sampson said on the same programme on Sunday.

Now, Vicky is my home girl. We grew up together in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats and belonged to political youth organisations in the early 1980s, so she has a consciousness of non-racialism and how important this was to our struggle.

At some point she, like me, called herself “black”. But she would not be the only one who now suddenly seeks solace in being a “coloured”.

Like I said, I have no problem with people identifying themselves as “coloured”, but then they must afford me the right to assert my human identity, my South African identity or my black identity.

I think the resurgence in people identifying themselves as coloureds could be laid at the door of short-sighted politicians who failed to make people who could potentially identify themselves as coloureds feel welcome in the new South Africa.

But it also has to do with economics, where people who identify themselves as coloureds have to fight for a small piece of the economic pie along with Africans.

If you speak to Africans, especially in the Western Cape, they will tell you that coloureds are favoured. If you speak to coloureds in the Western Cape, they will tell you that Africans are being favoured. The truth is probably that neither of the two is being favoured.

I try to deal with the issue of coloured identity in my book and I ask how one identifies a coloured. There are certain markers to identity and, of all the markers that I could think of, it is difficult to find any great commonality among the group roughly called “coloureds”.

I still believe that the only definition of “coloureds” is people who could not be fitted into any of the other apartheid-era definitions.

And isn’t it amazing how our democratic government has just adopted all the apartheid-era terminology? But that is probably the subject of another blog.

This post originally appeared on ThoughtLeader.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 3rd, 2008 @14:35 #
     
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    Surely race is but a single ingredient of identity? To the best of my knowledge and experience, the difference between individuals is always far greater than the difference between races, no matter how well defined their racial identity may be. Personally, I don't give a shit what shade of brown someone is, except when I come home from my summer holiday and look in the mirror (but that's a different matter entirely).
    It seems contradictory, Ryland, that you are amazed by the government's adoption of apartheid-era definitions, but also seem to be devoting much of your time and energy to the further specification of racial categories and/or identities.
    In my opinion, "consciousness of non-racialism" is not enough. I think humanity must be urged to move towards an "awareness of personal identity". We need to look through the hue and see the individual inside. Always.

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    March 3rd, 2008 @22:07 #
     
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    It's interesting to me when we are exhorted to look through our racial identity, or ignore it. While I find this a grand aim, it does not in any way reflect my lived reality. As a member of society and a writer, I am interested in the ways in which I am excluded or included, silenced or encouraged to speak. Racial identity remains a huge provocation and with our history black people are intensely aware of our vulnerability. The same goes for gender politics. Would you expect me as a woman to look through my female identity, to ignore what I am? I think that anyone who is brave enough and honest enough to reflect publicly on their identity deserves to be read. (It's also because these are also themes that are to be found in my writing - and I still need validation!) I think it is also worthwhile to challenge how you are defined. PS I think that debate is a dish served alive and kicking.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 4th, 2008 @00:38 #
     
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    I think there is a vast difference between reflecting on race and/or gender as an aspect of your personal identity and reflecting on the identity of a particular race or gender. In terms of classification, I am a lot more like other writers than I am like other whites or other men. The latter two tags have been foisted upon me, the former is the product of personal choice.

    I am convinced that any attempt to define racial identity is purely academic, because the issues surrounding race and gender are always played out at an interpersonal level or within a specific context, where you may indeed be either excluded or included, silenced or encouraged, cheered or jeered.

    I therefore urge you and anyone else to continue exploring all aspects of your personal identity, for this is indeed the placenta the feeds great art and progress. And so I am far more intrigued by the personal motives underlying Ryland's quest for the coloured identity, than by the outcome of his quest.

    To this I can add that there is no one more vulnerable than a white man in a debate on race and gender. And so I stand before you naked, but very much alive and kicking.

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    March 5th, 2008 @18:04 #
     
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    Hi Richard, I feel that it's a bit crazy to question the existence of a coloured identity. Do you question the existence of a Welsh or a Scottish identity? These are hugely emotive issues for sections of the public. Yet Welshmen and Scotsmen may or may not be under pressure to identify themselves as their national identity, in fact, I think they are more encouraged to think of themselves as Britons. This assimilation is very threatening for many people, because in some ways it means giving up your precious heritage of language and culture. Other people believe that it's the only way to be progressive. In our racial identity struggle, people of colour are still finding the language by which we define ourselves. A racial identity is as wide as the people who choose it for themselves. Britons are every colour you can imagine, yet we have an idea that Britons are pale-skinned people with light eyes and straight hair. By 2010 there will be more black people in Birmingham than white people. So how is it that such a huge number of people are ignored? I understand that you feel vulnerable, but you are not alone in your vulnerability. There are vast populations of people who are invisible because the language does not reflect their existence.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 5th, 2008 @19:09 #
     
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    Empires are always into encouraging people to think of themselves as part of a larger collective identity, as organic cultural identity is a powerful anchor for reactionary movements against totalitarianism.

    The British Empire did it, which is why any Scotsman worth his salt would declare independence for his country if he had half the chance. Different cultures and colours are awesome, they echo the beauty of natural diversity. Internalising some sort of authentic, independent cultural indentity whilst remaining tolerant and appreciative of other cultures would be (to me at least) real progress.

    Unfortunately what is happening on this planet is the opposite - we are being encouraged to abandon our cultures to rally and 'unite' beneath the hideous plastic cultural banner that is secular consumerism. If international political policies continue in their present direction we'll end up as identity-less serfs of a global federal government before the turn of the century.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 6th, 2008 @12:24 #
     
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    Just to set the record straight: I too have a deep respect and affinity for different cultures and colours. And I am fully in favour of individuals or groups exploring whatever aspects of their identity they feel are important.

    However, the gross generalization of stereotypical cultural or group characteristics has, to the best of my knowledge, never truly benefited any group. In fact, the better acquainted I become with individuals from a specific culture or group - Welsh, Scottish, British, Dutch, Italian, "Coloured" etc. - the less they seem to tally with the stereotypical identity that has been fed to me over the years.

    And, Sven, it is possible for people to adopt a broader, more collective culture without relinquishing their original culture. Europe is a case in point. EU members benefit from the economic, cultural and academic exchange, without having to give up any of their unique characteristics. And when I visit Prague or Paris or Rome or Lisbon, the only sign of "secular consumerism" I can see is the McDonald's in every major shopping precinct. But right next door I see a pizzeria, an Indian restaurant, a falafel take-out, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese. So I don't see us becoming "identity-less serfs" anytime soon, despite the existence of a "European federal government".

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 6th, 2008 @13:51 #
     
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    I'm with Richard on this. While I agree with Sven that McCulture threatens most of people's culture, my beef is with the strong expressions of ethno-cultural identity that seeks to make that the primary foundation of a person's self-identification or the primary foundation through which we develop a framework of viewing the world. Again, this is not to deny people's particularities, but identities are constantly in flux - we retain and shed different things all the time AND the things we shed and retain are in any case so difficult to pin down.

    I'd much rather define myself by what I DO than by what I am supposed to BE - active versus static - which connects with Richard's point about being "a lot more like other writers than I am like other whites or other men". In SA racial parlance and history, while my experience of SA may be a lot different from Richard's experience of SA, we would probably be able to hold far more fruitful discussions than I could hold with brother. This is not to diss my brother; rather, it is to assert that I actually share commonalities with someone else who writes, has been to university, knows The Clash's music, the ECC, etc.

    Which brings us back to that old bogey: class. A far more discerning category to use if we want to talk about people in groups. There's a brilliant moment in the movie "Lumumba" which I always come back to: As Lumumba disembarks in Belgium, an oldish, white, working class woman hands him a bunch of flowers and says something to the effect that this is for him, because he is for them (working class) as well. Even if only symbolic and perhaps fictional, it strikes a chord. But then some may call me sentimental.

    Anyway, here's the plug. Some may have seen it and become tired:

    http://groundwork.wordpress.com/2006/07/03/fuck-colouredness-and-the-coloured-voice/

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 6th, 2008 @14:06 #
     
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    I think it will take longer to permeate Europe because of the natural barrier to cultural corrosion that decent education and a different language represent. I have found the worst examples of secular consumer culture in English speaking countries where cultural colonisation tends to be unimpeded - I think you'd find little trouble finding the phenomenon of which I speak in London.

    I'm heading to Switzerland in a week or two and admire many aspects of their culture (not least their aversion to joining the European Union). Let me also state that I am not claiming to be against European integration, but feel uncomfortable with the idea of unification and centralisation of power, particularly when the machinations towards this override the wishes of people in nominally democratic countries. These things don't unfold in an instant, they take place in small steps, and before you know it, you're somewhere you don't want to be.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 6th, 2008 @15:36 #
     
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    "In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

    Let's play guess the classic.

    I think the greater threat lies in not daring to take any steps at all.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 6th, 2008 @15:48 #
     
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    Orson Welles (I cheated - an index of the level of corruption in SA society)

    Since we're onto clocks: "Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day"

    And no one's answered the first question yet. Oops, different thread...

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 6th, 2008 @16:47 #
     
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    Sic transit gloria mundi.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 7th, 2008 @17:42 #
     
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    Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur...

    Stereotypes aside, the Swiss apparently also invented the pencil, the newspaper, the electric telegraph, soda water, the internal combustion engine, spectacles, contact lenses, the helicopter, aluminium foil, LSD (and you thought they were straight laced), antihistamines, potato chips, the computer mouse, and my personal favourite - the rusk. That's besides being the oldest genuine democracy in Europe. They also have windows that open both from the side and the bottom, something I haven't yet got my head around.

    My final words on this matter are not my words at all, but those of HG Wells' friend, the rotund Gilbert Chesterton. Chesterton made the following remarks in response to Wells' work 'The Open Conspiracy' (a text dedicated to the pursuit of world government):

    "Mr. Wells is driven to perpetual disparagement of patriotism and militant memories, and yet his appeal is always to the historic pride of man. Now nearly all normal men have in fact received their civilisation through their citizenship; and to lose their past would be to lose their link with mankind. An Englishman who is not English is not European; a Frenchman who is not fully French is not fully human. Nations have not always been seals or stoppers closing up the ancient wine of the world; they have been the vessels that received it. And, as with many ancient vessels, each of them is a work of art."

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 8th, 2008 @23:53 #
     
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    Especially if it's the only Latin you know.

    Of course the Swiss have produced more than quaint clocks and fondue. As for their democratic traditions, I hope you won't be too disappointed:

    'http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/22/world/europe/22swiss.html?_r=1&oref=slogin`

    (We have those windows in Holland. Turn the lever to the horizontal position to fully open the window, with the hinge at the side. And turn the lever vertically upwards to set the window ajar at the top, with the hinge below.)

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    March 9th, 2008 @15:20 #
     
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    Thanks for the article Richard, when I was in Switzerland a couple of months ago I was made aware of the campaign via the media and election posters on the street.

    As far as I know the reason for this reaction from the political right is basically the fact that 1/4 of their population are now immigrants, and this is perceived by many as being the source of social problems and crime in Zurich and Geneva.

    I don't think their political position on the left-right political spectrum neccessarily has anything to do with the degree of democracy in the country. From what I understand democratic process is built into the subdivision of Switzerland into dozens of semi-autonomous cantons, many of which are small enough to facilitate some degree of direct accountability and individual participation in the democratic process.

    However, this may all be changing, once I am able to understand what anyone there is saying at any given time, I may have a chance at better understanding the mood there.

    And as for the windows - I stand corrected. You are quite right, they open from the side and top. The mechanisms involved remain occult..

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 9th, 2008 @17:21 #
     
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    Very few other European countries have ruling parties on the far right of the political spectrum - Austria being a notable exception. The problem lies in the desire of such parties to exclude and even extradite immigrants. I'm not too clear on the details, but I've heard from several sources that Switzerland is not a very nice place to live if you're anything but pink. But this is a tragic trend that seems to be taking place across Europe.

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