“I am not ashamed to be coloured”
The phrase above might seem like an obvious statement but because it took me so long to feel this way, it still feels novel, a new thing I have to get used to.
For the longest time I wanted to be white. I remember night after night being a 12-year-old and crying and praying for a different life, one where I had straight hair and I lived in Constantia, and no one would suspect my true heritage. It didn’t even feel wrong in the moment, it seemed like something I should be doing, I should aspire to be white, I should be trying to copy that ideal.
I will always be grateful to my parents for sending me to good schools, for giving me the chances that them and my siblings did not get but sending me to former Model C schools just two years after apartheid did definite damage in attempting to erase my colouredness from me.
It’s not that kids were inherently racist, it was the little things that made me ashamed of who I was. From age five, I was told I was untidy and disgusting because my natural curly hair when blow-dried straight would stick up at the front and make my hair look bushy. It did not look as neat as their straight hair which fitted nicely in their hair ties. I, in turn, became hyper aware in order to make sure that I imitated white children – what they wore, how they spoke, what they spoke about – so that I would not stand out, I would maybe be good enough.
At age seven I started primary school and immediately became friends with the only other coloured girls in my class, it was only natural, plus it was nice to have friends you did not have to pretend around. At age nine, I consciously tried everything in my might to leave them behind so that I could be seen as cool enough to hang out with the pretty white girls. Because white equaled pretty and pretty equaled popular, and I so much wanted to belong with them.
By the time I was 12, I was a pro at ‘being white’ but occasionally I would slip up, I would pronounce a word in a coloured accent (what I used at home) and my schoolmates would laugh at me or I would mention something that was deemed ‘not okay’ and I would get reminded of my place. Oh, I knew my place so well. I could hang out with the cool kids, but I would never be better than them. I knew I would never be the one that boys liked because duh no one liked the coloured kid, no matter how white she looked, and if I did like someone it had to be a coloured guy because I had to stay in my lane. It was such a natural part of me, that I immediately abided by these unsaid rules.
I forced myself to listen to 5FM because that was the radio station that was deemed the only one worth listening to even though I knew I enjoyed the music on Goodhope FM more. My parents were not the most well off of parents but I demanded my clothes had to bought by YDE or Billabong, because that was expected. I was ashamed for people to visit my house, or see my family, I was proud when my fair skin had me mistaken for a white person.
I often say the turning point was when I went to high school, and my school was a lot less whitewashed, there were people of all races who interacted together and were proud of who they were. I remember speaking in the accent that I wanted to, wearing what I wanted to, being proud to love R&B and hip hip and my high school classmates embracing that. It was surreal. But my white envy did not go away that simply, it still trickled into my daily life, and my eagerness to separate myself from coloured stereotypes and culture, to be ‘different’. I could not deny anymore that I was coloured but I still wanted to be known as ‘one of the good ones’ without fully educating myself or taking into consideration why my people had these negative connotations around them, what gave them this reputation, what socio-economic issues put them in that position. I was too eager to say “I’m coloured but…”.
The more educated I became about the history and politics about South Africa, the more I learnt to accept my coloured identity, to be happy about it, to be proud of it. We are more than just comedy and bad headlines, we are legends.
This conversation was avid on social media recently with Wayde van Niekerk’s excellent record-breaking win at the 2016 Rio Olympics. And as Carla Bernardo and Carmen Williams excellently wrote about why his win was important for the coloured community and I agree with both of them, his win has inspired an entire community that they are more than just jokes and warnings. It has given a new generation hope, a reason to not be ashamed of their colour, or their heritage.
My 14-year-old nephew who is the most lackluster kid on the planet, and posts so rarely about things that aren’t just teenage jokes, surprisingly took to Instagram to praise Wayde. This is him praising a sporting hero, who looks like him, who speaks like him, who comes from a community like his. And it made me emotional to know that he will grow up knowing that he is capable just like Wayde, that coloured men can rise above their struggles.
My 14 year old nephew has a new hero that looks like him ❤️ pic.twitter.com/bcAFThRso3
— Caryn Welby-Solomon (@carrieanne07) August 15, 2016
I have said this countless times but representation is important. There’s that beautiful picture from the Ghostbusters premiere of that little girl in her GB uniform looking at Kristen Wiig in awe. I commented on a recent article about diversity in where I said that non-white people don’t often get to pick who they identify with because they are lucky to see someone that looks like them and if they do, that person is often sidelined, and I thank God that diversity is starting to slowly become the norm in entertainment.
As a child I grabbed onto every slight tan person I saw in TV in hope – I idolised J.Lo, Jessica Alba in Dark Angel was my everything, and Girlfriends was my secret favourite show for a long time. To this day, I am a die-hard Kim Engelbrecht fan because when I saw her on Take 5, with all her coloured glory she gave me hope. She was my reference point, my guide, my proof that yes coloured girls can also be great, be loved, be confident.
Mindy Kaling put it so well:
“So many girls who look up to me or are interested in me are young girls of color who have been told they’re ugly and who feel that they are not normal. It’s so important for women who look like me — or who look different than me — can find themselves beautiful and be objects of love and attention and affection.”
I hope that Wayde’s win and the conversations about coloured identity and coloured excellence that are currently taking place will encourage more people to be proud of their heritage, their colour, their skin, that they won’t be stuck in white-envy or black-envy, and be able to say ‘yes, I am coloured’ with no ‘but’ at the end.
We are great people, fearless, loving, unique, excellent people and we should never ever be ashamed of who we are and where we come from.