Externally, you’d never expect that I am an immediate descendant of black skin. As a second generation South African, the freckles on my nose and my love for Michael Buble Christmas Carols hide any hint of colour within my lineage. But, never the less, I am born of colour.
The second I tell people that my mother is black, they always ask me the exact same question (after closely examining my skin for signs of wrinkles concealing any falsehoods)… “but how black is she?”.
It’s as if there’s some kind of unspoken metaphorical cutoff point that allows you to adorn the label black, and at this point, it’s my job to place her on a scale somewhere between Obama and Usain Bolt. And hey, it’s fine, I get why people ask the question (I think?), but as I wince ever so slightly in pain with the retort I am relentlessly met with, I question why it’s something I even mention in the first place. Why is it even important to mention race? Why is this a crucial characteristic or defining feature? Is it even appropriate for me to be bringing it up at all?
The issue of racial identification and furthermore racial fluidity is one that I’m still not quite sure how to handle. I don’t know the right, or at least culturally respectful answer here, but within a social climate that seems to be steering further and further away from pigeon holes and segregation, racial fluidity feels a little like a breath of fresh, albeit delicate, air.
What the hell is racial fluidity?
If you’re a somewhat socially or politically conscious person living in the year 2018, I’m sure by now you’ve heard of the terms gender fluidity and sexual fluidity. Copy and paste those same principles to the construct of race and racial identity, and voila! You now have a pretty good understanding of the term racial fluidity. It can essentially be defined as the act of an individual choosing to align with a particular race or ethnicity, regardless of external appearances or their ethnic background. If you’d rather a definition from the most reliable of sources, Urban Dictionary sums it up pretty well here:
For example, I, as a white woman, may choose to identify as a black woman, in the form of appropriating language typically used within the black community, doing my hair and makeup in a similar style, and dressing in a way that could be considered typical of black culture, despite my skin being white. Wait… but can you really just choose to adopt the attractive parts of a particular culture such as external appearance or language, without being subjected to the unattractive parts of said same culture, such as years of oppression, slavery, and racial vilification? Herein lies the problem.
On the other hand, in order to exterminate the social construct of race, and potentially eradicate racism altogether, shouldn’t we make race a tool that can be used by everyone within society to express themselves freely, and to celebrate the beauty of diversity? Hmm, yes, good point.
If you’re in need of a more visual representation of this modern day moral dilemma, look no further then the recent Netflix special ‘The Rachel Divide’. It focuses on the story of a woman called Rachel Dolezal, a Caucasian woman who identifies and poses as African American (despite her complexion arguably being other than that) and has received enormous amounts of backlash from the black community whilst sparking a global debate on the issue.
As interesting and confusing as the Rachel Dolezal case proves to be, it poses a lot of questions for us on just how strongly we feel about the blurring of racial lines altogether. Identifying as non-binary within any facet of your identity inherently challenges the typical foundation and structure of our society, therefore haters and backlash is usually expected right? We saw this with Bruce Jenner’s transition into Caitlyn Jenner back in 2015, and we are seeing it here, Rachel Dolezal tearing away the seams of the fabric we have come to understand race as and restructuring it into a tool she uses, and proudly owns.
After watching this documentary with my mother recently, we were both undeniably perplexed. “Hang on, I’m all for non-binary identification, but, you’ve never had to experience racial oppression of any kind” … We parlayed over the issue of racial fluidity that night, both struggling to grasp the concept of selecting your own race.
The underlying trouble with it came back to one key point. In the hands of the right people, racial fluidity has the potential to spawn a generation free from the constraints of social hierarchy and prejudice. However, in the hands of the wrong people, it can be used as a weapon to further segregate people, exploit different cultures, and ultimately widen the gap between races in a type of unspoken standoff. After this headache-inducing conversation went round and round, I thought an interview with my mother Nicolette, a black woman, would be an appropriate and fresh perspective on the issue. Without further ado:
Mum, why do you identify as black, and not as coloured?
The term coloured offends me because it groups many different races together. White is the expected, neutral norm and everybody else is coloured or other. For me as a person born in South Africa who lived there during the apartheid period, coloured was a term used by the government to segregate. They were not the only government that used this term but it has a personal offence to me.
“It’s bad enough being a kid today aspiring to the things you see around you but when there was NO visual other. Today I bloody revel in my differences and other. Actually, I LOVE it.”
And how has your skin colour shaped you as a person?
My skin colour has ABSOLUTELY shaped me as a person. I’ve grown up and done all my schooling as the only person of a different race. It made me feel less than and different when that is not an easy thing to be, particularly in primary school or during adolescence. EVERYTHING that was around me I could never aspire to be even though I was being bombarded by images proclaiming their inherent beauty. I’m talking about toys, dolls, skin coloured tights in my ballet classes. Bandaids. All I wanted when I was young was silky hair that would flick and blow in the wind. It’s bad enough being a kid today aspiring to the things you see around you but when there was NO visual other. Today I bloody revel in my differences and other. Actually, I LOVE it.
Then how do you feel about people identifying as racially fluid?
I struggle with racial fluidity. If someone can choose their race, that means they don’t necessarily look a certain race. This means they possibly haven’t endured a lot of the negative things. I can never choose to be white or Asian for example. I have no choice, society has defined me and pretty much determined me as a woman of colour, at the bottom of the power pyramid. I’d love to cherry pick some bits of race and leave others but unfortunately, the choice is not mine.
Do you think that we will someday live in a racially fluid world?
Well, as the parent of two children whose father is white, I really hope that racial fluidity will end racism. I think about this a lot lately because one of my children, in particular, could identify as a woman of colour without it being obvious. I sometimes wonder if I’ve betrayed my race by dating and having children outside my race. Then I realise that’s an extremely racist perspective. I find it funny that I’ve had kids with an extremely aryan looking German. As a person of my race from South Africa, this would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. So I kind of love that maybe 2 new people in the world from such different extreme lineage exist. It’s a type of unintended rebellion. Just like wearing my uncontrollable curly hair extremely short. I’ve made peace long ago with not having silky tresses.
It becomes quickly apparent to me, that in this second case study of racial vilification, I identify to some degree as our protagonist. Sliding through life as a person who identifies as black – or rather a descendant of black – but externally not being recognised as one. Having never experienced any kind of racism at all, but holding close to my heart tear-jerking stories of racist experiences, sitting right beside me, in my familial history. The concept of racial fluidity a whole has a lot of elements to it, but as I recall standing in the queue at the airport with my family, my mother and my brother (who inherited a lot more black skin than I did) being pulled aside for yet another random security check, and my fair skinned father and I cooly walking through without being looked at twice, I can’t help but wonder whether my identification as either black, or white, would have any effect on other peoples perception. Still, I remain hopeful that challenging the norm and opening the floodgates to racial identification, may be enough to unify race as a whole.