February 28, 2008

Race, Identity, Soweto and Me

“Hello, white girl.” This was my welcome to Soweto.

One of South Africa’s largest townships, Soweto is most well known as the hotbed of youth activism against apartheid, particularly during the fateful June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising when over 10,000 students marched against the government’s policy that education must take place in Afrikaans as opposed to English. (The apparent “logic” behind the ruling was that White’s taxes were contributing to Black education, thus Blacks must learn in Afrikaans, a language they had no background in.) The Soweto Uprising brought national attention to South Africa as police opened random fire on the students after a policeman threw rocks into the crowd and the children threw rocks back. 566 people died that day, and the senseless violence upon children was the tipping point to bring political and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Knowing this history, I of course wanted to visit Soweto. The guys at work decided that I wasn’t allowed to take a tour. “No, no, no. We’ll take you to the hood,” they liked to tell me. So I finally got them to commit to a time, and on Sunday Thabiso and Molemo (in the pictures below) showed me around their town.

For starters, their version of the “hood” is not exactly the Magnolia Projects. Perhaps I’m not sensitized as I might be if from here, but I certainly didn’t feel in danger at any point in time. Instead, I felt like I was in a low-middle income Black community, not so unlike Duke Dr. where I spent my early years in Kenner, Louisiana. Single family homes with lots of family coming in and out. Folks hanging out in the streets, strolling around on a hot summer day. People calling out to everyone who passed by ‘cause you know they know your “mama and ‘dem.” (Ok, so maybe we only say that phrase in New Orleans. =))

What was different were the clear signs of apartheid and the progress since. Soweto is where Gauteng Province’s Black people were forcibly moved during apartheid (and today 6 million of South Africa’s 42 million people live in Soweto). No one was allowed to own land. The homes were built practically on top of each other, so there are generally no “yards” to speak of. And quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity to be found in Soweto.

On the other hand, those who have been able have added extensions to their homes. So in between a row of modest houses are newly constructed two-story places. (However, interestingly enough, very few of these houses have the immense security walls found in the White suburbs.) At the “posh” local restaurants you do see some folks of other races. And perhaps Soweto’s most interesting sign of “progress” is the absolutely massive mall and the equally ginormous mega-churches. (I thought I’d seen some of world’s largest mega-churches when working in Ohio, but this is a whole other thing….)

Soweto, like most of my time in South Africa, also consistently brought me back to the conversation of race. The initial trigger came as Thabiso and I were standing outside Molemo’s house waiting for him to get back from church. Molemo’s cousin walked by and started calling out to me:

“Hello white girl. Come stand in the shade with me white girl. Don’t get burned white girl.” Thabiso just laughed and laughed.

My jaw dropped. “Thabiso, did I lose six shades of pigment since this morning?”

“Nah, you’re just White in Soweto.”

Hmm…ok. I could see how even in the Rainbow Nation the black/white paradigm would be powerful in the township. If you aren’t Black in Soweto, essentially you’re White. I could see that.

However, the next day is what really surprised me. I went into the office to tell my Sowetan tales, including my new found whiteness. I was certain everyone would see the humor in my “Hello white girl” moment and laugh with me at the story. Turns out several people at the office thought I was White as well!

So again, I ask the fairly inane question, “Did I lose several shades of pigment today?” The Johannesburg summer has been baking me, and I’m definitely a very toasty shade of brown.

“No, it’s not about your skintone. Your facial features are White. You don’t look like our Indians. And you speak proper,” says my White, Afrikaans-speaking co-worker. Apparently accents in South Africa tell you more about racial category than skin color.

“I thought you were White as well, but maybe Coloured (mixed). Although wouldn’t have guessed Indian,” says my White, lesbian co-worker, whose partner is Coloured and adopted daughter is Black.

“Why not Indian I ask?” South Africa has the largest Indian community outside of India. Surely I could be “recognized” Indian here.

“We don’t really know that there are any Indians from India in America.”

Fantastic. We need to get Kal Penn to do more movies.

I then ask a Black female co-worker and she says she couldn’t guess my racial background either. But she did notice that I had “Indian hair”...

So then I asked an Indian co-worker (in a fairly obvious move for acceptance) what he thought my ethnic background was. Surely he would take me for one of his own.

“I figured you were Hispanic.”


From what I gathered from him, most of South Africa’s Indians are South Indian, who are generally darker skinned than me. And as I was told by another co-worker, “Our Indians aren't usually ‘curvy’ as you are.” Ah, the curves…

In the end it became abundantly clear that my racial category had been a topic of office conversation, and the general consensus was that no one knew. Which also meant they didn’t know which social box to put me in. Well, except foreign.

Which got me thinking…

In America, I’m never quite American. Everyone asks me where I’m from. Not the American city I was born in, but where I’m “from from,” in other words my ethnic background. In India, I don’t have to open my mouth before it is assumed I’m not from India, simply in how I carry myself. In Argentina, I was assumed to be Brazilian. In Brazil, I was Venezuelan. In Ohio, I was Black. And in South Africa, I’m now apparently White.

I’m not complaining about playing racial chameleon. It’s actually often fun, generally interesting, and sometimes quite helpful. It’s just fascinating to me that race is still used as such a salient social construct, although it can’t be definitively defined.

Moreover, this whole experience has me thinking about identity. My personal identity is deeply linked to being “South Asian American,” but that construct has no value here. I’ve also grown up working with and for communities of color, but suddenly I’m seen as White here – not as part of the majority group, but as part of those with elevated access and power.

I’m not really sure what all of this means yet. But I am going back to Soweto tomorrow tonight. Maybe there I’ll find some answers, or at least some more questions...


Vimal said...

fascinating... On a personal level, I always assumed that even in America, despite my own pride in being "indian-american" that eventually most people just assumed I was white for most purposes. Once I was taking a cab in Chicago and the cab driver was talking about Michael Vick, and then, shockingly, said, "You know, I hate to say it, but you never see white players get in this kind of trouble."
In addition to the actual incorrectness, inanity and clear racism behind the comment, I was shocked that he would be comfortable saying something like that in front of me, an obvious minority myself. But I think White americans quickly find themselves comfortable with Indians to the point where they are intellectually aware that we are different, but still consider us "like them." What's so shocking about your tale is that some south africans don't even seem to be intellectually aware of your background.

Soweto LIFE said...

Your experience in Soweto is fascinating, race issues in SA is very much alive and prevalent, it is amazing how much time it will take to change peopel's mind-sets before they can aceept any person as an individual and not Indian, Black, Coloured or white. I hope you enjoyed your stay anyway. Best of luck with your travels