Face the challenge of racial ambiguity


Most of us are uncomfortable with not knowing the answer to something and having to wait for an outcome or an answer induces anxiety — whether it is waiting to hear how a job interview went or staring with bated breath at the ellipse on the screen. Television shows end with cliffhangers, which lure us back to the couch.

But, for some, this limbo can sometimes be more tortuous than dealing with the disappointment of a negative outcome. Ambiguity can cause stress, create complexity and make decisions more difficult. Ambiguity makes us feel uncomfortable and, in a way, we have been programmed to either avoid or solve ambiguity.

Similarly, racial ambiguity was vexing for both the colonial order and the apartheid regime. As a way to resolve this, race was reified and a race system based on notions of “racial purity” and the perception that people are monoracial was institutionalised.

But, despite the inherent paradoxes and contradictions of the social constructions of race, social relations in South Africa remain informed by race and are a dominant feature of our national discourse and making sense of it. Our sociospatial realities and sense of belonging remain entangled in race.

At a visceral level, racial classification not only informs our language but also serves as a crude sorting tool that creates a kind of boundary. In South Africa, these boundaries have been reinforced by histories of violence and racial and ethnic discrimination.

Historically, the “in between” position of the racial category coloured represented a kind of bridging of boundaries that threatened colonial constructs, which were premised on “pure” racial categories — black and white. This conflicted construction of coloured identities, coupled with the apartheid legislative history of coloured identity, continues to inform current dilemmas.

Unlike clear-cut racial categories such as black and Indian, which in their social construction and in general discourse maintain the false notion that race is static in nature, coloured identities remain contested, fluid and ambiguous. This sits uncomfortably within a political discourse that maintains and centres an African essentialism that privileges Africanness as blackness.

Coloured identities also challenge and disrupt post-liberation narratives that often invoke and mobilise around race, particularly those centred on the dialectic notion that all oppressed people identified as black against a common white enemy when the majority often denies them blackness, or alleges that coloured people use blackness only when it suits them.

But coloured is part of blackness for some and, especially in youth discourse, coloured identity takes its place as a part of black identity expressed in the unique ethnic, cultural and linguistic features of colouredness. For others, colouredness is distinct from blackness.

This polarity and the many points of identification along the coloured ethnic continuum are part of that fluidity and ambiguity. It is a manifestation of the relatively more diverse history of peoples and ancestry and lineages who, because of the peculiar slave, colonial and indigenous blending, have been lumped together. Indeed, where the apartheid and colonial states couldn’t decide your identity, you were more likely to be classified coloured or “other coloured”.

This ancestry of diverse strands, and its erasure, makes it hard for those both in and outside colouredness to nail an identity down, especially in a context where race remains a cornerstone of contemporary politics.

The discomfort that comes with the ambiguity of coloured identities manifests in the policing of coloured identity — from within and outside the coloured community — and the perpetuation of the notion of hierarchies of oppressions between black and coloured people. The result is the anxiety and discontent expressed through public protest by coloured South Africans and the constant renegotiation of what it means to be a coloured South African by those who identify as such.

But the need to categorise ourselves is a human as well as a colonial a mind-set that we have inherited. And perhaps the coloured community in its amorphous, vibrant, unique and myriad manifestations is fluid in both a cause and effect of racial categorisation; a living challenge to our need to box ourselves in.

In its very being, coloured identity is a threat to the collective social subconscious, and that coloured people can move between spaces in their myriad identities is at once a transgression of the collective racial compact we have all bought into, and a subversion of it.

Learning to become comfortable with ambiguity can assist us in unpacking and (re)negotiating our social relations as South Africans. Often we are consumed by trying to find simple answers to complex questions in this country. Recognising that ambiguity, and the complexity that comes with that, is essential for deepening understanding and carving out a new future, ripe with possibilities. Perhaps there is something to learn from this ambiguity instead of futilely trying to “fix” it.

Eleanor du Plooy is the senior project leader for the Ashley Kriel youth desk and gender justice and reconciliation at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

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