The first time I walked into a school in Athlone — a school with a proud history of anti-apartheid protest — I naively referred to it as a “proud coloured school”. I was doing research for the first time in South Africa, and was interested in how learners’ racial identities mediated the history they were taught. Indeed, I had selected this school as part of my sample because I had believed it to be “coloured”.
The principal gently corrected me: “We’re a proud black school. Biko black.”
The principal, and the rest of the teaching staff, subscribed to the view that the term “coloured” was oppressive. To quote from Lionel Adendorf’s 2016 article in the Cape Argus, they believed that “those who consider themselves ‘coloured’ have obviously not yet been liberated from the apartheid yoke”, because “there is no coloured culture, no coloured traditions and no coloured customs”. Instead, history classes taught that everyone who wasn’t white was black, and that black people had a proud history of overthrowing apartheid.
But, over the course of the 10 months I spent at this school, tensions between the staff members and learners were easily discernible. The learners resisted the label “black” and resented the absence of “coloured” history in the curriculum. They understood the resistance to apartheid as something which didn’t involve them because “coloured” was a term their teachers didn’t condone.
Although they frequently referenced cultural practices and attitudes they identified as “coloured”, the learners also evidenced an understanding that race is fluid and constructed. “My grandma got reclassified as white because she had pale skin,” said one girl, explaining the diverse and shifting identities that made up her heritage.
This was a dynamic that I saw repeated in many of the schools I visited. Teachers, many of whom had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, shunned the term “coloured”, while their learners were using it as an important and meaningful term of self-identity and expression. In a school in the Cape Flats, where I spent three months, tensions between learners who identified as black and those who identified as coloured were palpable.
These identities mediated the social landscape of the school in a way which couldn’t be ignored. Yet, within this tension, learners were doing interesting and creative things with their racial identities. One learner who had moved to the Cape Flats from Malawi, for example, identified as coloured because her best friend was coloured and she didn’t speak isiXhosa, so wasn’t black.
In a third school, this time in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, a learner whose grandparents emigrated from India identified as coloured “because of my accent”. His classmate similarly explained that “I called myself black for a long time because my dad is black”, but she changed her racial self-identification when she realised how few people could be proud to say “look here, I am a coloured”. During our interviews she was a passionate advocate of having more “coloured” history in the curriculum, and sought to be as proud of her identity as her black friends were of theirs.
Perhaps we would prefer to live in a world where children didn’t need to make politically-loaded decisions about their racial identities. But we need to take seriously the ways in which these learners express their identity, without assuming that they are naïve, unliberated or — as Trevor Noah claimed — that “all of the things that have shaped their culture” are derivative from their oppressors.
The young people I interviewed reworked the coloured identity so that it offered a sense of belonging. Often it had less to do with the past and more to do with making sense of contemporary reality. Yet this teenage exploration of identity was not served by teachers who told them that it was wrong and by a history curriculum that described their existence as apartheid oppression.
If we believe that race and identity are socially constructed, then we need to be open to the idea that these constructs can change. Speaking to young people would be a good place to start.
Natasha Robinson is a PhD candidate in the department of education at the University of Oxford