I am lucky enough to work in a very frank multi-racial, multi-cultural department at work. There are four of us and we have great discussions about what it’s like being white or black or coloured and what makes us different and what makes us the same. We learn from each other and I don’t know of a time when any of us have taken offense.
So, it was no surprise to me when my one black colleauge recently decided to ask a coloured temp (let’s call her Jenny) what her heritage was. The conversation didn’t start so frankly but evolved from some curiosity as to whether ot not Jenny was of Zulu decent and could therefore speak Zulu.
My colleague is not Zulu so I don’t know how this came about. I would never have even considered that Jenny might be Zulu because she’s coloured to me. Most coloured people in South Africa are decendents from coloured people and therefore don’t generally speak an African langauge and also don’t associate with a specific ethnic heritage.
Trevor Noah, our most famous coloured person at present, is an exception to the rule. He is Xhosa and European. He speaks Xhosa (along with a lot of other languages) fluently but don’t use him as an example as the norm by any means. He happens to be a good example of someone who speaks frankly about race but this is not about him. Don’t think about Trevor when you think about coloured people in the context of this blog.
Jenny says she is “everything.” She means it. She simply is.
The next questions is “What is your surname?”. This might seem like a strange segway but your surname can often reveal a lot about you in this country. Her response “The surname I currently use is Kings. My dad’s surname is Blikkies” And there you have it. No matter what you look like and what you speak you can only be coloured with a surname like Blikkies.
Blikkies in Afrikaans for tins/cans. Yup, that can be a surname in this world of mine. I’m not sure why she goes by Kings but I think it has something to do with tins/cans being your identity and probably the fact that it’s very defining in terms of being coloured. Jenny doesn’t consider herself coloured. You don’t reply “everything” when you’re coloured.
This may seem a stange thing to write about but seeing this all play out in front of me made an impact. This curiosity around whether or not one person was one thing and then turned out to be everything you expect and somehow nothing she considers herself as fascinates me. What I did learn is that Jenny is South African and that’s what’s important.