Culture, Narratives, Politics, Research, Uncategorized

Book review – ‘Coloured: How Classification Became Culture’ by Tessa Dooms & Lynsey Ebony Chutel

Ever since I started exploring stories of people of mixed race, the Coloured* community of South Africa was never far from my mind. Knowing something about the country’s complicated history from the likes of Trevor Noah (whom, incidentally, the authors of the book do not define as Coloured), as well as comments from people who visited, I was curious.

When I therefore came across the book Coloured by Tessa Dooms and Lyndsey Ebony Chutel, it instantly intrigued me.

Written from the perspective of Coloureds themselves, rather than by a third-party observer, it seemed like the authentic testimony I was looking for.

It was the right choice.

I gained an insider’s view of the history, culture and social status of Coloured people. I also had a sense of their vision for the future in a country where mixed communities still sometimes feel ‘in between’, for factors outside of their control.

The invention of Coloured as a racial category under Apartheid was a clumsy and random process based on a conception of race; a mashup of biology, culture and biography’, the authors explain.

They were put in a position of “pain and privilege” that is relatable to someone like me; a person of mixed heritage. However, their stories are more extreme.

The book explains how Coloureds came to exist in a system that played with people’s lives as if they were figures on a chess board. It’s no wonder that the effects are still being felt today.

The book explores the position of Coloured people in the eyes of the law, and the many systemic abuses that have led to their fractured sense of belonging in modern-day South Africa.

However, the reader also learns about the ties that held Coloured communities together and gave them a sense of identity.

One of the strongest unifying factors was music. The authors explain it gave them…a feeling reminiscent of a community whose existence may be hard to see through cultural attire or shared cultural symbols but could…be felt in the air and in our hearts.’

For people who faced displacement and various forms of systematic racism for years, it was a feeling ‘beyond measure’.

The book mentions various genres such as goema, Christian hymns to political music produced by artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Don Mattera.

Minstrel parades were also significant. In the South African context, these musical celebrations helped bring communities together.

Nevertheless, dividing issues still remain. One of them is hair. Depending on which part of their heritage the texture resembles the most, Coloured people view it either as a “blessing or a burden”. No prizes for guessing which part of their European, Asian and African mix comes on top.

Language could be another tool of division. Whilst Afrikaans evolved from the interaction between Dutch settlers and indigenous African ethnic groups, the former Apartheid regime hijacked the language as a means of imposing hierarchy and cultural barriers.

Afrikaans thus became the language of both oppression and privilege. It is hardly surprising that it is in a precarious position nowadays, alongside those for whom it once guaranteed a level of protection and power. In the modern-day South Africa, Coloured people can be ostracised due to their former status, carrying the burden of not being ‘enough’. As a result, their challenges are perceived with suspicion rather than empathy.

The authors liken their status to the one of Krotoa, an ancestor who worked as a translator for Dutch settlers, facilitating trade with her native tribe.  She was embraced by neither community and ended up culturally isolated.

The book nonetheless leaves much room for hope. Coloured offers honest reflections of struggle, as well as acknowledgement of one’s own privilege. Most importantly, it paints a vision for a future living as equals in South Africa.

*Editor’s Note: The term ‘Coloured’ has pejorative connotations in the majority of (post)colonial contexts in which it was once used to describe those racialised as non-white; usually of African or South Asian descent. However, it continues to have a particular salience in South Africa that is unique to the country’s history. The term therefore must be accommodated in this context. The Coloured community includes individuals who have African, European and Asian ancestry.

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