Colonialism Under My Skin

“It has been said that the Cape Malays of the present day bear witness by their appearance to the admixture of European as well as of African blood. Alas, that it should be so! In part, this has arisen from the illicit intercourse between the white superior and the coloured female slave which so often has been noted as one of the most terrible results of slavery..”-Anglican missionary, 1800s

A conversation with my cousin in Pretoria, South Africa just yesterday spoke to me of what it is to be ‘Cape Malay’. I told him how annoying I found it living here in Australia, having to constantly try to explain our ethnic background to people. He quickly replied that he has the same problem, that outside of Cape Town even other South Africans don’t understand or know of Cape Malays. For me, this confirmed yet again what strangers we are: strangers to the continent of Africa and its variety of indigenous peoples, though we know no other place, strangers to the white colonisers who enslaved us, married us, became us, and of course, strangers to ourselves, because all we have are scraps of our own stories.

I could simply call myself South African, because its beauty speaks to me in a way that no other place does. Under Apartheid, everyone had a place, thus rather effectively keeping everyone in their designated place. Categories and sub-categories made questions of identity easy enough to resolve, if only for bureaucratic purposes. Ours was ‘Coloured-Cape Malay’. Of course, some people rejected this label: it was forced upon us, it was historically inaccurate. Those who stood in solidarity with black South Africans claimed blackness as their identity too, while others focused more on a ‘Cape Muslim’ identity as a way of being.

Here at ‘home’ in Australia, I don’t know how to assume a South African identity. It’s far easier to avoid any line of questioning. If I tell people I’m South African, I feel like a phony because their faces reflect a polite scepticism. But where are your parents from?-they ask doggedly. If I tell people I’m Cape Malay, they assume I’m Malaysian. People see my face and hijab and ask me if I’m Indonesian or Malaysian, but I correct the ‘mistake’. I don’t want to give them an easy way out when I have none for myself. Indonesia is as foreign to me as any other place, and yet I know the features of my face are a legacy of the possible blood in my veins.

Can I claim an African identity, given the soil that has absorbed us for hundreds of years? Am I the transplanted slave from any number of countries of the 17th century? Am I the Dutch/British/French/Portuguese master who married them? This place between coloniser and colonised is an uncomfortable one. It’s a place without words, because all we have left to speak in is Afrikaans, a simplified version of Dutch. It’s a place I inhabit with guilt and shame, because I know that our ‘Coloured’ skin won us a few paltry privileges under Apartheid, kept some of us silent as black South Africans were forced to occupy the bottom of society while we (un)comfortably occupied the middle.

The whiteness spread first to our skin, giving people like my grandmother her prized cat-like green eyes and fair skin. As is the case in colonial outposts the world over, these physical markers of whiteness were (and still are, to a great extent) worn as social capital. But the real ‘whiteness’ seeped into ways of thinking and acting. Gender segregation was almost unheard of, Western-style dating was, and still is, the norm, and my parents seemed embarrassingly lax compared to the parents of my Muslim friends about when I came home at night. If I had grown up amongst other people of our ‘culture’, perhaps I would’ve felt more at ease; as it was all I felt was a lingering sense of uncertainty over what I was supposed to be.

I’m Muslim, this I know with certainty. In prayer I occupy a space that is entirely my own. My guilt is my own, as is my shame. But in the Muslim community I’m awkward, uncomfortable, despite my many lovely friends. I don’t have a tangible cultural paradigm to revert to with associated elements such as dress, music or dance. I’m guilty of exoticising, of borrowing elements from other people’s cultures because I have no visible manifestations of my own. Islam transcends culture, they say. It certainly does, but Muslims need not, and do not. Culture forms an important part of many people’s understanding of both themselves and their faith, and navigating the Muslim community without this easily identifiable lens can be a complex and lonely exercise.

I know that much of my discomfort is of my own creation, that people are much more understanding of difference and shades of brown and yellow than I give them credit for. But this is also contingent upon my own acceptance of multiplicity, and I’m not there yet.  I still find it hard to explain to people that my parents are migrants whose first language is English, but whose skin colour is not white. I still feel unable to call myself African without feeling like a thief, stealing the term from those with more legitimate claim to it. I still feel the sadness of not having a ‘tribe’ or well-established lineage, but it’s a sadness I temper with the recognition that at least Islam stayed with us, if little else.

If I ever have children, I wonder if I’ll teach them Afrikaans. I don’t think I will, given my lack of knowledge or connection to the language, but a word will most likely slip in here and there. (Lekker my bokkie, as I look at their little scribbles.) I would want them to know that their mother was born and raised on Aboriginal land. I would want them to know that the blood in their veins is of Dr. Richard Hartley, the British doctor who tried to raise his children as Christians, but also of Imam Kassiem Gamieldien, who founded Cape Town’s Al-Azhar Masjid in the 1800s. Most of all, I want them to know that there is a space that they can always return to, a space they can inhabit fully: their faith. And if this is the only thing I can give them, I think I will have done enough.

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2 responses to “Colonialism Under My Skin

  1. There is quite a lot of interesting literature around the coloured identity – check out the work of Zimitri Erasmus if you ever get the chance. Anyway, your blog reminded me of former President Mbeki’s speech – I am an African http://www.soweto.co.za/html/i_iamafrican.htm

  2. Very interesting post. I can imagine how difficult it must be for you to explain your ethnicity to people who have never been to South Africa. Even explaining ‘Cape Malay’ to some South Africans can be a challenge. But therein lies the difference. You see, we as post-apartheid South Africans, we are defiant. Defiance runs in our veins. Any question about our heritage will be answered by a swift “I am South African” and that’s it. We are angered when someone tries to define us and classify us because that is what the Apartheid government did, so we never feel the need to justify being South African.

    You may feel looking in that we don’t have a real “culture” as such. Which is true. We don’t have dances or festivals. Think of us as 20th generation expats if you must. We don’t feel the need to hang on to certain traditions anymore. We can make our own. Pick and choose what you like for your own family and leave those that you don’t like alone. I’m sure if you speak to your friends they will tell you there are traditions in their cultures that they do not enjoy. Can you imagine how liberating it is to do what you want without the aunty next to you batting an eyelid. I’m not talking about religious things here, I’m talking about a Greek not wanting to throw a plate at their wedding kind of thing or an Indian now wanting to wear a sari to their wedding.

    So next time someone ask you where you are from, say you are South African. We have earned that right. Tell them that we are a diverse nation. And if they want to know more, point them to an airport.

    -Imaan

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