OPINION: Coloured identity & nationalism: No easy answers

I never thought I would find myself standing in an aisle at a grocery store, poised between various household items, pondering my identity. And yet there I was, 21 and frozen to the spot, thinking about what it meant to be coloured, and wrestling with why this seemed to matter in a post-apartheid and personal context. The luxury of having time and the means to think about this, and the hilarity of the setting did not escape me then, and still does not.

Around the same time, I came across a quote by Dabydeen in Pumla Gqola's book What is slavery to me that reads: "I have a multiple identity. There is no crisis. There is a kind of delight in jumping from one identity to the next." Back then, it astounded and confused me, and now makes much more sense. Yet, a few years later, I am still turning on similar questions of coloured identity. The only difference now is that I self-identify as both coloured and black, a personal rebellion and definition that I have explained before.

But having a 'multiple identity', being coloured, is often incredibly complex. In many ways we are still wrestling with the joined questions: "What does it mean to be coloured?" and "Who is coloured?". These questions yield no easy, single answers.

Gushwell Brooks's recent response to the widely-shared column ' Being coloured in a black and white South Africa' by Jamie Peterson raised many important points about the nature of coloured identity, its historical roots and lack of a homogeneous identity. However, his idea that the answer lies in 'national identity' sits less easily, as does the erasure of the particular experiences of the coloured community.

The idea that colouredness is a racial midpoint between blackness and whiteness still has social power - which is key to the motivation behind Peterson's piece. As Brooks notes: "we still have a strong attachment to the racial classifications Verwoerd and his ilk devised", and have inherited the acceptance of apartheid racial classifiers for varied reasons.

As a consequence, we find ourselves still trying to make sense of and deal with how race, intersected with class, determines and makes different our experiences of citizenship. We find ourselves, as Gqola phrases it, "both free and not entirely free of apartheid", trying to make sense of all that lingers.

While we know race is a myth and lacks scientific basis, it still has deep social and political effects and in many ways operates as a social fact. People have built their lives, experiences, intimate relationships, friendship circles and understandings of themselves around it. This is why we have to take particular experiences, and race itself, seriously.

For the coloured community, Paul Gilroy notes: "Everyone is mixed, but not everyone counts as mixed". We have to interrogate what does it mean to count as mixed, and what are its very real effects. We have to make sense of the particular experiences of the coloured community, uniquely affected by population registration, the Mixed Marriages Act, the Group Areas Act, the position as a political buffer between the black and white communities in apartheid - particularly its psychological effects and internalised race politics - and many other factors that impact the identity when thinking about what it means to be coloured in post-apartheid South Africa.

The entire project of race is built on ignoring, compressing and abandoning difference, to make neat categories of identification. To make everyone the same, even when they are not. Race requires simple boxes to house people's experiences, and does not easily accommodate the differences within communities that are only natural and inevitable - even when these are obvious.

Brooks is correct is noting that being coloured in South Africa is not a homogenous experience - it is incredibly complicated identity that is experienced and interpreted differently across provinces, districts, communities, families and people. On a surface level, coloured people do not look the same. But on a deeper level, they do not experience their identity in the same way.

However, that is not the way that it is perceived or plays out in popular understandings. Popular understandings matter, and have immense power. Crucially, popular understandings of coloured identity affect perceptions, representations and experiences of coloured people.

This is why the issue of defining what it means to be coloured and who is coloured is incredibly difficult, and near impossible if you are looking for a single, simple answer - but that does not mean the experience of this identity is not uncomplicated, or easily accepted for some.

Many people can easily describe what being coloured means to them - but this definition is particular, and will differ, or contradict others. For some it is embedded in Sunday roast lunches, doilies and old school R&B, for others it is attached to koeksusters, jazz-ing and Judy Boucher, for even more it is none of the above. These definitions differ, overlap and intersect across the community.

Across racial groups, or any other communities, we have particular experiences, which need to be taken seriously and viewed on their own terms. While the challenges that each community faces might not be unique to them, they manifest in different communities in unique ways.

For example, Brooks points out that many communities, including white Afrikaner and black people, are faced with stereotyping that seeks out the 'lowest common denominator' that Peterson identified as singularly affecting coloured people.

However, for some communities, stereotypes come to overly-define and represent the popular image of the group. The coloured community is often represented through a lack of front teeth or saying 'awe', locked in poverty and sexually promiscuity, through gang and drug imagery, and the grammar of violence - the kind of which were expressed in the now infamous Kuli Robert Sunday World article. In many ways these stereotypes have been given hyper-power in determining popular perceptions of coloured people - which is perhaps what Peterson was pointing to.

But further than this, because race was so uniquely attached to citizenship under apartheid, we are dealing with the fact that it in many ways still makes us particular citizens.

As Grant Farred argues "…in the early 1990s South Africans were taking up the task of all becoming citizens for the first time. A decade later, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship remain an ongoing project - enfranchisement, equality before the law, equal access to the state's resources and the civic institutions, are all pertinent issues..."

While similarities in issues we face echo across divisions of race, class and other dividers, it still demands that we pay attention to people's particular experiences that are coloured by the group they belong to. Brooks asserts that, "The concerns coloured folk have are akin to the problems of all communities in SA," however this does not mean that we should not interrogate the unique set of factors and circumstances that make these manifest in unique ways for each community.

Different experiences of citizenship require being addressed on their own terms and cannot be explained away or solved by nationalism, which requires us to forego our particular identities in favour of primary identification we the nation. We are not all simply South African, we are particular South Africans who cannot escape the differences that colour our experiences. Nationalism, in many ways, is built on this erasure.

What Brooks misses is that national identity, nationalism and patriotism are not simply positive. They have their dark sides, their own creation of insiders and outsiders that make possible xenophobic attacks, 'wars on terror' and jingoism. Nationalism is an ideological project that often requires that people disregard their particular experience to make a national identity possible. It is not simply benign. It renders invisible those who feel excluded, voiceless, marginalised by the nation, or perpetually outside its definition of citizenship. While the issues that we face in South Africa require national solutions, nationalism itself is not the sole solution.

Being coloured in South Africa has taken on specific meaning, attached to a unique experience that deserves being considered on its own terms. Many of the questions I had at 21, standing in that grocery aisle remain the same, and many have incomplete answers. When it comes to issues of coloured identity and what it has come to mean, there are often more questions than answers, and we should take the questions seriously. And unlike Brooks, I don't know exactly where the answer lies, only that a commitment to teasing out, and sincerely engaging with the questions, in trying to figure out what it would take to create a country where the society we live in reflects all the ideals of the Constitution, rather than a nation of particular citizens, living lives affected by the grammar of the past, is needed.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.