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OPINION: Coloured people constantly reduced to tired stereotypes

In the darkened confines of a Johannesburg theatre, a popular comedian took to the stage, delivering a stunningly offensive 'joke' as his opening line. He stated: "I have not seen this many coloured people since I looked in the bin at a Marie Stopes clinic". Nervous laughter, stunned silence and sudden intakes of breath were among the audience responses. A tired, damaging stereotype, used to attempt to elicit laughs from the very people who are most deeply affected by it.

I recalled this moment, as I came across a Facebook status that has been shared in some circles. The post is as a response to a devastating tragedy in Kakamas, where five young children playing in an unused freezer in their grandmother's backyard were found dead after it is believed to have accidently locked, trapping and suffocating them inside it.

The Facebook post, by Marie van Rensburg, which has since been taken down, reads:

As Songezo Zibi pointed out, in an importance piece on online racism: "social media creates a close proximity between social classes, races and genders that is physically almost impossible in a historically divided society" that is "unable to navigate itself out of its own history". As a result "People of all kinds come across ideas and statements that are alien to what they have been socialised to understand. This creates tension on these platforms that remains under the surface in real life". Dinner party conversations that used to remain in closed circles have moved online, as the line between public and private statements becomes increasingly blurred.

It is not so much that these utterances are 'new' in their expressions in varied forms of bigotry, but they are as Sisonke Msimang phrases it 'hardly creative'. We are familiar with their vocabulary and grammar, and we 'recognise' them and their echoes in our lives.

Van Rensburg's post recalled the now infamous Sunday World column by Kuli Roberts that detailed familiar stereotypes about coloured women. In it, they were cast in the same rough outline as van Rensburg's depiction - albeit cast in a failed attempt at satire. It is out of this tired mould that that comedian crafted his 'joke'.

All of these statements form part of what Fanon called 'a galaxy of erosive stereotypes' that haunt people of colour. These stereotypes are constant and consistent. They are rooted in historical imagining. They are relentless and are too often left undisturbed in people's circles of intimacy and public representation.

Representations of coloured people, through various forms of media and public dialogue, often conform to stereotype. While the slang, like 'awe' and 'watkind', fashion and lifestyle of coloured people is increasingly becoming part of a cool aesthetic, it remains pop culture fodder for others to drape themselves in, reserved for those who do not have to live the full experience of occupying the fraught identity. This experience is constantly punctured by negative stereotypes that reduce an incredibly complex group that is not homogenous in any respect, to caricatures. People become simply gangsters and violent thugs, promiscuous and lewd, uneducated and loud, constantly drinking and drugging, and with no front teeth.

The function of these stereotypes is that they masquerade as 'natural' and inherent aspects of being coloured that are entirely accurate and can be applied to all. They create a predetermined script to both follow and understand. People lose their individuality. They simply become part of a group. They are Van Rensberg's 'messed up race' in the racist's imagination, and nothing else.

While stereotypes can affect a vast array of people, they function very particularly for oppressed groups, as Fanon identifies. He writes: ''the object of lumping all Negroes together under the designation of 'Negro people' is to deprive them of any possibility of individual expression. What is attempted is to put them under the obligation of matching the idea one has of them". They become a shorthand for understanding people, and all that they are.

In a state where we often think in traditionally black and white terms, our public conversations often ignores other experiences. Narratives about the lived experience of the coloured people can often seem on the margins of the margins. This is compounded by the fact that people who fall under the idea of 'coloured', even if they self-identify differently, are incredibly diverse.

There are multiple, complex, different experiences of the identity that cannot be condensed to one way of 'being coloured/mixed/biracial' that fits all ways of being. This texture cannot be captured by a two-dimensional national conversation about race, for which the 'group's' very real differences challenges every aspect of race's ideology: how people should look, speak, behave, live, understand each other and themselves.

These understandings of what it means to be 'coloured' differ in terms of place, time, family, communities and individuals and more. There are intersections, and there are divergences, differences and agreements, and a range of ways of self-identifying. All that is guaranteed is this difference.

In spite of this, tired, stagnant ways of viewing a complex 'group' remain, underscored by a set of harmful stereotypes. The effect that this creates, as Phyllis Dannhausers argues, is that: "It becomes impossible, or at best very traumatic, for people to recognise themselves and remember others outside of the stereotype". The constant reiteration of these ideas in daily life, from within or outside a particular group, affirms the impression of inherent difference between racial groups that is common, and hides the historical creation of particular ideas about particular people.

As stereotype becomes the backdrop against which we understand people, and their realities, it takes away their humanity. It makes people stock characters, tropes and caricatures, and allows no room for difference in popular imagination - even as we are confronted by people who do not conform to these ideas on a daily basis. Poet Jennifer David's encapsulates this in Searching for Words, where she writes: 'We are locked/ By particular associations/ Of ages in us/ To the symbol/ The word/ And cannot reach/ Beyond the limits of this cycle'.

The effect of utterances like van Rensburg's dominating public conversations about race is that they do not allow us to have important, complex, difficult conversations. By dominating the way we speak about race (and keeping us perpetually responding and talking back), they shout out the texture and nuance that these conversations demand. Additionally, history is divorced from social ills that particular communities face, that keep us, for instance, not discussing pervasive types of violence on different terms. The nature of current public conversations does not acknowledge how people are imagining themselves in new ways, or amplifying how many coloured people are negotiating a complex identity differently.

Broader, necessary conversations about the experience of being coloured, mixed raced, biracial, Khoi-San and other ways of identifying are crucial to populating public understandings of how these identities are lived and experienced, to exploring race's limits, demands and boundaries, and asking questions about how they can be subverted and resisted. Or else, we will continue to stay in the realm of tired public discourse that simply responds to online utterances, rather than listening to different experiences and confronting difficult questions and ways of being that challenge our understandings of who people are, and how they live.

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.