The Color Question

The day I met the queen of a woman who would one day become my sister in life, she sashayed into the English Department’s reading room and sat down on that fantastically saggy old couch  I spent four years taking naps on instead of actually reading. She and I were in the same American Literature class but had never spoken. There wasn’t really a personal introduction that day we first talked because she’s one of the most direct, to-the-point people I know. Instead, she started with “How much are you?”



Three years later…


Most people who are mixed race that I have spoken to in the States get some kind of variation on that question so it was hardly surprising–I get it a couple times a year. Most of the time it’s more of a mystery of nationality. It starts with a look and then a double take. Then:

Hey, are you Italian? No, not in the least. Are you sure? Uh, yeah? Pretty sure.


Καλημέρα. έχεις ένα όμορφο χαμόγελο! Oh, sorry, no. I’m not Greek.

Or, my favorite so far:

Hey, are you cousins with Shakira? Wait, what? What kind of pick up line is that? I mean, I wish, but…?

For me, it’s actually exciting when someone can see what little bit of black genetics has left me. Plus, there was something genuine about my sister’s question of “How much are you” that allowed me the freedom to pull out my summary of how I came to be packaged in this particular shape and shade with these particular features. By then my explanation had been memorized and repeated to the point of personal cliche–here, let me roll out for you as if on a table the entire collective memory of my family and present each morsel of our history for your consumption. Sample and taste the watered down version of lives that were achingly raw on both sides, of people who were real but who are now stories to trade or add intrigue to my own rather dull self.

As may be clear, I’m conflicted on my relationship to my race. I once had a friend who introduced me to a new boyfriend of hers as her “black friend.” Let’s just say she had to find a new “black friend” real fast. I have white skin (okay, maybe honey mustard or butter yellow might be more accurate, but when has racial terminology dealing with phenotypes ever been truly accurate?) and if I look like a white person and act like a white person and sound like a white person and quack like a white person, then the answer should be clear.

But, then again, what is a white person, really?

I often get asked why I’m here in Africa, in South Africa in particular, and the answer never gets easier because there isn’t one answer and depending on the day, I may not even remember them all.

     Why did you chose South Africa?  Why, do you not want me here?

I came as a cultural refugee. I came as a thief in the night. I came as an innocent and I came as an oppressor. I came with a hunger and found a hunger that swallows mine whole. I came to lose myself and also to be found. There’s a thousand reasons why I’m where I am right now, but the most frequent answer I give is that I want to have conversations about race. My family has one of the strangest, most contradictory racial backgrounds I’ve come across. Then again, show me a mixed racial background anywhere that doesn’t seem like a historical miracle. 

I’m here because a guy I knew at university loved the soundtrack for the Broadway version of Lion King and one night, months later in my London flat I wrote a poem while listening to the Rafiki Mourns track and an image of a mother elephant mourning a dead baby elephant came into my mind. That poem became a story and that story became a meditation on race and place and belonging. And then, somehow, I wound up here. Funny how life works.


I tell people that I’m a fourth black but really it isn’t so simple as that. It rarely is.  Being here in South Africa has challenged me in so many ways already–I mean, that’s the point. My students call me Goldilocks and the girls (and a few guys) play with my hair. They say that I have doll hair, reaching over when they think I’m not paying attention t run their fingertips over the curls with a look of awe that hurts me because I remember doing the same to my own mother’s hair when I was younger. I would run my fingers over her finer, blonder hair and wish so hard that my hair was soft and obedient like hers. In middle school, I called my hair The Beast because it broke brushes. Kids would throw pieces of paper or maybe a pencil into my ponytail and I wouldn’t find them until I washed my hair. I used to pray for straight hair to test God. Clearly, God doesn’t like the idea of being a beautician.

My racial identity became something like an excuse for why I felt disjointed and unwieldy as a teenager. It was why I was so clumsy–those damn hips from the Burns side of the family bumping into everything. It was why I’d been told like I looked like Queen Charlotte of England and Emily Dickinson–those big dark brown eyes that I got from my dad didn’t belong with such a pale face. I tell you, nothing makes a girl feel hotter than being compared to the “ugly queen of England” and America’s most famous female shut-in. It was a few years to go before I got the Shakira comment.

What I’ve taken all this time and all these words to say is that I still have so far to mature in terms of my relationship to my background, and I’m allowed to be in that place–and I’m in a good place to do it. A lot of the conversations I’ve been having here are new to me because I didn’t feel allowed to participate in them for so long since I never felt non-white enough to contribute. I don’t get the question “What are you?” here in South Africa because the system of racial categorization is so different from that of the States. In this new cultural sphere, this issue of identity is becoming shaded, placed against and within context and I’m just beginning to work out the relationship I have to my race–which is the only one I speak for.

Maybe from now on I’ll just use what my mother says when people ask her what my father is: “Human.”




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