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A complexity of complexion

18 September 2012 

By Kayum Ahmed, SAHRC CEO

If you could choose to belong to any racial group, which one would you choose? Forget about the colour of your skin, your ethnic origin, or your mother tongue for a moment.
Would you stick to the racial group that you have historically been assigned to, or would you change your race?

A few years ago I was awarded a fellowship to spend some time in the US. This was around the time of Barack Obama’s first presidential election.

I was asked to apply for a social security card at the local government office in Washington, DC where I was based. One of the questions on the social security application form asks what your race is.

There were a few options including white, Asian, American Indian, black/African-American. I chose black.

When it was time for me to meet the official who manages the social security card application process, who happened to be an African-American woman, she looked at the form and then looked up at me, and looked at the form again. When she looked up from the form the second time, she exclaimed: “I knew you were a brother!”

She was so excited at discovering that I was black that she called two of her fellow African-American colleagues over to guess which race I was. “Guess what he is?” she said to them. They had clearly played this game before, because there was no hesitation in their responses. Her colleagues were unable to guess what race I was, one suggesting that I may be Hispanic, while the other thought I was Indian.

“He’s a brother!” she exclaimed when they guessed incorrectly.  My African-American sister went on to inform me that most Arab or Middle Eastern social security card applicants (who look like me) ticked the white box.  She could not understand this phenomenon, and neither could I.
But when I arrive at any airport in the US, Homeland Security officials never have trouble guessing what I am. I am one of those Arab-looking “randomly selected” individuals whenever additional security searches need to be made.

In SA, I would have four choices if I applied for a government job using the Z83 form: African, white, Indian, or coloured. And in SA, I would tick the Indian box.

Technically, I am first-generation South African. My father and his father were born in India and came to SA in the 1950s. My great-grandfather had, however, made his way over to SA in the early 1900s.

So what am I? Indian, black, African or South African? Or am I just confused? Can I choose my race or is it something that’s imposed on me? What is the link between my race and my ethnicity?

When I thought about these questions, I wondered whether other South Africans had similar questions. It appears not. There are probably few of us who consciously struggle with questions of race and ethnicity. Many South Africans, I suspect, believe they know what they are.

Many, if not most, South Africans would probably fit quite comfortably into one of the four boxes provided on most forms.

So is choosing and belonging to a race as complex an issue as I think it is, or are most of us fairly comfortable in choosing a race group and sticking to it without much thought or consideration? And then there is also the uncomfortable question: would we be willing to tick the race box that will give us a better chance of getting a job or a place at a university? And does that mean we will automatically tick the black or African box? What about a rental application form in a predominantly white suburb? What box would we tick then?

During apartheid, there were several cases where individuals who were classified as coloured, Indian and black made applications through the 1950 Population and Registration Act to change their race.

Coloureds and Indians applied to become white, while black people applied to become coloured. My cursory research into these applications has not yet yielded cases where white individuals applied to be reclassified into any of the other racial groups. These cases provide some insight into the ridiculousness of the racial classification system under apartheid.
More recently, the courts found that Chinese South Africans should be classified as black largely to benefit from legislation promoting black economic empowerment. Race is of course intrinsically connected to socio-economic status and we cannot talk about race without talking about economics, power, politics and class.

At the SA Human Rights Commission, we deal with about 10 000 cases of human rights violations every year.

Based on our latest statistics for the 2012/13 financial year, 16 percent of cases dealt with relate to alleged violations of the right to equality. Of those cases, most matters are race related.

Equality-related matters remain the most common type of human rights violation dealt with by the commission.

We are also noticing an increase in the use of social media as a platform for making racist statements and hate speech. Facebook and Twitter are commonly used by young South Africans in particular to make hurtful and sometimes violent statements.

In most cases the commission has dealt with, statements are made by white people against black people. There have, however, been instances where black people make racist statements against white people.

The commission tends to deal with these matters by trying to facilitate dialogue and discussion between parties, by bringing complainants and perpetrators of human rights together, sitting them down and engaging with them. We have moved away from instituting sanctions or granting financial compensation to victims, and prefer perpetrators to apologise and participate in community service activities.

Returning to the original question: If you could choose to belong to any racial group, which would you choose? It appears the answer is more complex than I thought.

I am not sure that we would automatically choose the racial group that gave us economic power and social status, or the one that would give us a better chance of getting a job or a place at a university. Because race is also inherently connected to identity, history, values and beliefs, I suspect that you would be just as confused as I am.

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