Article by Georgia van der Westhuizen
Graphic by Juliette Baxter
Please select your ethnicity:
Black ( )
White ( )
Asian ( )
Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander ( )
Other ( )
My mouse hovered over White. Then Black. Other?
Do you identify as coming from a diverse cultural background: Yes ( ) No ( )
I knew how my sister would respond to these questions; Black (x), Yes (x).
Same parents, same combination of ‘coloured’ South African dad and white Australian mum, one white-passing daughter and one ethnic.
The ascension of Meghan Markle to Duchess of Sussex has, in recent times, brought my white-bi-racial-dilemma into the public consciousness. Suddenly ‘bi-racial’ has become an accepted categorisation in a world that demands labels. I couldn’t help but take personally Meghan’s rejection by large segments of black and white populations all over the world. ‘Is Meghan Markle Really the First Black Princess? You be the Judge’, ‘Meghan Markle is No Black Princess’ ‘6 Reasons Meghan Markel Divides People’. Facebook comments on every royal wedding update showed her ping-ponged between virtual black and white communities, each refusing to claim her as their own. The label of ‘biracial’ seemed more a tool of avoidance than distinction. A non-race. The absence of an identity.
This public dialogue forced me to reconcile my own subconscious but inveterate feelings of guilt and anger surrounding my race-less-ness. Barack Obama, Zendaya and my sister all got to fully claim their blackness, and be a party to a rich and colourful history. Yet Rashida Jones, Mariah Carey and I walk around with an ethnic ambiguity that has us belonging to no one.
I wondered if my fascination and deep connection to my paternal family’s apartheid struggle was a way of compensating for a racial background that would never be a part of my lived experience. My sister was never engaged in the history or politics of our South African heritage, perhaps because she never felt this was a part of her identity that she needed to substantiate. Peppering my grandparents with questions about their experiences under the apartheid regime, I will never forget the pang of defensiveness I felt at being told that, if apartheid existed today, I would have had the potential to be ‘re-classified’. That I was white-passing enough to circumvent the entire apartheid system and, provided that I rejected my black heritage and cut contact with family, would have been granted the rights of a white person.
I then thought back to my sister’s personal anecdotes of racial profiling and micro-aggressions in Australia today. Where my experience was limited to vulgar compliments about my exotic and ethnically vague features, and tasteless musings about bi-racial babies, the world categorised my sister as black, with both the negatives and positives that come attached. How much of one’s racial experience is dictated by public perception? Nearly all of it. I am a non-black, non-white person with ‘ambiguous’ features. I am descended from both slaves and colonisers, racist Australians and racially abused Africans. I do not live a black experience, or a white one. I am Other (x), I am culturally diverse (Yes), and I am bi-racial.
This singular experience, this lack of identity, is an identity unto itself. ‘Re-classified whites’ were notoriously absent from the South African anti-apartheid movement, disengaging from the POC community in order to hold onto their privileges. We are palatable to white audiences and unmarred by stereotyping. This is a responsibility that is still being navigated. Are diversity quotas for me? Probably not. Are University groups dedicated to championing WOC for me? Probably not. Can I support other WOC in white spaces where I feel naturally comfortable, with a unique understanding of POC experiences? Yes. Can I use my ‘ethnic ambiguity’ to subvert racial stereotyping, and emphasise the absurdity of racial compartmentalisation? Yes. Racial identity is the intersection of cultural background and lived experience. Bi-racial is not always black. I am learning to be proudly Other.