As a bi-racial African, defining and proving how Ugandan I am is something I am faced with quite often.
In the past when confronted with such a challenge, my sensitivity and emotions would affect my participation in the conversation. I would either defend myself by launching into a soliloquy in my mother tongue to prove that I belonged or, more often, I would simply remove myself from the conversation for fear of landing myself with a charge of aggravated assault. I have since matured, or maybe I’ve just become more tolerant of other people’s opinions of my identity. At any rate, I no longer feel the need to prove myself to anyone, so the most recent dispute of my Ugandan-ness couldn’t have come at a better time.
A white American guy, who had been living for only a few months in Uganda, said that he knew how to distinguish “real Ugandans” from “fake Ugandans”. He found my accent “different”, he said, and my English was apparently “too good”, my skin tone “too light” for me to be a true Ugandan. “Real” Ugandans, by implication, must be very dark and must speak English badly, and with a pronounced Ugandan accent, whatever that is. That it is practically impossible to find a single skin tone or way of speaking that represents all the people of a country doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.
This isn’t a woe-is-me story, I don’t feel hindered by the diversity in my heritage, but I do feel that not acknowledging challenges and obstacles faced by bi-racial Africans implies that there are none, or that all Africans are equally accepted, no matter how they look or sound. On many levels, the definition of “African” has ample space to be broadened, and somewhere within that definition one should find bi-racial Africans too, because there is a tendency to cast us aside when we’re not being put on a pedestal.
I was about eleven years old when I came crying to my mother because a friend at school had called me a “half-caste” (this was in a time when the word was not yet recognised as offensive). She hadn’t meant to upset, bully or tease me, and even though I had never heard the term before, nor fully understood its origin or meaning, I did have a sense of what it meant and it pierced me deeply. I felt I was being described as some sort of Robinson Crusoe figure, a castaway lost at sea. I felt it implied, in a bad way, that I wasn’t like everyone else.
Half-caste may have been the first label I was uncomfortable with, but it wouldn’t be the last one given to me. The most confusing was “mzungu”, because that’s what I called white people. So why were people calling me white? I would look over my shoulder for the white person they are referring to, because it couldn’t possibly be me. Even as a grown woman, I find myself looking around for the mzungu because being called white doesn’t resonate with me and it never will, regardless of the percentage of “whiteness” in my heritage.
When it comes to words used to describe people of mixed race, the context, definition and interpretation all affect how one receives them. I know people who take offense at being called mixed-race and others who don’t, some who prefer the term bi-racial, some who embrace their white culture as much as their African culture, some who are offended when called mulatto and others who comfortably use the term “colored”. Then there are those who only want to tick the African box, no compromises, variations or explanations. At the core all of these terms is the conscious or sub-conscious attempt to dilute the African in ones identity, so it is understandable that not everyone is comfortable with this.
Most of the discrimination I have experienced for being bi-racial has come from other Africans, and that’s what offends me the most. I couldn’t care less about the opinion of the American man I mentioned above, the one who thought I was too “different” to be Ugandan; his opinion was ill-informed on so many levels – partly his fault and partly to do with the way the world chooses to see things – so his comments are not difficult to disregard. But when it’s my own countrymen and women, yes, I take it to heart.
There are occasions where I enter a room, and can tell before saying a word that some immediately assume I believe I’m “better” than “real Ugandans”. I think this stems from the feelings of inferiority some black people feel with regard to any degree of whiteness. I look around me here and every billboard portraying beauty is of a light-skinned woman, every advert telling us how to be more attractive is subliminally telling us to bleach that dark skin, and men go on about how beautiful light-skinned women are.
Something about this imagery and mindset makes people believe that a bi-racial person has it easier than everyone else and, as we all know, no one likes a cheat or someone with an unfair advantage. Honestly though, there is some truth in the assumption, at least on a cosmetic level, and as a woman I can understand that to an observer it may look as though I walk through life getting my way without lifting a finger. There are people who can’t run fast enough to help, assist or simply be in the company of bi-racial Africans.
Am I part of the problem if I don’t acknowledge and challenge that mentality every time I experience or suspect it? Probably, but if I did, I would be doing it all the time, with no hard evidence, and the last time I checked knocking down kindness, regardless of the motive and subtext, is not good for ones karma. Putting bi-racial Africans on a pedestal creates tension, builds barriers and continues to separate people, with the knock-on effect of internalized racism. If you keep telling people they are wealthier, more attractive and more powerful because they have a fair complexion, then some of them will start to believe it, and their children will believe it, and schools will teach it by not challenging it, and the corporate world will continue to sell it.
There are people who feel quite comfortable being on the pedestal because of their fairer skin tone, and they take the utmost advantage of it. They expect it and they mistreat and disrespect people with darker skin, believing and glorifying in the hype. They are the reason those who aren’t like that have to fight harder to be accepted, but it becomes a chicken or the egg scenario, who is to blame?
The assumed privileges of being put on a pedestal are probably why bi-racial Africans are “punished” by exclusion, and seen as not really African, or as diluted Africans.
An African of mixed race may have family members from different cultures and with different traditional backgrounds. They make speak foreign languages, they may “look different”, “sound different”. You may think their sense of patriotism is over the top, heightened because they have lived away from Africa or want to prove their African-ness. You may be angry because they have withdrawn from their African-ness for whatever reason. You may think they are more attractive because they may have curly “mixed” hair or green eyes, and you may get angry when she dates “real African” men. But all these differences, real or imagined, mean nothing unless you give them meaning.
I’ve been disliked and mistreated many times purely because I’m mixed, but I’ve never been able to acknowledge these attacks at the time they occurred because they are usually covert. It’s hard to prove an attack is taking place when it’s implied. But if I could, if I had the chance, if someone was brave enough to tell me what the real problem was, I’d say what I’ve rehearsed in my head many times: if you get the stick out of your ass, so will I.
A poetic statement from a “half-caste”.