by Richard Pooley
Tyra Laura Seethal
What’s racist about discussing the likely colour of your grandchild’s or niece’s skin, if the unborn child be the product of the union of two people of different races? Are you telling me you would not wonder what shade of skin the child will have…or how tall s/he might grow, or what other physical features s/he will inherit from each parent’s family? Have you never been present when family members meet a baby for the first time and compete with each other to find some resemblance to a long-dead grandparent, a cousin or, best of all, someone in the room? It’s a joyous, celebratory occasion. It’s also the genes talking: "Okay, what have we made this time round?"
King Charles III and the Princess of Wales, as they then weren’t, were merely exhibiting a natural curiosity when they wondered what colour skin Harry and Meghan’s first child, Archie, would have. In the couple’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021, Meghan talked of “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he was born.” Stop a moment. Would it make a difference for you if she had said: “…about how light his skin might be when he was born.”? I suspect if you are white (like me), you would find that an odd formulation. But if you were mixed-race (like Meghan), or black? Perhaps not. We tend to focus on what is different from us. That doesn’t make us racist.
Often what is deemed racist is actually genuine curiosity. Asking the question “Where do you come from?” appears to be upsetting many oversensitive souls nowadays even without the additional “really”, which so offended those same souls that a royal flunkey lost her job over it a year ago. Most of my life I have asked strangers where they are from and would welcome it if more asked it of me. If in the UK I asked a person with brown skin where he was from and he replied “Oxford”, I would assume he was British like me unless he told me otherwise. If he chose to tell me that he was a student from Bangladesh, I would quiz him about his country and its culture.
Why are so many, with whatever skin colour, so ready to accuse others of racism? Why are people so ready to become offended whenever someone uses what they perceive as the wrong word to describe someone’s skin colour?
I posed the latter question, one I have asked myself and others many times, when on Sunday I read on the BBC's website the story of Tyra Laura Seethal, a 21-year old South African singer who has suddenly become famous outside her home country, especially the USA. Her hit song, Water, released in July, debuted at number 67 on the US’ Billboard Hot 100 in October. That may not sound much but the last South African to get on to that chart with a solo song was the great Hugh Masekela 55 years ago. Here’s how Tyla describes herself in a dance and music video produced before she became well-known but seen now by millions on TikTok: “I am a coloured South African... This means I come from a lot of different cultures.”
Cue outrage in social media in the USA. Here is one relatively calm response on X: “We are not gonna call her colored here and if she personally demands it, her career will end before it begins. She’s trying to cross over into an American market, she won’t be able to use that word here, she can use it somewhere else though.”
This is good, if condescending, advice. In the USA the label “colored” is little better than “negro” (even though Martin Luther King used it with pride), let alone the “N” word which only black (or should that be African-American?) comedians and rappers seem allowed to use.
Of course black US Americans (or should that be US Americans of colour?) are right to hate being called “colored”. It was the term used to describe them in the segregational laws and practices of the southern states up to the 1960s. But have those furious keyboard warriors asked themselves why someone like Tyra is proud to call herself “coloured”? Especially as this was one of the four race-based terms used to segregate South Africans in the apartheid era right up to 1994. The population census still uses them. In 2022, 8.2% of South Africans defined themselves as Coloured (81.4 % as Black African, 7.3% as White, and 2.7% as Indian/Asian). Note “defined themselves”. A coloured person who takes a DNA test will often find that they have Chinese, Indian, Indonesian or Malay ancestors as well as black African and white. As a coloured South African businesswoman said when introducing herself on one of my training courses: “We are a culture, not a race.”
What the coloured people of South Africa have done is to take an utterly unscientific label imposed on them by a racist white regime and made it their own. Such appropriation of slurs and turning them into positive badges has a long and honourable history. When I was young, to call a homosexual “queer” was totally unacceptable. Now queer is a label worn with pride on Pride marches and is one of the letters in the ever-lengthening acronym LGBTQ+.*
I was in Namibia in October and November and learned about the Basters, a people descended from children of white men and black or Khoi (formerly 'Hottentot' – now another offensive label) women in the 18th century Cape Colony. Subject to often violent discrimination from the pure white Dutch settlers, many of whom they were related to, these Afrikaans-speaking, Calvinist farmers moved north with their cattle (and all-black servants) from the 1750s. In 1869 they trekked out of the colony altogether to Rehoboth in what is now Namibia. Yes, their name comes from the Dutch bastaard, bastard or crossbreed. But, from early on, they were proud to call themselves Basters, regarding Baster as the name for their distinctive culture, not their race.
On Saturday night, 28 October I was with some forty others gathered in front of a small TV screen in Etosha National Park, northern Namibia. We were of all ages, sizes and colours, though all bar me and two others were speaking and shouting in Afrikaans. It was the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand. Outperforming the spectators, in speech and dance, was a large coloured woman. I have no idea where she was from (I didn’t dare ask her) - Cape Coloured? Baster? She was our star, willing the South African team of white, black and coloured players to win. Which they did; by one point.
I thought of matches between these two countries fifty and more years ago. Then, only whites could play for South Africa. The all-white South African rugby team - the Springboks - played against the New Zealand team of whites, Maoris, and Pacific islanders – the All Blacks. At the same time I recalled the US American sitting next to me at a rugby match in Pau a few years ago. He was in France on business and had come in to the stadium to see what all the noise was about. He knew nothing of rugby. I tried to explain the rules and at half-time gave him some history of the game. I mentioned the then world champions, New Zealand. He looked perplexed: “Does New Zealand have a lot of blacks?”
In that BBC report on the uproar in the USA caused by Tyla’s self-identification as coloured, the South African co-author of Coloured: How Classification Became Culture, Tessa Dooms, had this to say to US Americans: “To have the audacity to question somebody’s self-identification and replace it with your own – that’s ridiculous. You are not progressive.” I agree. I’d call it racist.
*Please don’t comment that I and A have been added. I’m an old man with a lousy memory. I thank whoever came up with the +.