“What are you?” strangers ask.
“What are you?” forms, universities, and even friends ask.
Well let me break it down for you.
First, let’s clear some things up. In many countries calling someone coloured is seen as offensive, but in my country, South Africa, coloured is a race classification, individual and different to being classified as black. Coloured people have different backgrounds, cultures, norms and even accents than people classified as black. Sometimes, however, the lines blur depending on where one lives.
Now that that’s clear, let’s get to the answer of this question I’m constantly being asked. I was born in 1994, Durban South Africa, to a Laticia Hazel Harris and Jimmy Sifiso Mthembu. 1994 was the beginning of democracy, freedom and equality for all in South Africa. However, with change comes great responsibility to not only change and reform a country, but to change and reform the minds of the people as well.
I grew up as a child caught in the middle of two very different worlds. I lived an extremely modest life with my mother, a hardworking cleaner, in a one bedroom apartment with my aunt and sometimes one of my uncles. My mother was first generation coloured, meaning her mother had been a black Xhosa woman and her dad was white; this was the coloured side of my family. My father’s side (this is where you must pay attention because it can get a bit confusing), is what I like to call the “black” side of my family, not because of their skin, butbecause they were raised in a Zulu culture and identify themselves as black.
Let me further explain. My father’s mother is first generation coloured and my grandfather is… well, he is a Mozambican complicated mix of God knows what, but he does have a Zulu surname. However, it is the norm in my country to assume that if you have a Zulu surname, then you are black and are Zulu. But here’s the plot twist: during the apartheid regime if you were caught in South Africa with any other African surname besides those of our country, you would be arrested and sent back to your home country. Thus, when my grandfather was a child, his father lied and pretended to be an Mthembu instead of a Thembe, and ever since then my family has gone by the Zulu surname Mthembu.
When my parents split, my mom was given custody since my dad was a doctor who had to travel a lot for work. This was the beginning of my ugly duckling years. I was a young girl who was poor, but because of my father, I went to schools where I was surrounded by other children whose families were richer. These schools had more white people than I was ever accustomed to in my neighbourhood. These contrasting environments made me want to be like the people I was surrounded by. I grew up hating the colour of my skin, the kinks in my hair, and I resented God for making me this way. I was the darkest, most black-looking on my mother’s side of the family, so I thought I was ugly because in society and our history, to be white was to be right, beautiful and privileged. Because I did not have long soft hair or lighter skin, in my mind I was an ugly duckling, the ugliest of the ugly ducklings.
I constantly moved back and forth between my mother’s family and my father’s family, as my mother tried to allow me to experience a life she could not provide. On my father’s side of my family I was treated like a princess. It was like once I crossed the Umgeni River, I became beautiful. I was surrounded by family members who were like me; they had similar hair types and skin tones. In their eyes I was beautiful, and through their eyes, I began to see myself as beautiful.
To avoid being misunderstood, my mother’s family never treated me any different; the difference was within me. I felt more comfortable and beautiful with my father’s family because I looked like I belonged.
In 2005, my mother passed away and I started to permanently stay with my father’s side of the family. This destroyed and restructured my life in more ways than I had wished. Yes, I started to live a more privileged life, getting a better education and a life where I didn’t feel lesser than everyone else. Unfortunately, this was Part 2 of my ugly duckling years. I went to high school and the girls got meaner, less understanding and more judgemental (I know, cliché right?!). This was where the question “What am I?” started to be frequently asked. I was teased and unliked by black girls in my school because I didn’t speak the same home language as them, and thus they felt like I thought I was better than them. Unfortunately for me, there were barely any coloured girls in my school.
Teasing became a regular occurrence with most black people I interacted with. They felt disrespected by the fact that I did not speak like them and that I had the nerve to introduce myself with a “white name.” They thought I was ashamed of my culture and my people, not knowing that my knowledge of the Zulu language or culture was extremely limited, that I was just then being introduced to it and even my black family’s Zulu traditions were very weak. This was a result of modernisation and my father’s personal choice not to participate in cultural norms or traditions. I was constantly judged, and still am.
People try to tick my identity box for me. They stared and continued to hound or mock me for not answering their questions, or not giving them the answer they wanted. I became anxious, timid and I hated meeting new people. Even the people I thought I could call friends questioned my identity, some even laughing behind my back or to my face. They made me feel uncomfortable with who and what I thought I was. I felt alone in my situation and misunderstood.
Among many other teenage and family problems, this led me to overcompensating and trying to be the version of me that other people wanted me to be. So I changed my mannerisms, intergrated the Zulu language more into my daily conversations and even allowed myself to be bullied, just to be accepted. I wanted to be one of them—to belong, to be what they could accept me as. I forgot who I was and abandoned the things my mother had wanted me to be: strong, confident and powerful. I was so confused about who and what I was that I started to ask other people what I am and let them decide to check my box for me.
So I started to give people the power to define me and my beauty, and tell me who I am, in hopes of not offending anyone and ensuring their comfort instead of my own. The problem with that is that you cannot wait on others or society to see you as beautiful. You have to recognise through your own eyes that beauty is what you see every day in that mirror. It’s your soul, it’s the colour of your skin, the width of your hips, the texture of your hair, the stretch marks you have; it’s the size of your breasts, lips and ass — all those features and attributes that are the unique blend of those before you — that should be celebrated by you, not diminished by societal beliefs. And it’s all the people you see every day, as well. Beauty is you and me, because in this world there are more than 7.125 billion individual people and we can no longer subscribe to one definition of beauty.
The day I started to not care what people thought was the day I gained my own liberation from what people wanted me to be—from what society thought I was and from the boxes that every application form wanted me to fit into. I began to realise that I am not coloured or black: I am both. I will not choose a side, nor do I owe anyone an explanation of what or who I am. No society or piece of paper can tell me what I am, or put any other label on me besides Chanel. In an interview, Kanye West once said, “Let me do me, you like it—cool. You don’t—fast forward.”
I now know who I am. I am Chanel Olwethu Mthembu Harris, and yes, I am beautiful: brown skin, stretch marks, kinked hair and all. My definition of beautiful is not what society and Westernisation tells me it is. My definition of beauty is me, and it’s also you. And now I see my beauty with my own eyes.
CHANEL MTHEMBU HARRIS X UDD
In who I am, what I want, where I want to be
and how I'm going to get there
Ban the box? Yes. No. Wait..
Believe it or not, I am not ANTI-labels. Yes, I believe they are limiting. However, I think they do matter, especially in the matters of identity. Labels put things in context. They shape how we see and align ourselves. Unfortunately, they also shape how we are “made” to see ourselves. And this is where detriment can begin: a lifetime of living up to others’ perceptions.
It may come as a surprise to you, but coloured is an acceptable term in South Africa. Coloured is a racial group that is the result of centuries of race mixing—a blood line that incorporates European settlers, indigenous Khoisan and Xhosa people, and slaves imported from the Dutch East Indies. They have their own culture and language, as opposed to the tribal languages, like Zulu and Xhosa. They are a racial AND cultural collision, a very distinct subset of the South African experience, at times deemed “too black to be white and too white to be black.”
So one can understand Chanel’s hesitation to check a box. Her refusal to do so is a liberation within itself. In Africa, the history and politics of being coloured go deep. It’s more than just a skin shade. It’s complicated. To deny any part of their deep ancestral links is to deny themselves altogether. I think Chanel should be able to choose her box (or lack thereof). Better yet, I think she should be able to choose all boxes that apply. After all, she is the very conundrum of this unique blend, something I understand well.
I am half-Nigerian and half-American, African American. I was born and raised in America. My father passed away when I was young, thus I grew up with very limited knowledge of Nigerian culture. I have even met Nigerians who have flat out told me, I am not Nigerian. I somewhat get their reluctance. However, it does not negate the Nigerian blood that flows through my veins. It does not negate my father’s experiences as a young Nigerian immigrant to first London, then the U.S., navigating cultures, determined to get his education and make a better life for himself. These experiences compassed him, fortified him, informed his teachings and desires for my mother and I. The prejudices and hardships he endured, sacrifices made, should be honored, not diminished. We are all the sum of those who come before us. Therefore, I choose to check all boxes that apply—Woman, Black, Negro, Colored, African American, Native American and Nigerian—regardless of public opinion.
That’s the moral to this story (and blog), to not let others define you. Whatever the label, just make sure you choose it yourself. And to Chanel, you are a blend of perfection: smart, beautiful, saucy, boss chick! Keep pushing the status quo and knockin’ out the box!
How do you choose to identify your mixed racial and cultural links? Are you for banning the box or no?