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Listen, Live and Learn discussion during Woordfees explores the complexities of Coloured culture
Author: Tendani Tshauambea
Published: 26/10/2023

​Since​​ the Toyota SU Woordfees (Wordfest), an annual arts festival held in Stellenbosch, concluded, the productions, live television and radio broadcasts, book discussions, and music have left students and staff alike with much to reflect on going forward. One of those events that sparked in-depth discussions was a student engagement organised by the Listen, Live, and Learn Programme (LLL Programme) with Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel on their book, Coloured: How Classification became Culture

The two authors were in Stellenbosch for the Woordfees Skrywerseries and visited students living at 53 Victoria Street – a LLL Program House – on campus. Dooms, a sociologist, political analyst and development practitioner, and Chutel, a multimedia journalist and a writer, both grew up in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg.

Coloured is a book for Coloured people, by Coloured people, a book of Coloured and colourful stories from varied corners of the South African vista, past, present and future," explained the authors.

Ethan Conradie, a member of the LLL Programme opened the conversation with a personal reflection on his journey of understanding his identity as a young queer, Coloured man.

“I am very happy that we are having this discussion today seeing that there is not a lot of conversation regarding Colouredness. Coloured as a race, identity, and culture has been marginalised for decades now. The questions we frequently ask are, WHO ARE WE? WHAT ARE WE? DO WE MATTER?," he said.

“Coloured people in South Africa have always been on the sideline, but through 'culture' we unite and we are aware of who we are. But then what can be defined as Coloured culture?" 

The authors delved into a range of topics related to the formation of Coloured identity and culture, including hair and the politics of straight versus curly hair, the Ashwin Willemse incident and the enduring stereotypes of Coloured men, the distinction between identifying as ethnically Coloured and politically Black, and the continued marginality of Coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

Speaking to the range of Coloured lived experiences, the conversation focused on how the “book aims to move beyond a narrow view of Coloured identity as being a phenotype" but  “towards a more detailed narrative which speaks to the complexity and diversity of Coloured identity, which differs greatly depending on the community, region and familial histories of Coloured people from Bonteheuwel, Cloetesville or Eldorado Park," said the authors.

“This book dives deeper into challenging the notion that Coloured people do not have a distinct heritage or culture. It produces necessary topics of who we are as Coloured people while also diving into the history of Coloured ancestry," Conradie explained.

Due to the difficulty of the history, which the book explores, the conversation between the authors and the diverse group of students in attendance created a space where all the participants could engage honestly about their own understanding – or lack thereof – of Coloured identity. Students also shared honestly about their own experiences with stereotypical attitudes towards Coloured identity directed at them and the beliefs they grew up with without much awareness of the fuller story explored in the book.

According to one of the students, Brittney Brand, the discussion was “very affirming for me because while I knew there was no one way of being Coloured, I still felt like I wasn't Coloured enough and the authors really made me feel as if I belong, no matter how I show up".

“My existence, my life experience was Coloured enough and being Coloured is what we decide to make it." 

Speaking about his experiences as a Coloured man, Conradie added: “The fact that I am Coloured and a man, means society has already defined who I am as a Coloured man and placed constrictions on what masculinity can be defined as. MA OMDAT EK SOE PRAAT, IS EK ONMIDDELIK GEKLASSIFISEER as 'n iemand wat moontlik 'n GANGSTER kan wies. En dit is scary." [In English: BUT BECAUSE I SPEAK LIKE THIS, I AM IMMEDIATELY CLASSIFIED as someone who could possibly be a GANGSTER. And that is scary.]  

Due to a history of stereotyping and marginalisation, Coloured identity in South Africa has often been misunderstood, especially in the post-apartheid context of the country.  

Dooms and Chutel's book is valuable as a conversation starter that people can use to begin the work of unlearning harmful stereotypes and walking the journey towards a more nuanced understanding of Coloured identity beyond phenotypes, hair and one-dimensional stories.

Student Adon Rhode said that "the discussion emphasised that there is still a significant need for me to educate myself about my own culture". 

"My main takeaway was that individuals and the collective identity of Coloureds are sufficient, and they can stand tall regardless of what the masses may be saying."