Being an African American in Africa: “What are you?”


1) The question, “What are you?” is objectifying. If the goal is to find out a person’s heritage, the more proper question to ask is “How do you identify?”

2) Every African American’s experience in Cape Town, South Africa is different. I am not speaking for all African Americans in this blog post.

When I first inquired about studying abroad in Cape Town, I was told that this place is characterized by race relations that are starkly different from what I experience in the United States as an African American. In Cape Town, the main racial categories originating from the apartheid era are Black African, Coloured, White, and Indian. I was also told that people may categorize me as a Coloured South African due to my light skin complexion. Thus I anticipated to experience a somewhat chameleon effect when I came here. However, this was not the case.

When I first arrived, people STARED. This staring was so noticeable that the colleagues in my program asked me if I knew why people were staring. I always answered that I didn’t know why people were staring at me. I only assumed that it was because my Blackness seemed foreign to them (not from South Africa or the Continent), thus they could not guess my origins or it could have been for reasons of attraction. I lean more towards the former than the latter.

At my school, University of the Western Cape, people stared, but some took it a step further and asked me, “What are you?” Sometimes I was hesitant to answer. When I did answer, I said “African American” and then I saw them make the “oh, that makes sense” face. Other times out of curiosity I asked them, “What do you think I am?” Here were the answers I received: South African Coloured, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Zimbabwean, American or “I’m not sure, but not South African.” Some people could tell that I was American due to my accent, but without talking they would not have a clue.

Over time, I became aware of the fact that my facial features were extremely different from a native South African Coloured or Black African. My eyes, lips, nose, and face shape tell a particular history of Africa, Europe, and America. I am proud of this history and don’t mind sharing what I know because I discovered that I was the first African American woman that some South Africans have met. This does not surprise me because most people assume that Americans who come here are white. I tend to either confirm or crush the stereotypes of African Americans. Here are some stereotypes that I have come across: twerking, neck-rolling, fried chicken, watermelon, and Madea(a Tyler Perry movie character that represents the Mammy).

Needless to say, I live an interesting reality, as I am experiencing life as an African American in Africa, more specifically South Africa. At times there is this sense of distance given my American identity, but simultaneously, there is a strong sense of closeness given my Blackness. I have made it back to one part of the Motherland (a common term most African Americans use to refer to Africa given our ancestral history). My ancestors descended from enslaved Africans who originated from the West African region. I am intrigued to see how I am identified in those countries given their specific histories of colonialism and use of racial categories. Side note: after two months in Cape Town, I have made peace with the staring.




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15 Responses to Being an African American in Africa: “What are you?”

  1. Regina Strigles says:

    That is what’s so great about the world as human beings in this world we come in all different shapes sizes colors and educational backgrounds be strong black woman

  2. Terri L says:

    Fascinating observation, especially since I have always thought that the Africans in that country looked similar to African Americans.

  3. jordan brown says:

    Dope thoughts. I dealt with this while abroad in Germany. It takes folks a minute to remind themselves of Americas history. Do you have a IG account? I am promoting more black students to study abroad and want to find more people like yourself to encourage others. Let me know if you can assist in some way.

  4. Anthony James says:

    This was a well written and very thoughtful. I could imagine what you were feeling as you expressed your thoughts. Looking forward to reading another one of your blogs.

  5. Blanche ussery says:

    I have often wondered how to ask that question of Africans when I meet them in America. But I never thought about them asking that question. What are you. Thanks for sharing your experience. Peace

  6. Blanche Ussery says:

    Thank you great article.

  7. Really nice question, the post was great and very helpful. Thank you very much

  8. Angela Williams says:


  9. Angela Williams says:

    Thank you so much for reading! and my IG is @Perle_Noiree! I follow back!

  10. Why this web site don’t have different languages?

  11. sarah birnbaum says:

    Hi Angela,
    Are you still in Cape Town? I’m a reporter for NPR in the U.S., based in Cape Town, and I’m working on a story about coloured identity in South Africa. I would love to talk to you on background, or interview you for the piece. My email is Please get in touch! I look forward to the possibility of speaking with you.

  12. Angela Williams says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Just emailed you!

  13. Angela Williams says:

    Sorry. I believe it is because Georgetown University is located in the U.S. and we are taught in the English language.

  14. Thank you great article.
    very good

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