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.