Thursday, October 07, 2010

So What Exactly Do You Consider Yourself?

HR: "How do I put this diplomatically?  Ummmm ... we have equity targets and need to know ... errrr ... well, we need to know what you consider yourself to be."

Me:  "What do you mean?  I don't consider anything.  I am as I appear."

HR: "I appreciate that but we have an equity audit and the government needs to know.  Do you consider yourself Indian or coloured?"

Me: *incredulous blank stare*

HR: "I was asked to put this question to you because we are not sure what to put you down as.  You may look Indian but then coloured people can look Indian."

Me: "During apartheid my race was defined for me.  My sister was given an Indian identity number and I was given a Cape Malay identity number.  But this government does not have a category for being abused into race categories, right?  Or being made to be between races by the old oppressive population registration laws."

HR: "No they don't.  So would you say you are coloured then?"

Me: "No I would not say I am coloured even though up until I was sixteen I grew up in what was a coloured suburb.  My dad who was registered Indian was arrested one night for being an Indian and living in a coloured house.  It was ugly.  My mother's uncle who was registered as a 'Cape Malay' turned him into the police after a family dispute over where my great-grandmother who was said to be Cape Malay should live."

HR: "That must have been a strange night.  So what exactly do you consider yourself?  We have a deadline to meet and we must show proof that we are meeting our equity targets."

Me: *Shaking my head in disbelief*  "It is funny that this process of re-racialisation is so important to our black government now that we are supposedly free.  So really all that is needed is for me to acquiesce to pressure and collapse my being and the struggles that were fought to bring me this far into an apartheid derived racial box."

HR: "These things are funny I know.  We put people into boxes I know.  We all have to live with things as they are.  Even when we don't like what it says or means."

Me: "Yeah and we do so even now that apartheid is over.  We free but we still racially contain ourselves in the nonsense that betrayed our humanity.  Is there a category there to explain that I lived in the US for 26 years?  And in that time I was Greek, Mexican, Arab, black, and whatever else anyone wanted me to be. At least in the US I could always opt out and just tick 'other' when my race or identity was queried."

HR: *puzzled stare*  "Ummm no there is no such category for living in America or outside South Africa but they do provide a box that says 'other'."

Me: "I know that is what I ticked when I started the HR registration process when I entered here 3 months ago.  I thought that would be enough."

Hr: "I know you did.  That is why we called this meeting to talk to you about what you put down.  We have to meet equity requirements and the government is strict about how people are classified so we need to be certain that what you indicated falls inside of the racial classifications made available to us."

Me: *We going nowhere stare*

HR: "So Ridwan, what exactly do you consider yourself?  What should I put down or do you need more time to think about it?  Please.  We are expected to file our report in two days."

Me: "I guess the whole spiel about being a nonracial country is just politics hey?  Perhaps like for outside consumption.  Or, since we are mostly folks who are not white here at the job maybe the government is really trying to make sure that white people are receiving fair treatment."

HR: "No not really.  We are just doing our jobs and need to know for record purposes.  So what should I put down?"

Me: "Well I guess 'Cape Malay' like my mother and her ancestors were defined by the whites.  And Indian too 'cause my dad's people, who are my people too, are from India about hundred and fifty years ago.  My dad never made it to India and no-one in India knew him before he passed but he was classified 'Indian'.  My mother is not even sure why she was classified as 'Cape Malay' because she was born in Port Elizabeth and she has never even met anyone who is really Malay but she knows a few aunties in Athlone who could pass for being 'Cape Malay' ... "

HR: "There is no Cape Malay category.  Just Indian or coloured.  Should I say coloured?"

Me: "So my mother's people have disappeared?  All those folks from District Six and Malay Camp in Kimberley do not exist in the new South Africa?"

HR: "Not really.  Most of those people just choose the 'coloured' category because it is easier for record purposes."

Me: "So coloured is a catch-all group for those who do not belong.  Not white enough for the apartheid whites and not black enough for the post-apartheid blacks.  This is indeed a strange time hey?  I barely existed in race terms before 1994 and now I find out that my entire being is e-raced by the need to put me into an equity target, or rather trap as I see it.

HR: "I guess we should just say coloured and see what happens."

Me: "I am not coloured and never have I ever been coloured.  Not for the white massa or the black massa that wants to define me as an equity target.  Is there a Muslim category because that would solve it all?"

HR: "You know there is not."

(Please God, take me to another space.  I'm about done here.)



Eugene said...

Insane shit, Brother!

Ridwan said...

Thanks Eugene. I know you understand my frustration.

Peace to you out there on the roads brother.


pserean said...

oh ridwan.
im sorry you had to go through this.
im even sorry that i started to laugh half way through and couldn't stop, even though i knew it was'nt at all Right.

this is just a perfect example of the customs official mentality that is Taking Over The World.

(But that's alright. At least then, everything will be neatly classified and God will finally know just what He created- er, no?)

Ridwan said...

Salaam pserean.

It makes me happy to know you laughed because I'm still laughing.

In the end I am not sure what they put down. I did not leave that meeting with an answer for them.

In part out of frustration and in bigger part because I wanted them to see what disobedience looked like.

You are so right about the "customs ... mentality" ... so much of what folks do now is to catalogue for the purpose of keeping score.

Even inventing a score.

Most of the time the substance is lost sorting through forms and boxes.

In the past I used to relish my time in South Africa because it seemed so much less formal and constricted than the US.

It is now way more formal and constricted than the US ... all those forms and ticking off this and that category is tiring and symptomatic of an inefficient bureaucratic state.

I trust you are well. Not boxed in at all I pray.

Thanks for looking in and bringing wise relief. Please laugh some more hey :)

Onward! ???


alleman said...

Well, Ridwan.
Last time it it was a security guard, and this time a clerk, who had to face your political wrath.
Both these jobs are way below the social stature of what you do.

Just saying.

eccentricyoruba said...

This situation must have been very frustrating. I've never had to go through the trouble of racial classification but I can't help but feel disturbed. It's sad that HR did not, and could not really, respect your wishes to remain unclassified. I don't understand why the South African government places so much importance on these classifications.

Ridwan said...

Thanks for your comment Alleman.

Nice to hear/read you again despite the lopsided view of my post.

In the present post it was not a clerk but the HR manager but how would you know that ... I did not say so hey?

Still, you seem crystallized in the view that my aim is at those below what you consider my "social stature".

You reading selectively and with a jaundiced view as usual.

Nonetheless, your views are always welcome here.

Be well.



Ridwan said...

Hi eccentricyoruba thanks so much for your comment.

Your view is shared by many a South African. Many of them do not fit the neat boxes that carry the discriminatory weight of apartheid derived race/ethnicity classifications.

The sub-context of this post is the manner in which being black in South Africa is watered down into apartheid era discriminations with the supposed intention of making that experience positive via Affirmative Action quotas.

How does a nonracial society emerge out of such actions/legislation?

Even if the concept of nonracialism is pure self-enrichment myth even folly on behalf of the new ruling and rich elite.

There are many reasons why this conversation should not have happened.

The least serious of which is the insistence by HR that they were doing their job and I should comply beyond my previous indication that I preferred "other".

The most serious in my view is the legislated manner in which my being was 'e-raced' from existence to fit the knee jerk politics of the post-era.

The middle point in terms of seriousness was my insistence not to play along.

Going along and acting in obedience are signs of defeat.

I don't want to be described as such.

If they put down 'coloured' or 'Indian' or even 'white' :), they did so to keep their records.

My consent was absent and my political point and politics are intact.

Peace to you.


desert demons said...

After reading the first few paragraphs, I went back to read more closely when this happened - shocker. Love the right panel of your blog , you've gained a fan !

Ridwan said...

Thank you kindly desert demons. Sorry for the late post of your comment.

I stepped away from the blog for the weekend.

I am very to happy to hear you like the right panel. It does however cause some folks anxiety from time to time too :0)

Peace to you,

Faridah said...


I thought it was a creative piece you wrote (some monologue for a local stage).There was a piece on 'identity' staged by one of our Malaysian playwrights here in KL not too long ago.The situation is almost similar except we have more boxes to opt for!

Anyway, I was reading old entries on my blog and came across the presentation you did at my uni and thought of you and visited here.

Hope everything else is well with you.Despite this identity thingy.

Ridwan said...

Salaam Faridah.

It is so nice to hear from you! I trust you are well.

I hear you on the boxes to tick. It is frustrating and getting worse here.

I remember my time in Malaysia very fondly and look forward to returning there sooner than later.

I also remember the conference and all the interesting discussion that took place.

The last we 'talked' you were in the US. It has been a while.

I hear from Prof Dubey from time to time and some of his doctoral students may even join us here in Pretoria for research.

Your suggestion on a monologue is tempting :)

We need to explore the issues of identity that go beyond the poles of black and white in South Africa.

Malay identity in particular.

Thanks for looking in.

You can also reach me at:

Best wishes.


Faridah said...

I facebook a lot more than I email these days.It's quicker to catch up with friends.Pls add me Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf.There are many interesting people on FB (we just completed a discussion on Malaysian musicals esp. one on Tun Mahathir which was badly done).I'd be happy to have you on my list.

I was back from the US mid June 2007.Was in Africa last year (Gambia and Guinea)and other countries in East Asia and a trip to the UK (had a wonderful lunch with some Profs at Uni of Cambridge).I get funny looks when I go through immigrations (becos' of country stamps: from Pakistan to Bangladesh to China to Gambia to Guinea to Macau to etc etc.If I were not with Osama, I could be doing drugs, boy!). How's that for an identity?.I hate it when they scan my scarf.This year I'm just doing the South Asia/Southeast Asian routes.Mostly on conferences.My mom's not too well and siblings and I take turns looking after her.More in my email.Catcha.

TRT said...

Ack! Why do they need labels?
What do they think you are? Baggage?
Just put mongrel. I always do.

Ridwan said...

Salam Farida.

I can imagine the stares ... we are all so suspect now.

A man told me that I should shave all my facial hair before returning to the us "just to be safe"!


I am sorry to hear about your mom. I pray her health will improve. It must be a hard time.

I need to go onto Facebook. I must be the only one who has not even tried it out :(

They scan your scarf? Wow it is an amazing time to be Muslim or anything close.


Ridwan said...


Thanks for looking in here.

I am so tired of the labels and may use your suggestion.

Maybe the coloured thing .... no let me not go there :0)

Thanks for understanding my frustration.

Peace to you,

Nolwazi said...

In my head there's picture of a forom, with two legs and arms chasing you, screaming:"Ridwaaaaan, come back! Don't leave me please! If you don't tick me, they won't put me in the system Pleeeease, don't glitch the system, it's all there is! It'll be the end of life as we know it! And then it points at the police that randomly appear out of nowhere and it screams that them again: "STOOOP HIIIIM!!!! DON'T LET HIM GET AWAY!! SHOOT HIM IF YOU HAVE TO BUT MAKE SURE HE TICKS!!!!

And you're blasting through traffic on your motor bike, turning your head every 5 seconds on some:"I'M GONE! F%#K THE SHITSTEM!"

The forom, a never-ending story...nightmare.

Big up to you for staying true!