The First Time Someone asked me “What I am”

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I grew up in a rather tight-knit family surrounded by a lot of love and understanding. Even at school I was mostly liked and always felt like that was because I was friendly and smiled a lot. Of course, we all came from different homes and different backgrounds and different tribes but these differences never seemed to matter. We were all friends, went to the same schools, listened to the same music and even in our differences we managed to stay fast friends and share in each other’s cultures. All this changed the year I turned 16 and went away to University.

I guess I had never thought of my identity and what it really meant to be me. I was myself because of certain characteristics and also because I was from a certain country, a certain tribe and had a particular culture. The colour of my skin, I never perceived as being a source of identity or having any relevant meaning to my personality. I never cared about what race others were, mostly I was interested in finding out what country they came from. In fact, in most of my interactions with others, they also were more curious about what country I came from, or what part of the country I came from, never about how come I was two shades lighter or darker than they were.

You can imagine my surprise when being in a new country; I walked into a store and noticed a lady was looking at me strangely. Initially I thought I might have some smudge on my face or that my hair had shifted out of a place, as it tends to sometimes do. I checked, none of that.

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I then thought, maybe she was concerned I was a shoplifter and would walk out of her store without paying for the shoes I was looking at. I even chuckled to myself about the idea of me fitting that description, and proceeded to continue browsing about the store. I eventually made it to the counter to pay. As she took the box of shoes, she asked me the strangest question I have ever heard in my life. “I’m sorry to ask this, but what are you?”

I must admit I was puzzled. The first things that popped into my head: “Do I look like I may be from outer space?”  “Do you think I could be a boy with boobs and long hair?” That being impossible, I asked her what she meant. And she said, well I can see you’re not black, or Indian as your hair texture is different. But then again, you don’t appear to be coloured either.

So many emotions went through me in that very instant. Shock, of course, but mostly I felt insulted. What does it mean to be coloured? Why should it matter? Would it make a difference to my purchase at the store? Is it something I should be wearing around my neck in order to guide people as to “what” I am?

It also made me question my identity that I thought so set in stone, and what it is that really matters and contributes to who I am. After that first experience, and a couple of similar ones, I understood a number of things.

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That who I am is not reflected in the colour of my skin. That this remains true for all other individuals as well. I also understood that in some places, this is very important to some, because of their history, or experiences they have been through and that I cannot underrate these just because I think it silly to classify people based on the shade they are. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the colour, shade, tone (whatever you choose to call it); of one’s skin is not important and should not be. Unfortunately it influences and affects our lives when we don’t think it does or want it to. It is there in the perceptions some people have of us, and in their attitudes towards us. Ignorance of this does not protect us from that sad reality.

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