Who Am I To You?

Guest post by Brooke Porter, T’20

“So you’re a colored person who lives in America?”

“No, I’m not technically colored at all.” My students looked dubiously at my light brown skin color then at their own similarly colored skin.

“Do you speak Afrikaans?” They continued to press.

I shook my head and chuckled as they began to call out Afrikaans word after word in an attempt to stir my dormant fluency in their native language. To their disbelief, I simply shrugged my shoulders.

This is a conversation I had with almost every student group I had the opportunity to work with during my internship with an education non-profit in Cape Town, South Africa this past summer. The organization I worked for provides after school programming and social services to youth in marginalized communities. My teenage students struggled to grasp the significance of my identity in the context of South Africa, as did I.

One of the lessons my summer in Cape Town taught me was that traveling abroad requires an active self-awareness, an understanding of the connotations your identity carries for the communities you are walking into.

For me, that meant acknowledging the almost dichotomy of my race and nationality. My race, black, was considered the norm. Because of my skin tone, both black and colored South Africans assumed that I was a part of their group. I was regularly greeted with warm hellos like “Morning sista,” “Howzit my sista,” or even in one of the 10 official languages of South Africa besides English.

This perception of similarity contrasted with the receptions I received when people figured out that I was American. Once people heard my American accent the interaction changed. I would see confusion and sometimes curiosity register on the face of the person I was speaking to. It seemed like a distance that wasn’t present before appeared. I had the voice of not only an outsider but of a group that has a reputation of excess, privilege, and oppression. The main reason I wanted to come to South Africa was because of what I believed to be a similarity in experience of oppression under legalized racism for black people in South Africa and the States. So it felt strange for the black and brown children I felt an immense solidarity for to see me as an outsider.

As I grappled with the layers of my identity, I developed relationships with my coworkers and students that began to bridge the gap between us. As I engaged with my students and explored their communities, I learned the similarities, differences, and complexities of racial dynamics in South Africa which have been heavily shaped by apartheid. Just because I too was black didn’t mean I understood their experiences as black and colored South Africans.

If I truly desire to respectfully engage in work that dismantles and restructures systems that marginalize people, it’s my responsibility to acknowledge the problematic connotations of my identity.

Understanding the implications of one’s identity is critical for authentic civic engagement. At my specific internship with a non-profit that focuses on historically marginalized groups, the students I worked with battle the consequences of abuse of power and privilege every day. In the context of an extremely socioeconomically unequal society with an immense racial wealth gap, it’s completely understandable that my students were wary of the privileged American barging into their lives.

To address this complicated dynamic, I purposely practiced self-awareness. I tried to always be conscious of how much space I took up in a conversation, always acting as a listener first. Because if I truly desire to respectfully engage in work that dismantles and restructures systems that marginalize people, it’s my responsibility to acknowledge the problematic connotations of my identity. One can and should learn and respect every cultural expectation of a new place but that doesn’t change one’s identity. This summer I learned that the layers of my identity often have differing and unexpected impacts on my interactions with others. For me, grappling with this truth brought me a deeper understanding of both myself and the communities I spent time with.