“You're essentially born into this - you’re operating from a disadvantage from the beginning.”

Lorhren-Rose Joseph has been places, done things, accomplished a lot. No matter where she went her skin colour always was a topic of discussion. Ironically, maybe even the most in her home country of South Africa. (Teaserfoto credit: Lorhren-Rose Joseph)

Von Helena Velaj
Am
Lesezeit 11 Min

Lorhren

I'm originally from a very small town in the Northern Cape of South Africa called Douglas. It's a very dry area, literally right next to the Kalahari desert. Douglas itself is known to be the place where the first diamonds in South Africa were found. Kimberley is the nearest city. The town has a few shops here and there. No traffic lights though. It's a semi-rural "platteland" community - the majority of the people make working class wages on farms or in the agriculture corporation, or as artisans or workers from the surrounding mines. Unemployment remains a huge problem until this day. I was fortunate though, my parents are both teachers. I am the oldest of four siblings. I went to a previous Model C school - these were schools that were exclusively white during Apartheid. When I went in the mid-nineties, I was, for the most part, the only person of colour in my class, which posed its own challenges. I guess I just always worked twice as hard as everyone else in the class - it was important to prove my belonging, because my being there wasn't normalised in South Africa's then young democracy. That's probably something that I still carry with me as an adult...I don't know.

My grades landed me a scholarship and I decided to study Chemical Engineering and graduated after four years. It was 2008 in the height of the global economic recession and finding a job was a lot harder than I anticipated. I was unemployed for 5 months before I settled for a Biosciences internship. It had practically nothing to do with Chemical Engineering, but I felt I had to do something. Being unemployed is definitely the most demoralising thing anyone can go through. I worked as a Quality Assurance supervisor at a autocatalytic converter company before moving to South Korea in 2012 in the hopes of finding a “real” engineering job. I taught English while looking. Had an amazing experience over there. Met people all over the world, we put up amateur theatre plays - I wrote, acted and directed and found that my love for performing had never gone away. The community there was so engaging and stimulating - both expats and Koreans. I decided to continue my studies when I returned home. I went with Journalism.  I guess to me it seemed noble and informed...and not as superficial as wanting a career in film. Anyway, I came to my senses eventually. Before doing my Masters in Film last year I was a journalist and broadcast producer at eNCA. I also worked in Late Night radio for a while and, before getting the Chevening Scholarship, was the Supplements and Special Projects Editor at the Mail and Guardian, an investigative journalism newspaper available in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

 

GRAD

Since you already mentioned that, as the only person of colour, you really had to prove yourself in school, to what extent did you notice the racial divide Apartheid left behind? You have touched on that already but maybe you can provide me with more in-depth information? Nothing that is uncomfortable for you to say, though.

 

Lorhren

Here's the thing about Apartheid - it didn't just live in racial prejudice, which I think is sometimes so entrenched it's hard to quantify or explain in tangible terms. It's also, sadly, still evident in the spatial terms. Black and brown people were forcibly removed and relocated to townships made possible by the Group Areas Act. So where people live determines how they commute and subsequently how they partake in democracy, but also how they partake in the economy ...how they ultimately provide for their families. The other thing about Apartheid is that it didn't just end in 1994. The new government obviously chose to focus on reconciliation to avoid any more bloodshed. One of the most lasting effects of Apartheid was definitely felt in access to quality education for black people/people of colour. Which is why these so-called ex-Model C schools were the better option for many. Not because the teachers were better or more qualified than black or brown teachers, the school's themselves were better equipped, facilitated  with computer classrooms, athletic fields, working sanitation. I have to say, I don't think about my school years a lot. I don't think it's something I necessarily feel nostalgic about. I just sort of tolerated it. Also, it was a long time ago. But there are a few distinct instances where my being "the only one", affected how I consumed information in the classroom. One was when I was about nine or ten - this would probably have been 96'/97. I remember that in one of the History textbooks, we were being taught what different races did professionally; for example white people were typically the most successful and became economists, doctors, and lawyers. There was also a distinction made between coloured people - between the group I'm classified under and Indian people. Indians were slightly higher up the hierarchy than coloureds. According to the textbook, Indians typically became pharmacists and businessmen. Coloureds could become nurses, teachers or farm workers. And the black people were typically boxers, or maids, or gardeners. Of course my nine year old brain hadn't fully grasped how disgusting and racist this content was. It was being taught afterall. We were given homework to draw what we've learned and I remember my parents being so shocked at me drawing a white doctor and a black figure holding a pair of scissors to shear a sheep. I'll never forget their disappointment. From then on I knew that I couldn't always take things at face-value at this "white school". In retrospect, I question if the teacher even considered the content's effect on me then. Of course the curriculum improved the next year and we even had modules on Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing. But it took a while...for me it felt like a little too long.

What is certainly evident in the history book back then was that race was defined and existed along class divides: You are wealthy because you’re white, you're white because you're wealthy… and today it still does. It imposes limitations on what certain people can or are able to become.

That's what happens when racism is institutionalized. It comes in the subtle suggestions of who you are supposed to be, where you belong or what your people are capable of from the get-go.

 

GRAD

And to what extent have you felt limited by this? Professionally and personally?

 

Lorhren
I think that the limitation is innate. I think that moments like that just show you how systemic racism is. You're essentially born into this - you’re operating from a disadvantage from the beginning. So when you finally enter the workplace, you're constantly navigating between having to prove that you’re capable, despite having the same qualifications or level of experience, or that you may just have been hired as the diversity quota. You also have to navigate being paid less or progressing up the (corporate) ladder a lot slower than your white counterparts. I've experienced this in almost every professional space I've been in. As far as "personally" goes - I mean I was nine or ten when the history textbook thing happened, the fact that I still draw on that experience as a 30 year old woman...it obviously affected me very deeply.

 

GRAD

You've experienced how institutionalized racism in South Africa still is, which in itself is obviously bad enough. Have you ever been personally, directly attacked because of the colour of your skin? And how deeply has it affected your relationship to your heritage and culture?

 

Lorhren

The first part - FOR SURE...are you kidding me?  But even the stuff I mentioned earlier is still a direct, personal attack, right? You don't have to be beaten up to feel your humanity's been infringed on.  If you're asking me if someone's called me a 'Kaffir' or 'Hotnot' - these are racial slurs - or been physically threatened because I look the way I do then, yes  - all of the above. I remember at university how a friend and I were walking back from the engineering computer labs. We had been working late on some assignment and a car with a couple of arguably drunk white guys started driving slowly next to us. They were shouting all kinds of slurs at us, some racial, some sexual in nature. It went on for a while. Both of us just kept walking straight without looking at them. When we turned the corner, we just started running...we kept running, cutting across residences to get as far away from the main road as possible. We heard them laughing as they drove away. Whether the intention was just to terrorize or actually inflict physical harm, I don't know. I'll never know.  All I know is we were easy targets.

The second part of my relationship to my heritage and culture is one I'm not sure I understand. I don't hate being brown...I recognise that it makes navigating life a little harder. My identity as a coloured woman is also a very complex one.  Coloured people derive from extremely mixed ancestry. In some ways it's a racial group defined by many in terms of what you are not. So - you're not White, you're not Black, you're not Indian/Asian, you're not native Khoi or San...etc. Yet you draw from a collection of all these experiences. But I feel like that's a piece on it's own. What’s important now at this stage of my life is the identity - racially, culturally and politically - I embody is completely self-determined.

 

GRAD

The second question was regarding if you ever wished you were not coloured...hoping this is not an insensitive question, but especially at a young age it makes it increasingly difficult to like your culture and heritage when you're consistently made to feel different because of it.
I can see it in the children of immigrants here, I saw it in friends during puberty and of course in myself...it left us hating and trying to reject it for a long time.

Obviously your situation and the circumstances you grew up in are a lot more severe, but the question was whether you had difficulties accepting yourself when everyone made you feel like you were different in a country that is technically yours? Did it ever make you resent a part of you, did you ever try to reject your heritage in order to "blend in" or did it make you feel even more empowered to be proud of who you are?

 

Lorhren

I see. Uhm...at first I think I tried really hard to assimilate when I went to the ex-model C school. My native tongue is Afrikaans. It's also the "language of the oppressor" or the language spoken by and used by the white Afrikaner regime. It's the reason for the 1970s Soweto Uprising. So I'd try to sound white when I spoke it in the classroom. In my mind, that kind of made me more acceptable. Or "blend in" as you say. ‘Cause a lot of the kids would poke fun at how Coloured people pronounced certain words. But as I got older it just started feeling like I was betraying my people, my family...that being said, within many Coloured communities there exists a lot of anti-black sentiment too. I think that's another bizarre byproduct of the divide-and-rule Apartheid system. It made these racial hierarchies function as day-to-day trade offs and was even successful in pinning people of colour against each other. But I digress a little. I think the reason for rejecting blending in was my family...in particular my parents, who were very politically active. They had marched, protested and had even been denied opportunities as a result of Apartheid. They were outspoken as young people and even more so as teachers. If your or anyone's self-worth or self-acceptance was in question -  you better make sure you’d find yourself on the right side of history. That was always a sentiment imparted in our household.

 

GRAD

Speaking of anti-black sentiment among the coloured community, I recently read an article about a very successful South African doctor, who was coloured, and despite his achievements and his political stance for coloured people he had received major backlash for them and had even been called him "coconut".

Now, his name was Bongani Mayosi, I don't know if you’ve heard about him but I read the story in a German newspaper. It highlighted how difficult it was for a coloured person to be successful in South Africa, because when you're successful, white people will assume you're a product of the quota. So evidently he was in a bit of a conflict here because he couldn't please any of those sides. Have you ever experienced something like this? Or even your friends and family?

 

Lorhren

Really? It was in a German paper. Wow… I don't know him. There's actually a book/novel called "Coconut", it's one of my all time faves! The author is Kopano Matlwa. But yes, people being trapped in some sort of “missing middle” or racial limbo is something that’s definitely there. Let me put it this way - things get pretty complicated.  

 

GRAD

To what extent does it resonate with you? Has it become difficult for you?


Lorhren
Maybe resonate is the wrong word. And maybe not me personally. But there's a lot of people who feel like that.

 

GRAD

You moved abroad quite a bit, how was your experience as a woman of colour there?

 

Lorhren

South Korea and the UK had an added element to it I suppose - that of being perceived as a foreigner. The political climates were also vastly different in each case. What's interesting or weird though is a lot of time, even people in South Africa don't think I'm from there. I swear, just yesterday I met a guy who asked me 'where are you really from?'. I'd say my experience in Korea was unlike any other. First of all English is a foreign language there, so I literally had to learn Hangul to get by. I was based in the Jeollanam-do province, Gwangju. The people were so generous and kind. And I never really had any discriminatory incidents. In Korea there is a thing about being darker and Asian - I could easily pass for being South East Asian, i.e. Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai or Filipino.  I suppose it's class related. In ancient times laborers working outside in the fields were of darker complexion and those that were of a higher class typically found themselves indoors.  Being pale/extremely white is sort of the aesthetic ideal in the far East. When I taught English there, I had two schools - one private and one public. The public school was my favourite. I guess because at the private school, the wealthier students often remarked on my darker tone and curly hair. One girl once gave me skin whitening cream as a gift - I'm sure it was well-intended. It's just a cultural reference I guess... it often felt as though they didn't respect me or think I was as capable as my European/American counterparts. I remember my co-teacher had to tell them that I was an Chemical Engineer too and that sort of helped bump up my status. Other than that, I still have very fond memories of Korea. I made life-long friendships there.

Uhm the UK...I was bracing myself, what with Brexit and everything. I suppose racism in the UK is a lot more subtle.  I feel like even talking about race in Britain is still a radical act.

 

GRAD
In what ways was the racism in the UK more subtle?

 

Lorhren

It's how racism rides on the back of colonial achievement in the UK. I mean most black and brown students in the UK descend from former colonies or Commonwealth countries.  Colonialism gets talked about in a way you'd never talk about the Holocaust for example... as if there were pros and cons to it. I remember a friend and I sitting at the University’s library coffee shop area once. There was this giant mural of a world map with coffee plantations geo-tagged pins... The top of the poster read something like "Bean there, done that." It seems harmless at first glance, but the more you think about it, the more fucked up that type of flagrant impunity and denial about colonial legacy is. Maybe it's because we're both journalists and we've both spent too much time decoding media messaging that it stuck with us. But the reality is: that kind of messaging is normal, even years after Stuart Hall established possibly one of the most important theories around race at that very same institution.

Von Helena Velaj
Am
Lesezeit 11 Min

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