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WORDS / Friday / June 23rd, 2017

Am I Coloured Enough? : Making Headlines Beyond My ‘Light Skin’ Privilege


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This past weekend in the spirit of Youth Day in SA, I made the front page headlines for an article on successful young South Africans. Guys, I work so hard and so honestly, if I do say so myself. This article really made me feel great and felt like an honest reflection of who I am today. 2017 has seen as much professional growth for me as personal growth. I’ve really stayed in my lane, been unapologetically myself, taken baby steps toward all-round success and happiness in every area in my life and it feels incredibly good. Praise to my Creator, for months now even though life is far from perfect, I have a feeling of permanent physical feeling warmth and happiness in my heart and the pit of my stomach. It’s a feeling I have never had for this long in my life, it was always just fleeting moments that came and went.

Another way I’ve grown is I’ve turned into an all-round happier person with thicker skin. Mean cyber comments still annoy me, but they don’t get to me anymore and I find most of them funny and see it as that person’s problem, not mine. This past weekend though, a typical big mouth Tweeter made me want to address an accusation that made me wonder who else shared their opinion. Not because I need approval or have self-doubt, but more so I was curious as to how many people (still) shared this sentiment which I’ve been told about myself before. In a nutshell, this person felt I’m not a fair representation of coloured women (a race of mixed race people in South Africa), and that my fair skin and not-curly-enough hair made me “privileged” and that was the real reason why I book campaigns; because I have “Eurocentric” features working to my advantage. I read this tweet moments after purchasing the newspaper I was in, where I coincidently address issues of racism and equality. Anyway, it was said that there should be more darker skinned women with “type 3/4 hair” on the jobs myself and other coloured women like Nadia Jaftha book because coloured women don’t really look like us.

It was both the dumbest but also the most fair argument I’d heard in a long time. She was right; I don’t look like most coloured women, and darker coloured women should be more present and celebrated in mainstream media.

I don’t look white yet my skin is fair. I have Malaysian and Turkish roots that peek through my features and yet I don’t even look like most Cape Malay women either (Cape Malay being the Muslim “sub-race” to which I belong). Also, basically no one is my height. This wasn’t news to me. Since I was 14, as a young lanky teen giant modelling agencies would scout me, then simultaneously say “we don’t know what to do with you because you’re not white or coloured or even Asian enough”. I’ve always wondered what that’s supposed to mean? If you’re mixed race in South Africa, you are coloured, end of story. Trevor Noah considers himself a very concentrated version of a coloured person due to his white father and black mother. Our race is actually SO beautiful, a rainbow nation within itself, with some people who are coloured but look black, while others look white, and some look Asian, among many other variants. Foreigners always find this concept fascinating and incredibly cool. That being said, how on earth do you establish what a “real” coloured person should look like, and who should be the poster children for it?

Her point was fair, because the South African coloured race is SO varied, there isn’t just one look or shade to define it. Furthermore, overall, there should be more coloured people present in marketed media. I’ve always felt strongly about this, which is why I’ve always felt so proud being able to represent my race exactly as I am. It felt wonderful knowing I could forge a new path, my own path and put myself out there despite being told for half of my life I’m “not-coloured-enough”. As for the other girls who fit the “coloured-enough” mould but aren’t being represented, are talented as hell all round and not being recognised for it, where are they? Do they exist? If so, please send me their details – I’d honestly like to hook them up with the right people to change this. At the same time though, if this type of girl doesn’t exist, it doesn’t make me less deserving or mean I have low-key underlying white privilege.

Everything I have and own has come from pure hard work and determination. I mean, did my light skin pull all those all-nighters working on organic content while the rest of my body slept? Does my silky hair spend 8 hours+ editing videos for me, many of which are not commissioned? Does my modest dress sense get me as many likes, followers and jobs as those bikini-clad girls who bare it all? Quick story: when I was a 22 year old flight attendant, I was awake for three days straight due to jet lag, then worked a 12 hour shift to Narita, Japan, and travelled for hours to Tokyo just so I could go and shoot street style in Harajuku for the only hour I had free. I fell asleep on the train, missed my stop and woke up in a village. That was the extent I went to for my non-sponsored content, and my “Eurocentric” features were of little comfort then, especially when I got back to the hotel, changed into uniform and worked my way back on the flight home.

My point is, regardless of what I look like, or what I’m good or bad at, for years I continued to go to my own personal lengths and push myself, slowly, steadily and honestly in everything I do. I’d like to think that makes me aspirational. I’d like to think that makes me a great representation for honest, hard-working young women. And despite what insecure people and mainstream marketing says, I’d like to think that makes me a great coloured.

xx

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  • Rafs

    Such an awesome piece by an amazing being. If only people knew how much work is put into
    the levels of magic.
    #MalayGirlMagic

    • aqeelahharron

      Thanks so much, Rafs! So much to learn, so much to think about. I appreciate your comment! <3

  • Malome Tom

    Trevor Noah does not refer to himself as a ‘concerntrated coloured’ -whatever that means. He doesn’t even refer himself as coloured. He unambiguously calls himself black. And Cape Malay is not a “sub-race”. It’s unfortunate shorthand to describe cape Muslims. Many many of whom would find our lineage more closely affiliated to Mozambicans (Mitzimbik was the shorthand for slaves and Muslim converts – an overwhelming amount of whom where from Mozambique and surrounds). THe problem here is that there is often a reflexive, ahistorical need to disassociate “blackness” from “colouredness” – as if the two are dichotomous. It used to be that you ask a coloured person about lineage and we would default to some white European ancestor. The response has evolved over the years but no less problematic. Varying from over-foregrounding our Asian lineage to a type Neo-hyper coloured nationalism – the kind of “first people” rhetoric we hear often now. As if Khoi and San aren’t African and indeed black. All I’m saying is that language matters, nomenclature matters. You are a beautiful black sister getting your hustle on, own it proudly

    • aqeelahharron

      Hi Malome! Thank you SO much for sharing this with me. It’s truly something I didn’t know, and I really appreciate everything you shared. I really think this conversation is so important and needs to be had more frequently because you’re so right about everything and yet it’s a discussion we are barely exposed to. Since reading your comment the other day, I will recognise myself as black, but I feel like if I had to put that out there it would have such a confusing response, which again shows the importance of your point because so many people are unaware.

      Side note: As for Trevor Noah, he says in one of his shows he’s coloured. He used a reference to Oros syrup, saying he’s the concentrated coloured syrup and all coloured people after that are like Oros once you’ve added water. But, maybe he didn’t mean it and it was for comic relief.

  • Quoleshna Ze’nean Elbert

    I can appreciate that you see a fair argument; however, having not read the tweet your speaking of, I assume that the person never alluded to your having a lesser work ethic than others. They seem to be fairly pointing out that there is a reality of preference for fair skin and European standards of beauty. So if there’s a disproportionate representation of that variation of “coloured” people, then something’s wrong. Because that would indicate that most hard workers earning those slots look like you. Which would be foolish to surmise. You didn’t create white supremacy or the colonial perspective that dominates the world, now (due to the consistent flood of colonial perspectives via media). But I don’t think it a triumph to numb yourself to the likelihood that you, and others, very likely benefit from preferences and perceived attributes that handicap a darker peer who boasts more notably African features. I’m African-American, and this is a topic that we deal with. I’ve also heard the same is true in Latin countries. I don’t think you or anyone should be condemned for aspects of commerce and dna that you had no control over. But as a “coloured” person, I think it’s more helpful to acknowledge the existence of privilege, how it applies to you, and the fact that it is a tool that you have the “privilege” of thoughtfully using on behalf of those who may never make it to the table.

  • Yolandi North

    Well done girl. You are awesome & an example to all young girls in SA – no matter how light or dark or race. xxx Thank you for the gorgeous blog.