Exile in England has led to my having to revisit that comfortable and easy definition of myself as "English". In a South African context, being "English" means speaking English as a home language, and is often short-hand for a package of assumptions that go along with that - relative liberalism (politically and socially); a slightly cynical take on nationalism; a distanced view of "culture", in the sense of not readily identifying, or identifying with, any particular markers of culture, such as those more readily associated with other language groups... and so on.
In the UK, of course, "being English" means something completely different - it's a statement of nationalism, and even a rallying cry of a slightly reactionary, defensive encircling to distinguish those thus defined as not Scottish, not Irish, or - god forbid - not Welsh! By this definition, I'm clearly not English - it's a pure historical accident that any of my forebears came to speak English, as they were variously German, Dutch, and... Welsh. So, instead, I have become almost by default that definition that was denied me back home - South African.
Within SA, it's considered presumptious, or naive at best, to describe oneself as "South African", without at least prefacing it with some other descriptor, usually colour or language group. It's easy enough to understand why - the experiences of a typical white kid growing up in, say, the 1970s were very different from those typically experienced by a black kid, and so any kind of assumption of sameness is open to challenge.
Which reminded me of a paper I was notified about, written by a former DVC at UCT, about some research conducted at UCT among white staff, who were asked at what point they became aware of being white. Aside from the imports, the respondents all cited some incident of casual racism that drew their attention to this between the ages of around 5 and 10. And, as with the "English" rug being pulled from under me feet, I started to wonder if I had the "right" to claim any shared identity with these people, whose experiences, or subsequent perseptions of those experiences, were so different to mine.
I was most certainly subject to the same structural advantages as they were - I attended schools reserved for white kids, which - even if the education was really bad, which it was in two of the three schools I attended - at least had glass in the windows, OHPs in the classrooms and grass on the playing field. And teachers who were nominally qualified - even if science lessons were spent organising the girls' tennis team rather than exploring the electromagnetic properties of light.
But I did not grow up thinking I was white. In fact, I grew up harbouring a dark - and fallacious, as it turned out - secret that I wasn't, really, and that sooner or later someone was coming to get me, the way they came for Sandra Laing. I didn't really know what "white" was, or how to recognise it in myself or others - it was something that was assumed, rather than conveyed... and I must have slept through those lessons where the cues were passed on wordlessly.
On my first day in primary school, one of my brand new classmates didn't want to sit next to me because I was "coloured", and shouldn't be at that school anyway. The teacher hushed her, but moved her, and on returning home I later asked my mother if I was coloured. She told me not to be silly - that I wouldn't be at that school if I was. Even my 5 year old consciousness could grasp the circularity of that reasoning, so I was convinced that I was, but that people were pretending to ignore it for reasons of their own.
Indeed, my own skin was no paler than that of the delivery men who brought the fridge - though their headwear signalled to me a religious distinction that I would now confirm as Muslim, nor my hair much different in texture from that of the flower seller's child whose mother also forced her to wear it in long, curling locks. It was all terribly opaque to me, hidden and forbidden - until, after a long and scenic journey, I arrived at UCT.
Yes. The first time I became aware of being white was when I started working on Upper Campus at UCT. Suddenly, dramatically and inescapably, I was white.
It was there in every glance from every colleague, assumed comfortably and processed without a moment's hesitation. It was there in every conversation, in every passage and parking lot and tea room and office. It was there in the tone of voice, the body language, the space negotiated between us. I was white.
This was, of course, a package deal. Assumptions were made about me that I was dumb to refute - that I'd travelled overseas, that I knew about - and drank - wine, that I knew about - and watched - rugby, that I'd had music lessons and dance lessons as a child, that I'd gone away on holiday and that I'd seen the inside of hotels, that I dined out and knew the social practices involved in "squabbling" over the bill for afternoon coffee. My mother's hard work at ensuring that I said "yes" and not "yis" had clearly paid off - I could pass.
But where her focus had been class, the reality had proven to be.... race!