Musings on Race, (De)Colonization and Belonging from a Light-Skinned Latina
We were at the famous Mzoli’s Sunday braai (South African barbeque) in Cape Town. Our friends and hosts offered to take us, insisting we should go with locals from the township, like them, rather than on our own. We agreed, as it aligned with our politics, logistics and wallets ($150 Rand less on an Uber). Inside was a madhouse of clueless and inebriated tourists, hyped up locals, and everything in between. We B-lined to the dance floor, and stayed there the whole time, grooving under the hot South African sun to national pop and house hits that everyone around us seemed to know the words to.
I love a dance floor. I love following other people on the dance floor- especially when music comes on that I’m not totally familiar with. I love watching how people’s bodies immediately react, how their movements change, the music seeping in and the expression flowing out. The collective “Aaahh!!! That’s my jam!!” feeling that spreads through a crowd when that song comes on, how heads bob with more vigor and lips spew out lyrics with enthusiasm. People start and imitate and trade dance moves, and it’s a beautiful spontaneous non-verbal dialogue that ensues.
Which was exactly what was happening at Mzoli’s. A beat dropped and I got excited, without thinking my knees and hips responded. Two black South African women next to me, who I didn’t know, were impressed and laughingly said, “Damn! You dance good for a white girl!”. I said, “That’s because I’m not white!”. They said, “Daaaaamn!!!” and laughed. We kept dancing.
This has happened to me a lot since arriving in South Africa two months ago. Not surprisingly, a country with the decades-long legacy of Apartheid would have such a dichotomous black-or-white racial mentality (people of mixed race, or “coloured’s” as they identify here, exist with a lot of discrimination). But for a light-skinned Latina girl, like myself, I pretty much just read as white in most contexts. Like Trevor Noah said, he had never heard of or seen Latinos until he moved to the US.
And, the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong. In my home country of Brazil, I am also referred to as branca, white. It’s only when I am in the U.S. that, all of a sudden, I can legitimately claim the term “woman of color”. What a bizarre way to group a plethora of races and ethnicities as diverse as the rainbow- Brazilian, Nigerian, and Chinese women all automatic allies in the eyes of a racist society. And that’s the thing about race, isn’t it? It’s a construct. I am never more present to this reality than when I travel. When I travel, my race becomes as malleable as puddy. Transforming from oppressor to oppressed with one swift cross of a border. I have learned to not anchor my sense of self too much in my racial identity, otherwise I would feel as fragmented and schizophrenic as the world around me. Which does not mean I am unaware of the privileges I hold in my skin color, or that I am not accountable to or in solidarity with darker-skinned people who have little choice in the matter. But obviously, I’m human, and it takes an emotional toll on me to have to navigate such murky waters all the time.
It also has real implications for the work I do. I am a socially engaged artist whose work investigates issues of gender, race, identity and belonging. For the last month I have been training with the incredible and world-renowned dance company, Vuyani Dance Theatre, whose company members are all dark-skinned black or coloured. I stand out as the only light-skinned person in the room, and with a lot of awareness try to learn the intricate and rhythmic choreography as best I can without looking like “the white girl” in the room. Neither do I want to reinforce an oppressive power dynamic in which they’re supposed to cater to the US “white person” in the room, so I am careful about when and how I speak.
Lately, I have become really interested in this notion of “decolonization”, a term I was employing in several workshops in the US and have been re-thinking since arriving in South Africa. As a light-skinned third world person living in the US, and who comes from a quintessentially Brazilian family (my mother’s grandparents were European immigrants and my father’s Northeastern Braziliain ancestry is a complete telenovela mystery riddled with theories of speculative Arabic origins and possibly made-up French last names to hide our indigenous roots), what does it mean to decolonize the body? Is it possible to decolonize without reinforcing imperialist practices, without erasing the complex and hybrid nature of my culture? Can decolonization also mean an embracing of exactly who I am, a forward-thinking act rooted in personal and collective memory, a way to reinvent and piece together myself while unearthing and honoring those hidden and persecuted parts of myself?
After spending two months in Southern Africa and getting to witness the innovative and beautiful work of many African artists, I am beginning to think more and more that this idea of decolonization is much more futuristic than it is returning to a forgotten past. Sure, there is a reeducation of our traditions, which have been persecuted and lost to a certain extent, but there is also a contextualizing and reinventing of these things- identifying what their use and relevancy is now and originating new ones inspired by the old. Colonization happened to us, and there is no undoing of the past. But colonization is also constantly still happening, through the reinforcing of patriarchal white supremacist capitalist culture. So naturally, our resistance needs to acknowledge both- a calling back to tradition and a creative response to the now.
I am a light-skinned brown girl, Brazilian at birth and in heart and soul, a newly American citizen, a long-time world traveler, a devout yogi of anti-white-establishment yoga in the West, a daughter of Oxóssi and Oxum, a self proclaimed feminist and lover of Beyonce, a millennial active on Instagram and Facebook, addicted to Netflix and refusing to give in to the apolitical, color-blind, narcissistic, YOLO culture of my generation.
These worlds co-exist for me, and everyday I occupy a slightly different position in them. Sometimes, I feel ridiculously overwhelmed by the question, “where do I belong?”. It feels depressingly oversimplistic and cliché, but undeniably haunting. So far, the answer has been mostly non-verbal. It is visceral, expressive, spontaneous movement. Dancing that stretches through my spine and fingertips, that fearlessly takes up space, that pulses to new and forgotten rhythms. Maybe that’s why I dance good, for a “white girl”.