A Rose by any other name By Mwelwa Chungu, The AFRican Londoner

A Rose by any other name
By Mwelwa Chungu, The AFRican Londoner

Published on Sat, Feb 16 2008 by Mwelwa Chungu
About a month ago a gentleman called me "coloured". To put this in context he was a 71-year-old Irish man who was trying to be friendly. He did not realise I might possibly be insulted. I wasn't, I understood how at his age he could be confused by the nomenclature surrounding non-white people, even I am not sure what everyone is calling themselves at the moment.

The most interesting thing for me has been the observation of differences in attitude towards certain appellations across Africa and Europe. When I first arrived in London, for example, I worked with a girl of mixed heritage from Cape Town in South Africa who referred to herself as "coloured". She could not understand why people were offended or taken aback. When I lived in Kenya people like her were widely referred to as "half caste" and it wasn't until I read about the caste systems in India that I realise this may be offensive. No one ever batted an eyelid at the reference.

In Zambia they are "point fives", the implication of which I did not consider until I saw a letter to the editor of a newspaper written by someone of mixed race heritage from Zambia iterating that they are a whole being. In Zambia I can understand where this name comes from as the word for a black person in most of our languages could also be translated as person. So my ancestors saw themselves as people and then had to define these beings that though similar to them were still very different.

Indians too, have been called all kinds of things most of them unrepeatable but some of which in some circles have become acceptable. I remember once being shocked as one of my black workmates referred to someone as a "coolie". When I tried to explain to her that this was rude, tantamount to using the N word she told me she told me it was a compliment. It meant that the person was lighter skinned and had "nicer" hair than most other black people.

In a discussion of names black people are tops when it comes to causing confusion because in the end we call ourselves so many things we confound the whole world, including ourselves. There are many people who cannot understand why it is ok for black people to use the N word to each other and yet be offended when someone else uses it. I had an Indian friend at boarding school, who was very into hip-hop and used it all the time. She was almost lynched when she made the mistake of using it in front o group of black girls outside of school.

It is never easy to tell what will offend and what is acceptable. I made the mistake of referring to some Zambian girls as Negroes. Their looks could have stopped my heart. So in the end if everything is acceptable to someone, what exactly is unacceptable? Although there are some things I would prefer not to be called, I tend to feel that I am more than what people call me and will take things in the spirit that they are meant and try to react accordingly.

After all I am more than the designation thrust upon me by others.


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