One of the reasons I wanted to study in South Africa is because I was thinking that I was going to have an evangelical type of epiphany about my individual racial identity. To the motherland type of situation. I’ve learned a lot since I have been here but in many ways, coming here has presented me with challenges that affect the way I view my own racial identity. (For one thing, here, I’m considered Colored which is a legitimate racial classification). I wanted to sit down with some of the other Black American exchange students that I have met while at UCT and have a conversation – and just maybe we could begin to break down the experience of being an African American student while studying at UCT.
Why did you choose to study at the University of Cape Town?
LB: I wanted to study somewhere where there were a lot of Black people and I was also interested in the activism – specifically social movements. I also really wanted to come to SA but more so UCT because I wanted to immerse myself in a place where Black students were making moves in a different way from my home University.
ME: Like I said, I’m originally from Sudan – I haven’t spent time in an African context for an extended period since I was younger. I feel like as a Black student that goes to BC (a predominately White institution) I found myself lacking experiences and interactions with people of color – specifically Black students who experience the world in the way I do.
JT: I specifically choose SA because I had always wanted to study in Africa – as a homosexual male however, I knew I wanted to engage the country where I choose to study abroad. In Cape Town I knew I would be able to engage in open dialogue about homosexuality and LGBTQ issues. I had seen the protest culture here had gotten so far in terms LGBTQ rights and so I was interested in embarking on that.
How does the racial climate at UCT differ from your home university?
LB: One of the ways I was describing Cape Town / UCT to someone is that it feels like everything here is shouting all the time. It’s just loud as fuck. Whiteness is in your face, Blackness is in your face, poverty is in your face – its kind of like that with everything about the way people live here. There’s always an underlining tension. I go to Yale so it’s also intense – in many ways we have the same intense interactions but it’s not always understood in that way.
JT: What’s interesting about Morehouse is that it’s all Black male university. So in terms of how we view diversity – we see it in terms of socio-economic background, where you come from and what you subscribe to as an individual. So what diversity looks like at my school is a deeper thing, it’s not surface level. At UCT it’s very different because again I’m the Black guy looking to see who I would be cool with. UCT is still racially segregated – I see it a lot when I eat in the café. I think to myself wow; people really do still group themselves based on race. There are exceptions of course but for the most part – race is the deciding factor on where they group themselves. Not so much socio – economic, it’s more complex.
ME: BC is 3.8% black. There is a lot of privilege. There isn’t a lot of room for disagreement from the mold that a lot of students aspire to. At the same time there is a tight black community at BC – there’s a solidarity and unity which has been comforting in a lot of ways. About UCT, overall though, it’s very diverse and it’s a testament to the Rainbow nation of South Africa. In the classroom students are very vocal (especially black students) and they have aright sense of entitlement. I think at BC some students lack that. UCT though still feels kind of segregated – but at the same time the diversity is kind of exhausting.
Here, do you identify more as being an American or Black.
Does race transcend nationality?
LB: I think both – or it depends on the context. I’ve never thought so much about my Americanness so much before. The ways in which being Black for me now – I think I can only think about as a Black American. I think it’s easier to find myself in Black social situations than a White American student would. For me, I really connected with some of the RMF people form an activist’s standpoint – so much of it is similar in terms of experiences and what motivates people to be a part of it. In a lot of those moments I do feel like I’m on the same page – but never entirely.
ME: What I didn’t think about before coming here was how big a role my American nationality was going to play in terms of me being here. I’m constantly reminded the minute I open my mouth that I am American. I think about my privilege – what does it mean to have an American passport, what does it mean to have this accent? People can view me in a certain context and that has been a big part of my experiences here. At first I didn’t want people to just see me as another American but at the same time I’m proud of that, America is my home. Here I’m colored but I don’t think the texture of my hair or shade of my skin makes me less black or less African.
JT: I’m American by experience but when I think of my ethnicity I am a Black man. And I love when I meet a South African, or I meet someone from Zim or Botswana and I ask them what is your ethnicity? They say – I’m Black. When I was coming here – sometimes you try and connect with your roots. In that discovery I realized that we are one still…despite growing up on two different continents. Being black is not just an American thing – its only American from my experience. We share similar experiences despite where we are from – I’m a Black person.
Has your time in Cape Town influenced the way you think about your own racial identity?
LB: As someone who is racially ambiguous – I have a thing when traveling where I look like I don’t belong anywhere – people think I’m Dominican sometimes. South Africa is the first place I’ve been where I look like I could be from here. But at the same time I don’t feel belonging for that reason. Being perceived as a colored person here – I don’t know shit about Colored culture. Its interesting that Colored is a race, it’s a diverse group of people. With that being said, it hasn’t made me feel any less black – but it makes me think of how I own my blackness and what that means for me to own blackness as a person that might not be seen in that way.
ME: I think within the time span that I’ve been here something that has shaped my perspective is my confidence with being a black woman. Whether it’s certain attention I get on campus or people responding to me in a way here – there’s no asterisk that I have to live up to. I feel more comfortable in some ways. Racially I don’t think my core identity has changed but I’ve been exposed to new ideas like, what does it mean to claim that I come from Sudan (a third world country) and what does that mean while still having this accent.
JT: I won’t say that it has changed the way I see myself. As a Black man from America now in Africa – it has just made me want to know more. I have a hunger for the WHY’s now. I don’t know – it’s so complex. It’s funny, at UCT people say they talk about race but you don’t always hear the solutions. It’s a detailed topic. But I wouldn’t say that racially I feel any different but I can say I have gained a thirst for knowledge -wanting to know the whys behind the system.
Story, photogrpahs and design: Malakhai Pearson
Editor: Bilqis Deaney