Where are you from? 'Playing White' under Apartheid, by Ulla Dentlinger
This is Ulla Dentlinger's introduction to her book "Where are you from? 'Playing White' under Apartheid", where she describes the effects of hiding away the facts of her descent and the various reactions she has experienced in different places.
People often have difficulty placing me. When I lived in the United States with my family, Oregonians were intrigued by my accent. They thought it sounded British. When we travel in Europe, nobody would suspect I am anything but European. In South Africa, people agree that I might be South African - but they also detect something indescribable that slightly sets me apart from them. When I switch into clear Afrikaans, they might smile in acceptance. But what takes the cake is when I speak a few sentences in Khoe, a local Namibian language. Now they become confused. "So, where are you actually from?" they will want to know. To them this seems a simple, obvious question. Try as I might, I am not able to give them an equally short and simple answer. For me a whole lifetime is contained within that question. I have a story to tell, of which the gist is this: While growing up in rural Namibia in the mid-1950s, my parents did the unthinkable. Knowing we were of mixed heritage, yet wanting the best for their children as all good parents do, they arranged our schooling accordingly. They sent, first me and then later my sister, to white schools. Possibly encouraged by their initial success, all four of us went ahead and lived white lives. Had we now "jumped the colour line"? By various obscure and not well-documented processes - convinced they had to be secret - we believed we had changed our racial classification from "coloured" to that of "white". We juggled colour. At the time, being white was a highly desirable status to have; in fact, it was the most desirable status. Now, some fifty years later - and twenty years after the dismantlement of apartheid - it becomes ever harder to say what advantage it brought us. As the world at large becomes ever more diverse, who can say it is better to belong to one group than to another? Who can today even categorically say: "I belong to ethnic group A, while my neighbour belongs to ethnic group B"? Do we even have to belong to groups? At that time, though, this private family reclassification which we took upon ourselves was certainly not something done lightly. It was a step fraught with uncertainty, even danger. The price we paid was anguish, constant fear of detection and a sacrifice of family connectedness. The decades-long process of subsequently becoming comfortable with my new identity was psychologically so unnerving that I have only recently felt free to talk about it. This is certainly the first time I ever write about it. On 21 March 1990 Namibia became independent, thereby officially ending its mandated status to South Africa. On 27 April 1994, apartheid was officially dismantled in South Africa, a result of the first free elections since 1948, with the African National Congress replacing the Nationalist Party. People born after these two dates (often called the "born free" generation) have thankfully been spared legal colour discrimination and are sometimes unable to relate to apartheid as it once existed. It is hard for them to imagine that only two decades ago there were certain schools for white children in South Africa and others for black children, that seating arrangements in buses or in trains were reserved according to colour, that certain jobs were allowed to some and certain salaries prohibited for others, that there were legally prescribed places to live and partners to choose from, all of which was determined by the tone of your complexion or the texture of your hair. [...]
This is an excerpt from Where are you from? 'Playing White' under Apartheid, by Ulla Dentlinger.
Title: Where are you from?
Subtitle: 'Playing White' under Apartheid
Author: Ulla Dentlinger
Series: Lives Legacies Legends, Vol 12
Verlag: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Carl Schlettwein Stiftung und Brandes & Apsel Verlag
Basel; Frankfurt a. M., 2016
ISBN 9783905758795 / ISBN 978-3-905758-79-5
ISBN 9783955581862 / ISBN 978-3-9555818-6-2
Softcover, 17 x 24 cm, 144 pages
Dentlinger, Ulla im Namibiana-Buchangebot
Afraid of beeing asked 'Where are you from?', the coloured (German/Khoe) author's strategy of 'Playing White' under Apartheid, was a risky option.