Wednesday 18 November 2009

Choosing Words Carefully

I’ve been thinking a lot about this sign. It’s interesting to me that the English is so much more euphemistic with its ‘Europeans’, where the Afrikaans plainly says ‘Whites’. Where does that leave black Europeans or white Africans?

I grew up in what was, I would guess, one of the least racially diverse countries in Europe. I think that the result of this is that colour never played much of a part in my sense of identity. I never thought very much about my whiteness (except to bemoan the pale Irish skin that went purple in winter and pink in summer). And now I’m in South Africa where, for generations, almost every aspect of people’s daily lives was shaped by the colour of their skin. Learning about the careful definitions of colour created under the apartheid system – that are still very present – has been a wake up call for me.

I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complicated legacy of the apartheid era. But as with stories of other repressive regimes, two things never fail to astonish. The first is the lengths to which science and language were twisted to justify segregation and discrimination – and still there were holes in the system you could have driven a truck through. The second is that, despite all this, the system stayed in place for so long.

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