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  • Chanté Devnarain

Growing up in the diaspora: A South African Perspective

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

The White Gold of South Africa

African heart. Western mind. Eastern Soul.

Westernised, but traditional. Indian, but African. South African Indian.

What are you? Where are you from? Why do you talk like that? So, your mum is Indian and your dad is African? You must be “black” since you’re from Africa. You’re African?! Why is your hair straight? – This is the kind of ammunition the outside world uses when they see people like me. But is it really ammunition? Racism? Or is it just the world being intrigued by something they don’t know enough about?

What am I? Well I am South African Indian. A descendant of colonial India. My family originated from Bihar, India and were migrant workers and gold merchants. My family tree started under the British rule and 5 generations later, in 1995 was born free under the glorious African sun. Yes, I have pure (Indian) blood, but am just enriched with African soil, if you will.

Growing up as one of South Africa’s minority race groups means I get to wear beautifully designed saris, tie Rakhis on my brother's hands, eat all the burfee my heart desires for Diwali, but my skin tone is still "too dark". Some of my fellow Indian sisters out here still can’t tell their parents they want to marry another woman and some of us are still seeking the approval from older generations who we don’t even know, only because we are afraid to have our self-esteem shattered by people who make us feel like it is wrong to wear short dresses or move in with a boy before marriage. So how "modernised" or "different" is it really?

South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. Being South African crowned me as a native English speaker, something the world recognises as a superpower these days. It has also allowed for multicultural doors to be opened, literally on my doorstep. Crazy. So grateful for this unplanned cosmopolitan world called my life when I look at it from this angle.

A South African Flag next to a pair of Indian style earrings all on a brown background
Artwork by @runsimrxn

Growing up in the diaspora for me means I face all the exact same challenges that Indian girls around the globe face just with an extra spoon of masala, and a few added twists. On top of the typical traditional Indian challenges that we read about on a daily basis, South Africa also comes with its own. It’s dealing with skin colour issues: on the Indian side of life, you’re not considered “beautiful” because your skin is dark. Whilst on the other hand your skin colour is the minority of a country’s population, so you aren’t noticed when it comes to certain job positions, state benefits or even getting accepted into university. Skin colour is wealth. Skin colour is everything. In South Africa, skin colour is “extra” it’s anything but a basic bitch. And your fortunes fluctuate - one day you’re not “white” enough and the next day you’re not “black” enough. Didn’t see that coming did you? It’s not only dealing with different shades of brown, it's dealing with the rainbow. The rainbow nation. Yes, pun intended.

So where does an Indian South African fit in? She doesn’t. She stands out and makes a place for herself. At least, that’s what I did. After realising very quickly that it was me up against my heritage and my home country it became clear that archaic issues need to disappear, and if not from the world then at least from my life.

Everything an Indian girl is "not supposed" to do, I made sure I did it. I travelled alone, I slept in my boyfriend’s bed, and I’ve had hangovers. Short dresses are my favourite and I were bikinis on the beach. I smoked cigarettes in public and come home when the sunrises on a Saturday morning. "So what?" has become my favourite line. I do these things to prove that it’s not about being a girl or being Indian or modern; it’s about accepting us as humans. We should not be defined by the colour of our skin, gender, nationality or cultural traits - while they do play an important role in who we are, they should not define us. You define you.

Being mixed with the fruits of South Africa has made it a little easier to broaden the narrow minded generations. Thankfully. However, if I lived in India today, with such a tall criminal record, I would be imprisoned by society for bringing shame upon my family name. Again, I am grateful for a cosmopolitan life.

The above deeds are frowned upon in a typical Indian society, but an Indian make-up artist telling me that she is going to make me look a few shades lighter onset of a photoshoot is okay? Is it just me? Or does society need to get out more?

Growing up in the diaspora has exquisite benefits when it comes to modernisation and “living the American dream” but it’s magnified some of the biggest social issues that the world faces. Everyone deals with colourism, racism, and society acceptance and family approvals on some level. Growing up in the diaspora is having to deal with it both as a traditional Indian and as a modernised South African. Two different levels. Chameleon superpowers y'all.

Two very different parts of the world have joined forces and is known as the world I wake up to everyday. How is society going to ruin my day today?!

*Clarification: Not all South African Indians feel the same, this is based on my life and experiences.

You can find Chanté here

The words in this post are the reflection of the sentiment felt by the author and are in no way meant to intend harm or generalise the experiences of minority groups in South Africa. We encourage the right of the freedom of expression and encourage our community to share their opinions and stories.


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