This is my 6-word story. As a child of white South African immigrants, my childhood was a blend of American and African traditions. I was born in Illinois, but when my classmates in elementary school asked me if I was American, my response was always “no. I’m African.” At this time in my life, that was true for me. I spoke with an accent, ate South African foods, and wore African hand-me-downs from my older siblings who had been born there. But as I grew older, I began to realize that I wasn’t as African as I thought. For one thing, my parents were descendants of the colonists who had destroyed South Africa while simultaneously stealing its rich traditions. Because I hadn’t been born in South Africa, I never learned Afrikaans, my mother’s native language. I had no real memories of Africa, besides those fuzzy ones from a trip my family took when I was 3 years old. My connection to my culture was beginning to feel fragmented, even false.
Once I stifled my South African accent and began dressing like my peers, I became as American as the rest of them. However, the Montana Race Project has opened my eyes to another issue, that of cultural appropriation. In an age where people are increasingly polarized on the concept of political correctness and racial sensitivity, cultural appropriation, or the negative adoption of minority cultures by white people, is becoming a more prominent issue. In the interest of cultural sensitivity, I have made a conscious effort to reevaluate the ways in which I view cultures other than my own. However, on the other side, I have parents who are hurt by my hesitance to blindly participate in our African traditions. Without proof of any immediate damage to native cultures, they take no issue with appropriating them, but I feel as though there must be a less harmful way to exist as a white South African.
I am not sure how much my African heritage conflicts with my race, and how much harm that can cause to native South Africans. The fact is that my family is white. Despite our good intentions and celebration of the culture we were raised in, some of the more African traditions we adopted were ripped from native cultures when South Africa was colonized. I am left conflicted. Continuing to celebrate my African heritage feels inauthentic, as the traditions of my family do not necessarily belong to them. The African art and heirlooms in my house have been passed down for generations, but I am hesitant to love them as I did when I was a child. Were these artifacts given freely to my ancestors? Or were they, like many of our traditions, stolen without context? These objects and traditions were a large part of my childhood, but there is a much sadder history buried deep within my family tree. As a result, I am left unsure in my own identity. I am white. I was born to South African parents. I am American. But I am never sure how African I am.
-Chloe Reynolds, who participated in “The Montana Race Project: Everyone Has a Story” for DiverseU 2015. The project is led by faculty advisor, Kathy Weber-Bates who teaches Diversity in Media in the UM School of Journalism.