My mother is white, and my father is black. I always assumed that because of my white skin, I was not really black. And because of my coarse, curly hair, I was not really white. I often get asked what my nationality is. My skin color and hair texture often confuse people. I was never oppressed for my biracial characteristics, but I always felt like I never fit in with the black or white community. Growing up in a predominantly white area, I wanted to be just like the white girls. I wanted straight hair so badly. I have the white skin, so why couldn’t I have the straight hair? For years, I begged my mom for hair treatments that would loosen my curls and make my hair less coarse. The goal was to make my hair easier to straighten so that I could get the pin straight hair I always desired. I wanted to change the way I looked to fit in with the white culture I was surrounded by. My mom would always ask why I didn’t like my hair. “You have such beautiful curls. Why don’t just embrace it?” Truth be told, I don’t know why I hated my hair growing up. Probably because I didn’t want to look different from anyone else. My friends—even my family. When I was little, my father asked me if I considered myself to be black or white. My answer was always white. The color of my skin and the environment that I was surrounded by made that decision for me. Through age and my academic experiences regarding culture, I now realize that my skin color or the texture of my hair does not define a race. Just because I do not have dark skin does not mean I am not black, and because I have coarse hair does not mean I am not white. I no longer feel alone or a sense of displacement. I identify myself as both black and white. I identify myself as biracial.
I fortunately grew up in a time where interracial relationships were not a crime. It may have been frowned upon by old-school conservatives, but my upbringing was not politically influenced in any way. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the character Elizabeth in Bessie Head’s autobiographical novel, A Question of Power. Elizabeth is a biracial native to South Africa during the time of Apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa dehumanized many individuals. Anyone other than the white race was deemed less of a human being. People of color and white people could not eat together—could not use the same restrooms. The separation of people of color and white people in South Africa losely resembled the segregation era that took place in the United States. In 1949, the predominantly white South African government established the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act to explicitly prevent white people from marrying anyone from a different race. The law did not apply to non-white people, meaning that it was legal for non-whites of different races to marry. Angela Thompsell proposed in her article Interracial Marriage Under Apartheid, that “race classification under Apartheid was not based on biology, but on social perception and one’s association.” All races in South Africa that were not white had a lesser societal status, therefore it was acceptable for them to have relations because they were considered equal. A white man who chose to marry a woman of another race took on that race. Society considered him as non-white, and his punishment was to accept the burden of having the poor societal status he was now associated with. The white man and his wife were now equally “non-white,” serving as a loophole in the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1).
Elizabeth’s mother was white, who held a high social standing, and her father was black, who held a lesser social standing. Society in South Africa oppresses Elizabeth because she does not pose white characteristics, and is therefore deemed as non-white. In society during the Apartheid system biracial people were too light-skinned to be accepted as black, and too dark-skinned to be accepted as white, therefore biracial people have no position in society (Helaly 102). The lack of belonging and the feeling of being neglected by various communities in society creates isolation and loneliness. Black women in South Africa faced far more discrimination than black men did.
Head makes it clear in her novel that black woman were victimized from both the social caste system and gender roles by exploiting the struggles Elizabeth faces for both being black and a woman. From a young age, Elizabeth was passed around from one foster family to another. Her white mother was deemed mentally ill for her sexual relations with a black man, and was placed in a mental facility. Elizabeth was first sent to a nursing home, but was returned a day later because she did not look white enough. Next, Elizabeth was sent to a Boer family, but was returned into the system because she appeared too white (Head 19). Society victimized Elizabeth rom a young age for something she had no control over. Being alone and ridiculed boy society for so many years forced Elizabeth into isolation and literal madness. Elizabeth could not find her identity under the Apartheid rule in South Africa and fled to Botswana in hopes to gain an identity—to finally be a part of a community. Finding a sense of belonging would empower Elizabeth in a way she never had before. Unfortunately, “as Botswana society was concerned, she was an out-and-out outsider and would never be on their things” (33). Elizabeth sought refuge in Botswana in hopes to be accepted by society for her biracial characteristics. Yet, Botswanan society stigmatizes Elizabeth for not being white and considers her a less of a human being.
After years of South African and Botswanan societal abuse, Elizabeth found refuge on a farm Motabeng. There, she met various characters of different cultures and races. The color of skin on the farm did not matter-everyone was considered equal. Elizabeth was not defined by her skin color, rather accepted for it. Her peers no longer expressed oppressive behaviors toward Elizabeth. Her tormentors depleted any sense of self—worth Elizabeth had, but her newly found peers helped her restore it. She finally held a particular role in society and found a sense of placement and closeness to others she had always desired. Being biracial no longer existed as a burden to Elizabeth—it was something to embrace and be proud of.
Although Elizabeth and I have very different experiences, we shared one thing—a sense of alienation. Society oppressed Elizabeth for most of her life, causing her to second guess her identity as a biracial woman. I was lucky enough to not grow up in a time period, or part of the world where society would criticize me for being biracial, but the sheer thought of being different from my friends and family was enough for me to second guess my identity as a biracial woman. After all of the struggles Elizabeth had faced, she was still able to embrace her true identity. All she needed to do to accomplish the acceptance of her own self was to surround herself with loving, caring, accepting people. After reading A Question of Power, I realized that I have been surrounded by these kinds of people my entire life. I now know there was never a valid reason for me to feel alienated growing up as a child. I had, and continue to have all of the love and support I need to be comfortable as who I am—a biracial woman.
Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Penguin Group, 2011.
Helaly, Mohamed Fathi. “The Marxist Aspect in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Thompsell, Angela. “Interracial Marriage Under Apartheid.” ThoughCo. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.