What’s it like to be mistaken for being a different ethnicity than you actually are?

Imagine spending your entire life being completely mistaken about your own ethnicity.

Answer by Rory Young:

Imagine spending your entire life being mistaken of your own ethnicity.

I was born in Zambia to “white Rhodesian parents” and I was surrounded by racism from a young age. Questions of race and racism have been a constant frustrating issue that I have learned to hate with a vengeance. Some of my own family are unrepentant racists.

I was taught that I came from “the best pioneering Rhodesian stock”. My father was particularly proud of this. I once told him that a teacher had said I was cheeky. His reply was, “Tell her it’s because of your good breeding.” Such extreme arrogance either rubs off on you insidiously over time or violently repels you.

Imagine my surprise then to find out I have black African blood running in my veins…

I have a pretty flat nose, made more so by having been broken early on, but am otherwise very pink with green eyes, and although I am now as bald as a coot, I once had soft straight hair. As a child I was blonde, as were all of my four siblings and all are either blue or green-eyed, but my hair turned black as I reached adulthood and then began to retreat at great speed. One sister has always been blonde and blue-eyed.

Both my parents were very obsessed with their genealogy and both came from “old distinguished families”. Yeah, well mostly it would seem…

My father was always very vocal about about the illustrious history of his father’s family, but not his mother’s… My mother went on very much the same about her mother’s family, but was deafeningly quite about the origins of her father’s family.

As I grew older I began to find the skeletons in the closet most interesting, and eventually, quite recently, absolutely fascinating. I discovered that my mother’s mother’s family had been loyalist Irish Catholics (and Episcopalian when it suited them) and my father’s family had originally been rebel Irish Protestants (and then produced Thomas young, the nastiest of my ancestors, a brutal enforcer of the crown in Northern Ireland – or a great hero depending on which side of the blurry line you sit).

I decided one day to look look my father’s mother’s background and lo and behold! He had mentioned her parents had been “Frenchmen”. He failed however to mention they were also gypsies. This was getting interesting…

I was never particularly curious about my mother’s father’s background. I knew that they had originally been 1820 settlers. These were poor Englishmen mostly who settled in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. I knew that my grandfather’s particular lot had moved to Natal (Zululand), but that was it really. His father had been a mathematics professor and his brother was a physics professor, but other than that they appeared to be relatively uninteresting.

And then one day I was reading about the results of DNA studies on the Afrikaners (South Africans of mostly Dutch, German and French Huguenot descent). A study that had discovered that not only were Afrikaners an average of 7 percent Sub-Saharan African. Some far right wing racists in South Africa desperately try to refute this, and the gymnastics they achieve and the lengths they will go to to do this are quite hilarious. There was even an incident in South African parliament in the early 1980’s, after the release of the first revelatory study of church records which clearly showed an admixture of both African(6–12%) and Asian blood (+-2%), when one legislature punched another for saying “The Van Wyks are black!”

I continued reading, laughing quite heartely, and then there it was, “the descendants of the 1820’s all have sub- African admixture. And then, “most notably those who migrated to Natal”.

At first I was simply too surprised to speak, but then the laughter began and simply wouldn’t stop. The more I thought of all my snotty relatives sitting around waffling about being “good Rhodesian pioneer stock, but failing to mention the fine Zulu coursing through their veins.

I will be taking great pleasure in pointing out to horrified relatives that they are in fact not white after all!

What's it like to be mistaken for being a different ethnicity than you actually are?

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