‘Coloured’ is an ethnic group in South Africa, but not quite so in North America. [Picture: SA Tourism].
The term ‘Coloured’ can either be acceptable or a slur when used to denote a group of people, depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live. A US TikToker had to be schooled on political correctness – ironically after she tried to do the same!
It all started when Simone Umba, a TikToker from Atlanta, US, and of African heritage, posted about the Johannesburg-born singer Tyla Laura Seethal, who recently made it big on the international stage with a recent hit as ‘Tyla’.
“I’m so happy she’s having this moment right now because, listen, [for] Black R&B girls it is hard to get eyes on them. She has all eyes on her and I am so happy,” said Umba, in a well-meaning post on the video sharing platform.
South Africans back home got straight to work. “She’s coloured, not Black. In South Africa there’s a difference,” wrote Bridgette Bester. Before long, the comments section under Umba’s post was flooded with similar comments, many emphasising a point of ‘Coloured excellence’.
Umba, who understands the term ‘Coloured’ as a derogatory reference to Black people used during the age of discrimination in the United States, hit back. Rubbing an eye and shaking her head in disgust, she ranted about “miseducated” South Africans in the comments.
“Y’all really would save yourselves so much time if you check yourselves before you post in the comments. I was gonna say something else but I say, this is miseducation. This is a country barrier difference,” she said in a follow-up video.
“Baby, ‘Coloured’ is what they called the Black people before we got rights in this country. Tyla is multiracial, that is what she is in American terms. Oh, my God! Please do your research,” she said.
Little did she know that South African history, with many parallels to the struggles in the US, had nuances that meant ‘Coloured’ was actually a celebrated culture, a diverse ethnic group, on this end of the planet. Very different from the anger aroused by such a reference in the US.
Another TikToker, Samantha Jansen, dished out some of Umba’s own advice to her. “You really should take your own advice because there’s a reason that people commented. She [Tyla] is not classified Black in South Africa; emphasis on South Africa,” she said.
“You didn’t even take the time to understand. You were dismissive of a whole group of people and their history. What I find interesting, about a lot of Americans, do you guys ever factor in, or even consider, that there are other people outside of America with a history that has to be respected just like yours?”
The backlash did not only come from South African quarters. A Congolese, who goes by the name Queen Latifah Jr on TikTok, took a swipe at the American education system.
“Dear America, is ‘Ignorance’ a subject in your schools? Because every two to three business days we have to come back to this subject of ignorance. You talk about education – clearly the definition of education in America is completely different from the rest of the world,” she said.
But Umba would hear none of it. In several videos following the initial one, she refused to admit that Coloured was a celebrated identity outside of the US. She argued that since Tyla had signed a deal with an American label, her content was to be marketed to an American audience.
“Sweetie, this is not about racial identity … Y’all not seen pictures back in the ‘50s and ‘60s where we had Coloured bathrooms? That was division. That’s literally what we’re saying … It’s so simple, don’t make this complicated.”
‘Coloured’ is an identity in SA
It is true that Coloured is a derogatory term in the US. But, in South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in southern Africa, it is a cultural identity. It is one celebrated by approximately 5.6 million people, including Tyla herself, who belongs to a Coloured family of Zulu, Indian, Mauritian and Irish descent.
Jess Miller felt Umba’s post invalidated the history and culture of a proud ethnic group.
“Stop telling South Africans to do more research on their own history. This narrative that you are pushing is further harming a minority group in this country and invalidating their entire history and culture. I think you thought that you ate with this post, I fear you did not,” she told Umba.
Miller’s point may have raised another important one, in that it might be time that American cultural dominance through television and globalisation be checked. What works in one place may not necessarily fit elsewhere, and it would be unfair to impose certain standards on others.