In South Africa, East Asians are both white and black at the same time. Here is how this happened:
For many years South Africa’s white minority governed the country through a policy of apartheid – racial segregation and discrimination intended to favor whites and continue white rule. Under the 1950 Population Registration Act, South Africa’s government classified individuals into three racial categories. These constituted Blacks, Whites and Coloureds. It was upon the basis of these classifications that apartheid functioned. It was also upon these classifications that parts of apartheid quickly began to approach the ludicrous.
The world, you see, is not just composed of black people and white people. South Africa’s apartheid system, however, found it hard to deal with those outside its black-and-white classification scheme.
Indians posed one challenge. Numbering more than one million, their presence derived from the trade links of the British Empire, which included colonial India. For white South Africans, Indians constituted a racial puzzle. Obviously they were not white. Yet it was also fairly obvious that they were not black or mixed. Eventually the government added a new category to its system – Indians (which was also termed Asians), who were deemed as having “no historical right to the country.”
The way South Africa dealt with East Asians was even more curious. Compared to Indians, very few resided in the country; practically all of those few were Chinese. Today pre-apartheid Chinese South Africans (and their descendants) number only about 10,000 to 12,000 – although many more have immigrated there since. For most Chinese South Africans (who were classified as the Chinese group of Coloureds), life was fairly similar to that of an Indian South African: they were discriminated against, but not as badly as black Africans.
South Africa, however, instituted several confounding exceptions to this rule. During the apartheid years, the internationally isolated country was quite hungry for foreign investment. As time passed on, a number of rich East Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – did invest money into the country. In 1962, for instance, Japanese company “Yawata Iron & Steel Co. offered to purchase 5,000,000 tons of South African pig iron over a ten-year period.”
Remember that at this very moment East Asians were still being treated as Coloured, second-class citizens – forced to live in segregated facilities, prevented from going into white-only swimming pools, etc. South African officials realized, of course, that this would not do. To encourage continued Japanese investment, they carved out the “honorary white” rule. Japanese were to be treated, for all purposes and intents, as white. When South Korea and Taiwan began investing in South Africa, this rule was extended to Koreans and Taiwanese. It was not, however, ever applied to Chinese South Africans.
This created quite the strange dynamic. Some East Asian South Africans were white; some were not. Korean South Africans were white; Chinese South Africans were Coloured. If you were Taiwanese, you could presumably marry a white person – but marrying a Chinese person was against the law, which forbid interracial marriage. A Japanese individual could swim in the white-only swimming pools; a Chinese individual could not. When asked how this regulation would be enforced, one official admitted, “It would be extremely difficult for our gatekeepers to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese.”
Eventually, under a combination of international pressure and the leadership of Nelson Mandela, apartheid was brought to an end; it was a proud moment of the century. Under the new system, East Asians were initially classified as white due to the “honorary white” policy. In modern South Africa this is generally a bad thing – the government has instituted a far-reaching affirmative action program intended to reverse apartheid’s legacy. Apartheid-era Chinese South Africans thus waged a long fight to be recategorized as “blacks” – victims too of apartheid.
In the summer of 2008 South Africa’s courts agreed; today apartheid-era Chinese South Africans (and their descendants) are officially black. Chinese South Africans who came after apartheid’s end, however, still are “lumped together with whites.” Finally, most South Africans would probably regard East Asian South Africans as either Coloured or Asian (which generally means Indian in the country).
In other words, an East Asian person can be either white, black, or Indian Asian in South Africa.
Perhaps a better idea would be to stop differentiating people by skin color altogether.