Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Half-Caste - a derogatory term?

I met a woman, today who looked interesting and I found myself mentally trying to guess her racial background. I asked of her heritage as I couldn't quite put my finger on it. She spoke with an American accent and looked Hispanic....but Asian at the same time. She said she was half native American and half Caucasian.
I replied, "Oh you're a half-caste?"
It didn't take a genius to work out that she was offended by my comment and said, "you shouldn't use that term"
"No it's derogatory, an old term used by the English of old to socially accept one half and reject the other"
"Oh.....I apologise, what term do you use then?",
"Well first of all I am human, and I prefer mixed-blood rather than half-caste"
"Well I truly am sorry for offending you", thinking to myself, us Samoans use this term loosely and as a matter a fact, as part of common language . Literally translated "Afakasi". I'm actually pretty confident that the whole of polynesia don't have an issue with using this term. Nonetheless, this called for further research when I got home.

So I googled half-caste, and up pops a name...John Agard, so I click on it and stumble on his satirical, and funny poem: (you got to see him perform it to get the full gist). He himself you have to understand had a Caribbean Father and a Portuguese Mother. So he's of mixed race, and obviously has had a gutful of being called "half-caste".

Excuse me
standing on one leg
I’m half-caste.

Explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when Picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather?
well in dat case
england weather
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast
so spiteful dem don’t want de sun pass
ah rass?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony?

Explain yuself
wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at yu wid de keen
half of mih eye
an when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand
an when I sleep at night
I close half-a-eye
consequently when I dream
I dream half-a-dream
an when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
cast half-a-shadow
but yu must come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
an de whole of yu mind.

an I will tell yu
de other half
of my story.

John Agard
So picking up off this poem, I further understood the comment made by Mrs Mixed-blood. Half-caste was coined by the English to accept one half to the social caste and reject the other. In literal terms this concept is ridiculous. But upon further reading, I briefly read biographies of where mixed-blood children (mainly the mixed black/white children) were either totally accepted or rejected by either side of their bloodlines.

Which brought me to ponder on the history of Samoa. So the English referred to the half Samoan/Americans, Samoan/Germans, Samoan/New Zealanders as half-castes? This could only mean that they were accepting of their white blood and rejecting the Samoan blood as if the Samoan blood deduced the human nature of the individual?

For a moment, the term "half-caste" left a bad taste in my mouth, but this has become such a second nature term that possibly we probably should remain silent and not jump on our soap box when we hear our black friends calling each other "nigga", or any other race that uses unscrupulous endearments, when we're happy to use "half-caste" or "afakasi" so loosely.

I've really taken my kick up the bum to heart. So to all my afakasi friends. Don't be surprised when I start calling you mixed-blood.......but then you've got the bloods and crips thing that could possibly link in....oh man you can't win. What do you think fellow polynesians? Should we rethink how we use this term, or don't fix something that doesn't appear to be broke?"



‎"I don't have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don't deh pon nobody's side. Me don't deh pon the black man's side nor the white man's side. Me deh pon God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white." - Bob Marley


  1. I agree that the term "half-caste" has certain derogatory connotations historically particularly in countries like the UK, US and Australia (I was also confronted on using the word "half caste" when I first came to Australia and did some similar sould searching). Mindful of those historical connotations, I don't use the term "half-caste" just as I don't use the term "nigger" (though I find the latter term much more offensive personally).

    I don't agree that the term "afakasi" necessarily does have the same derogatory connotations. While "afakasi" may once have just been a literal translation, I think it probably has developed now past that literal translation, as words do when they are adopted into other languages, contexts and cultures. When I used the word "afakasi" growing up in Samoa, I generally used it to describe people who would describe themselves in that way. Usually these people were of "mixed race" back to colonial days and often drew a distinction between themselves and other Samoans. To be fair "full Samoans" also drew that distinction. In so far as it has been used by people to differentiate (themselves or others) I don't particularly like the term.

    My mother is palagi and my father is Samoan. While I am proud of my ancestry on both sides, I consider myself Samoan. When someone asks me my ethnicity I never describe myself as being of "mixed race" or "afakasi" because that is not how I see myself.

    But who am I to determine how someone else wants to describe their own ethnicity. Perhaps it really just comes down to how the term "afakasi" is used (and in that way it really is like every other word).

    1. Hi Teine Samoa,

      Thanks heaps for that insight. As strange as it seems - afakasi (even though it's literally translated) seems to have less of an impact then "half-caste". Like you, I use it in terms of all mixed=races not just people that are half caucasian. I'm glad that woman brought it up though, it's given me two minds for when I meet afakasi's that aren't Samoan, if you know what I mean?

    2. Thanks for the reply Dave- e lelei foi le sensitivity- I don't know it's something we are particularly known for!!! LOL!!!

    3. Ae a? O le SNAS lou kama lea. Sensitive-New-Age-Samoan.....ia tulou lava (ua e ke sensitve lol)

  2. An interesting analysis on the negative connotations of words so loosely used in modern day society. It really makes you wonder how many people you offend without realising it.

    1. Thanks Anon,

      You're not wrong. Sometimes I think political correctness has gone too far, but I do believe we still need to make room for sensitivity where it's appropriate. I suppose we just have to be aware of the audience and the tone of the environment. Samoans are a joke-loving people so I hope we click on to our more sensitive side.

  3. Not sure if this conversation is still open, I see its 6 years old. I am 33 yrs old and we have only recently discovered my father is 3/4 Samoan (he was adopted and never knew his parents). After doing so searching he was told his mother was afakasi, he always thought that was her name. I randomly saw a twitter post speaking about "Anakasi hair" and i googled it, found this blog lost, now i am enlightened.