Growing up in the small town of Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Whitney Cele grew up with a great appreciation for her culture and her people.
“For a long time, I truly believed all Black people were Zulu like myself which shows just how isolated KwaZulu-Natal, can be sometimes,” she says. “Unlike Johannesburg or Cape Town, it is not a melting pot of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds.”
Known for its mix of urban and rural life, Whitney describes the town as “slow-paced and insular” but a province “rich in culture, heritage, and history and full of tribal pride” – something which was instilled in her early on.
“My mother always reminded us of the fact that we are Zulu girls which definitely instilled a strong sense of pride and dignity in us,” she recalls.
“Zulu people love themselves, their heritage, and their community. One’s ancestry is a major part of Zulu identity, knowing one’s roots and lineage is important and it’s like an oral history passed on from generation to generation.”
Whitney was raised in a single-parent household along with her six siblings. The tight-knit family often leaned on each other for support, and she is extremely close with her mother, brothers and sisters.
“My mother lost most of her family at a very young age and we are not very close to our father’s side of the family, so we are all we have,” she shares. “I have three brothers and three sisters. My brothers are the sweetest, gentlest, and kindest men I have ever known and my sisters are badass- so smart, so fierce and brilliant.”
Amidst this close family dynamic, with shared values and pride in their culture, Whitney experienced her fair share of racism in South Africa, which largely shaped many of her younger years and the way she saw herself.
“I have been experiencing racism since I entered into ‘white’ spaces at the age of 5. Unfortunately, racism is a sort of rite of passage for us over there,” she admits.
Alongside racism, the onslaught of gender-based violence faced by women in South Africa was another concern for a young Whitney.
“I recall watching rape and GBV awareness commercials as a little girl about how every 21 seconds a woman in South Africa is raped,” she recalls.
“Almost 20 years later, we are still dealing with barbaric violations of women’s bodies.”
Growing up in a township which was a by-product of apartheid’s racialised spatail planning, Whitney didn’t encounter a white person until she started school.
“After starting school my life has been marred by a series of racial traumas. I had to learn not only the white language but I had to learn white culture and etiquette,” she says.
“I was no longer able to be my full self in fear of rejection or ridicule and the safest thing for me was to be like them.”
This assimilation had a profound effect on Whitney’s identity.
“I no longer went by my Zulu first name but my Engish second name. I stopped speaking Zulu entirely, and mimicked a lot of white girl mannerisms, listened to their music and found only white boys good-looking,” she recalls. “Over time I was unable to relate to Black children in any way and spent all my time with white friends, in white spaces.”
This mindset continued up until high school, where she eventually experienced a shift after encountering more people who looked like her.
“I went to a school that had a denser population of Black pupils and I slowly reintegrated back into the Black community and Black culture and learned how to speak Zulu again.”
This turning point in Whitney’s identity largely shapes who she is today: “I make sure to always question racially-charged remarks and statements made towards my character, appearance, and abilities. I also try to express myself the way I want to no matter how ‘Black’ it may be considered to be,” she affirms.
Whitney spent many of her years in South Africa before making the move to Taiwan where she currently lives.
“I suffered with what I would call situational depression for about two years. I quit my job, after experiencing excessive bullying, and moved back home to try and heal and deal,” says the aspiring writer.
“My oldest sister was an educator in South Africa and moved to Taiwan six months before me to teach English. She was aware of the situation I was in at the time and felt this would be a great way to possibly help me work passed my sadness.”
Whitney decided to make the move and relocate to Taiwan where she currently teaches English – an experience which has been life-changing.
“I had not given the whole thing enough thought – it was a spur of the moment decision,” expresses Whitney.
“I never expected to be in a town that had little to no English speakers and was not prepared to deal with the changes in diet and climate that would have a real impact on my body and skin.”
For Whitney, adapting to this new way of living had its challenges, from adjusting to Taiwanese local cuisine to dealing with the microaggressions and racism she faces currently.
“I dislike the local Taiwanese food so much – I have tried a variety of local cuisines and just do not have the palette for it,” she admits.
“The way food is prepared and paired is so different from the African way and I just have failed at acquiring a taste for any of it.
“As for the people, I have met people who have treated me with contempt. I hate being stared down and somewhat examined when I step into a train or walk into a restaurant,” she says.
Being Black and African in Taiwan has meant Whitney has had to deal with the negative perceptions of Africans in other countries and the persistent anti-blackness that follows.
“Teaching a foreign language in a foreign land has been one of the most challenging tasks I have taken on in my life.
“I am reminded often of my Black skin and ‘weird/ugly’ hair by students and I’m sometimes referred to as fat because of my curves and body shape, she reveals.
“I have had to work extremely hard to build rapport and earn respect as a teacher in Taiwan.
“But I have also met the kindest and most accommodating people who are willing to go the extra mile to make sure I feel accepted and worthy.”
Whitney’s time in Taiwan has been a learning curve – but she is still enamoured by the beauty that the country has to offer.
“I have explored more of Taiwan than I have my own country because of how affordable, quick, and easy domestic travel is whether it be by bus, train or plane.
“My favourite place so far has been Kenting, a National Park – it’s breath-taking,” she says.
“I also frequent Taichung city, it’s one of the closest cities to me. It’s beautiful, fast-paced, and mellow at the same time and I forget that I am an ‘other’ whenever I am there because everyone is too busy enjoying their life and looking good.”
To find out more about Whitney, follow her Instagram