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“What is Your Race?” Eritrean Migrant Encounters with Racial Identification Questions in South Africa

by Amanuel Isak Tewolde 


Even though there is extensive work on migrants in post-apartheid South Africa, their encounters with racial identification questions on bureaucratic forms and their reactions thereof is understudied. This paper addresses this gap by interviewing Eritrean migrants to examine how they reacted when they encountered racial identification questions on official forms. The results reported here form part of a larger study involving forty-six participants that explored various themes. Participants reported they encountered race questions on forms and interpreted racial identification questions on bureaucratic forms as constructions that are at odds with forms of self-definition prevalent in their country of origin. Interpretations of South African racial categorization system as incompatible with their sense of identity reveals the limits of such categories, particularly in the context of increased migration flows to the country.

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Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His main areas of interest include race, ethnicity and migration, and social development. His current research focuses on informal social protection measures within immigrant communities in South Africa. The author acknowledges financial support from the Centre for Social Development in Africa.