In his historical preface, Noah explains that South Africa’s first mixed-race people were born after Dutch colonists raped indigenous hunter-gatherer Khoisan women. Over generations, Khoisan people intermarried with slaves the Dutch imported from around the world, creating the population later known as “colored.” Colonists completely destroyed the original Khoisan population, and colored people have largely lost track of their heritage; they are culturally much closer to white Afrikaners than black natives.
Although Trevor has previously explained why he was considered “colored” by the apartheid government, here he introduces an important distinction between looking “colored” (racially) and being “colored” (ethnically). The colored ethnic group is at once every race (because they are so mixed) and a single race (because the apartheid government decides so). They are also simultaneously aligned with the colonizers (because of their linguistic and cultural connections to Afrikaners) and with colonized people (because of their genetic heritage and lower place in the apartheid hierarchy). Like Trevor, they show the illogical basis of apartheid racism.
The chapter begins with a “giant mulberry tree growing out of someone’s front yard” on Trevor and Patricia’s street in Eden Park. The neighborhood’s other children pick its berries and play together under it; Trevor has no friends there, even though for the first time he is living in a neighborhood where “everyone looked like me.” He realizes that “it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider”—in joining a world that is not his own, Noah always finds more acceptance among those he is joining than among his own “tribe.”
Although readers might expect that, given apartheid’s consistent emphasis on people’s appearance over all else, Trevor will fit in best with other people who look like him, his preface makes it clear that there is a distinctive colored culture that he does not share—even though he looks like he should share it. He is “an insider as an outsider” among black people, who do not assume he is part of their group but later learn that he speaks their language, but “an outsider as an insider” among colored people who assume he will also be culturally colored but then discover that he is not.
The apartheid government makes colored people “almost-whites” in order to ensure they align with the existing system rather than siding with blacks. “Colored people would get promoted to white” all the time by applying to the government (which would survey them based on appearance) and by disavowing their families and communities. There is also fluidity among the categories of colored, Indian, and even black—people could be promoted and demoted; sometimes white people can even be demoted to colored. And the colored community is incredibly racist, having been taught “that it was black people who were holding them back.”
Just like it uses “divide and conquer” to keep Xhosa, Zulu, and other native populations at one another’s throats, apartheid gives colored people selective privileges in order to make them focus on their comparative high status relative to blacks (and not their oppression). This fluidity in categories proves that race is not an essential part of someone’s being or clear biological category (even if it also means that colored people truly could become “white”).
So this makes it “weird” for Trevor, who is “colored by complexion but not by culture.” Some colored people hated his blackness (his speaking African languages), while others hate his whiteness (his English education and inability to speak Afrikaans, the predominant colored language).
Because colored people have developed a distinctive culture yet remained defined during apartheid by their relationship to blacks (as superior) and whites (as inferior), they cannot make sense of Trevor, who is at once whiter and blacker than them, plus insufficiently colored.
Once, a colored girl “borrows” Trevor’s bicycle so that an older colored kid could steal it—luckily, Trevor’s cousin Mlungisi manages to find them and retrieve the bicycle. In fact, Trevor is “bullied all the time.” The worst is when some older colored boys start taunting him and throwing mulberries at him under the tree one day while yelling, “Bushie! Bushman!” Trevor runs home in tears and tells his mother, who breaks out into laughter—“out of relief,” she promises, because she is relieved to realize the red liquid covering her son is berry juice and not blood.
“Bushman” is a particularly ironic slur for Trevor because his people, the Xhosa, are a Bantu tribe, while colored people are largely descended from Khoisan people (the same group previously called “bushmen”). While this bullying is devastating to him, his mother recognizes the far greater dangers he is liable to face in South Africa, which hints at her deeper fears and motivations for parenting him the way she does.
Abel comes over soon thereafter—he has not been violent with Trevor or his mother yet, but Trevor is already aware of his temper. Patricia urges Trevor not to tell a drunken Abel the story, but he does anyway, knowing he can use Abel’s anger to get back at his bullies. It works: Abel and Trevor visit the boys at the tree, and Abel beats the “ringleader” with a stick. At first, Trevor is overjoyed, but soon he sees “the look of terror in the boy’s face” and realizes that Abel is “a grown man venting his rage on a twelve-year-old boy.” Abel makes the boy come over and apologize, and Trevor recognizes himself in the boy. Later, Abel and Patricia get into a fight, and the boy’s father comes over. Abel intimidates him, saying, “Don’t fuck with me. I will kill you,” and the man leaves.
Trevor recognizes that he intentionally chose to escalate the situation in a way that quickly brought it out of his control; he realizes the true severity of Abel’s anger when he identifies with the bully, which likely makes him realize the threat Abel poses to his family, too. Just like with South Africa’s government, violence perpetuates itself in a cycle, turning victims into perpetrators, and it becomes clear to Trevor that this is neither a healthy nor a productive way to resolve conflict.