I’m a middle class black person who is married to a white person and who happens to live in a hopelessly unintegrated city (Cape Town). It should therefore not surprise you to learn, reader, that I am often The Only Black Person in the Room. It doesn’t often surprise me much, having lived here as long as I have. And yet there are moments when it catches me by rude, violent surprise, the sheer whiteness of these rooms I’m in. I ask myself several questions I’ve asked again and again and to which I have no real answers: How is it statistically possible that I am the only black person, again? Why are white people okay with me being the only black person? What is it about me that facilitates their complete comfort in totally white – and wealthy – spaces, where the only other black people are those serving us, cleaning up after us, and so on? Why am I even in these spaces?
And lately, as my husband and I have been laboriously wending our way towards parenthood, I ask bigger, more complicated questions: Will our children notice that we’re the only black people in the room? Will they be resent me for staying in these rooms and bringing them into them? How will I protect them from the constant rude awakenings involved in being The Only Black in a place? And as our children will carry both white and black identities and will, like their mother, have white people in their family who they love deeply and who love them, how will I teach them to hold all of that together, to honour all of it – the deep, sustaining love and belonging and the existential alienation and loneliness – without feeling like they are compromising themselves or their relationships with the people they love most?
A few years ago, I wrote about being black in an interracial, international relationship. At the time, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had been dating for a year or so, and we were having increasingly fraught conversations about race and identity (people in interracial relationships, I know you’ve been there). I wrote:
Something like four months later, the questions aren’t getting any smaller or easier. In desperation, after one of those gut-wrenching sessions/fights/intense discussions with my partner, I turned to the web (as you do). The results have been disappointing. To be fair, I haven’t looked all that long, or all that hard. But an initial survey reveals sites of two kinds. Firstly, you’ll find reams of heartbreaking stories from men and women whose families are repulsed at the thought of the person they love. They detail their confusion and pain and heartbreak in the face of unrelenting, blatant racism. Secondly, (and I got these sites, when, in tears of frustration, I Google-searched “I am disappearing into my interracial relationship”) you’ll find sites decrying the scourge of miscegenation and the disappearance of ‘pure’ races. Neither of these kinds of sites are my story. The latter for obvious reasons, the former because my pain is different. I have not faced outright opposition of the racist kind. But I worry about a different kind of racism. The racism that refuses to recognise me, with my private school accent, my hair extensions, my social ease in a room of white people, as a black person. The racism that refuses to allow my blackness into rooms where I am present so that after a lifetime of living, learning, earning, loving, playing in these rooms, I am no longer clear on what it means to be black.
Some years and a wedding later, I have built, with my partner a good and true and real home in this international, interracial relationship. But the questions and the pain and anger behind them remain. In a recent conversation with a friend, I spoke of my frustration with the fact that even as these difficult and painful conversations about, race and place in this country happen all around South Africa (and sometimes beyond it), there are still white spaces that stubbornly refuse to entertain these conversations in any real way. And by real, I mean asking difficult questions about one’s own racial identity and one’s relationships with people from other race groups. Questions that have answers that go beyond just having – and often citing – the odd black friend, but those questions that ask about the quality of one’s interactions with people who are not white, and the variety of non-white experiences that are acknowledged and welcomed into one’s consciousness and into the spaces of comfort.
This process demands of white people that they join those of us who are not white in the constant, achingly arduous conversation about race. It demands that they join us here in the place of discomfort, of the unknown, of no answers.
In thinking about how to characterize this place, I am reminded of one of the advice columns American author, Cheryl Strayed wrote under the nom de plume of ‘Sugar’. In it, she addresses a father who lost his young son to a random, tragic accident:
The word obliterate comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means against; literare means letter or script. A literal translation is being against the letters. […] The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there.
The real work of race has no answers and has no script. It means sitting in obliterated places of a kind, having let go of the comfortable scripts and easy identities to come face to face with your raced self and raced others. Thinking of the spaces I occupy as the official Only Black as obliterated helps me make peace with all my unanswered questions. But as Sugar wrote, obliterated places are places of grief and distress. They are made that much more desolate and barren when they occupied singularly. In this case, if the work of race is being done by some and not all, the obliterated place becomes one of fruitless effort. It becomes a version of the place this country’s spirit fought so hard to leave.
That’s certainly no place to live or raise children.