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.
One thought on “Obliterated Places”
Dear Rumbi (who I think I tutored in psych or hist or some such thing once ☺ )
Please excuse this LONNNGG ramble, it’s just something that happened
I really like your piece for its honesty, it’s lack of pretention and in the way you speak about the personal and the political as they intersect in your everyday life.
This piece has particular relevance to me, being in an inter-racial relationship and having left Cape Town for Johannesburg, at one stage, because Johannesburg seemed to offer a larger number of integrated public spaces. It also interests me because I became frustrated at being the nagging white person who was always associated with complaining, when I found myself in spaces that were exclusively white.
So here are a few thoughts, not answers or scripts- you may be correct in saying that these do not exist in relation to race- but there certainly are clues, historical hints or lines of thought and lessons that possibly can be useful to us.
In terms of how the structures of society contribute to these place-based segregations, I think we have failed hopelessly in, for example, education, which is fixated, in public discourse, with literacy and numeracy rates and textbooks that don’t arrive. These kinds of things are often seen as the only relevant indicators in terms of the quality of education. Teaching our children real lessons about our past doesn’t even reach the agenda in South Africa. I was in Berlin for a week recently and young Germans have received a completely different set of lessons and historically informed consciousness of their history post World War 2, in comparison to what South African children receive in relation to colonialism and apartheid. I think that this has produced a completely different kind of engagement with difference and, I believe, in places like Berlin, a completely different set of public spaces that value diversity. Sure somebody could say “well the Germans already have literacy and numeracy”, but I don’t think it has to be an ‘either or…’
Even more overt, the kind of city that Cape Town has become is based on a City Improvement District model or Cape Town partnership between property owners and city government that essentially renders Cape Town a particular kind of city, one that is different to most cities in, for example, Latin America. Race, class and space in Cape Town intersect in ways that have existed historically and are reproduced in the present.
This is why I think your idea of obliterating spaces may be…problematic. Although you say obliteration is comprised of both destruction and creation, I think we really do need to acknowledge that the present is an extension of the past and that finding ways of transforming rather than obliterating may be more productive. I don’t think we engage with the past enough in this country and I think it shows.
That said, your piece is more directly about the personal, albeit in relation to the political… about what one does in certain situations when feeling different or unwelcome, how does one create a family or raise children (I’m not sure if your or my children will have white identities, by the way, but that’s a topic for another day) in places that are often plagued by issues of representation.
I think that the real, serious question, the one that I think is at the core of your piece, goes something along the lines of:
“How is it possible that a group of ‘decent’, often politically aware white people can sit in, for example, a restaurant in 2014, in a continent that is overwhelmingly populated by a majority of black people, how can these kinds of white people enjoy their food and their conversation, when the only people in this restaurant that are black, are the ones serving them?” (sorry I have made that very convoluted but I hope you get the point ☺ )
I have thought about this question for a long time.
I think part of the justification that such people have includes:
“Things are changing, but they are changing slowly and we need to be patient”
“I am contributing in my own small way through donations, volunteering etc”
“I vote in the elections and am therefore an active member of civil society.”
There often is a token black person in that space, meaning that it is not exclusively white, proof that things are changing- “that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago my dear”.
Since being in my current romantic relationship I can no longer enjoy these kinds of places. I know how my partner would feel in such places and by extension the food doesn’t taste good and the conversation seems fake, taking place in the broader context in which it does.
I think we have to not be scared to be the party poopers- to state the obvious and name the kinds of spaces we inhabit. Maybe that’s easier for white people. I also think we can choose to leave white spaces. Sometimes when my partner has felt uncomfortable we have left a particular space and I think that this is better than enduring. I also think that there are public spaces that are integrated and that we can choose to inhabit those, Obs in CT or Kitcheners in JHB (I still think Capetonians can learn a LOT from Johannesburg).
But maybe we need something bigger, something that disrupts rather than obliterates. Something more intentional- I think of the “I am also Oxford” campaign in the UK or even Obama’s catchy slogan “yes we can”. Maybe we need a “yes Cape Town can also belong to black people” kind of initiative….