Black in white spaces: racial segregation in Melbourne and Manhattan

Again the oboist played an A, and this time the woodwinds tuned, and they were joined by a flurry of strings. At last a signal came from the stage, and a hush fell on the hall. Almost everyone, as almost always at such concerts, was white. It is something I can’t help noticing; I notice it each time, and try to see past it. Part of that is a quick, complex series of negotiations: chiding myself for even seeing it, lamenting the reminders of how divided our life still remains, being annoyed that these thoughts can be counted on to pass through my mind at some point in the evening. Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbutu man who was put on display in the monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question. Simon Rattle, smiling, his curly hair bouncing, came onstage to applause. He acknowledged the orchestra, and then the lights dimmed further. The silence became total and, after a moment of anticipation, Rattle gave the downbeat, and the music began.

Open City, Teju Cole, pp 251–252

 

Teju’s fiction is set in Manhattan, but it may as well have been my Melbourne life. Even these days when I am fortunate enough to live in a neighbourhood that is racially diverse, enclaves of racial homogeneity appear, as a result of family income* required to participate in activities.

I wanted to write about the daily experience I have walking into my children’s school. But Teju Cole has written the experience already: the whiteness around; noticing the whiteness; the energy used trying not to notice the whiteness; the energy used pretending not to notice the whiteness; no sign of the white people being hindered by, or even noticing, the whiteness of the space. Periodically, a stray comment will betray someone’s stereotype of me, reminding me that I am not white.

I don’t get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga. But I do recall a childhood friend who once confided that she was glad to know me because knowing a Black girl had shown her what Black people are like. The implication being that I had been educational for her and that she was less racist than she would otherwise have been. I am educational. Being Black is educational for me also, but there is a cost.

 

*I mention wealth as a determiner of racial segregation because that is what I witness most frequently. Teju’s observations about white culture also hold in Melbourne.

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