What does it mean to belong?
As a bi-racial woman, is it possible for all my many layers to truly feel welcomed in a white setting?
Who bestows this privilege and who takes it away?
This weekend I was reminded of my Blackness.
I traveled to the city for a workshop titled, “Opening the Heart & Mind of the World: Opportunities for Writers of Color,” hosted by The San Francisco Writers Conference. It was one of the few free events.
The conference took place at this hotel in Nob Hill – an area of the city that has long been the domain of the haves. During my climb up Powell Street, I was made immediately aware that each step brought me closer to the realm of wealth. The cars were European, peeks inside lit homes revealed sleek modern furniture, and on this Saturday night, well-heeled whites traveled in boisterous groups towards some area of fun that I could not fathom.
Upon entering the hotel, aside from the bellman and cleaning staff, most of the faces were white. As it had been some time since my last hobnob in the kind of place where doors are held open for you and a bounty of pens and notepaper are freely available for the taking, I was quite enjoying myself.
Hoops Jumped? Check
I found the location of my session, a grand chandeliered ballroom with a panel of microphones for several speakers, but the room was empty. I returned to the lobby looking for answers and found another Black woman who had a bit more information than I did but was also confused. The session had been relocated to a much smaller room, she said, but still, none of the speakers had arrived. We joined forces and found a volunteer who cheerfully informed us that our workshop had been moved from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
When was the time changed? I asked.
Why wasn’t the website updated?
Did she realize that we had come specifically for this event?
She did not know any of these things. I asked to speak with someone in charge. This was apparently not an option. “Please come back,” she said with a smile.
We went back to the room where two other Black women, who also had not purchased tickets to the $700 conference, were waiting. They took the news expectantly. Of course, the free session for the colored folk was moved to a ridiculous time on a Saturday night and no one thought to inform anyone.
I, on the other hand, was fuming.
Did the event organizers not realize how such careless organization would be perceived – especially in this political climate?
Was our time not valuable?
Had they considered the bravery it might take for some to just show up in this privileged white space? And now, we were supposed to gladly hang out? Impossible.
The other women gathered their things and left. In spite, I considered bailing as well. My time was just as valuable as anyone’s, and I had just wasted over an hour and Bart fare traveling to and fro. But as I contemplated the journey home, a question arose: Who am I really hurting by not sticking this out? This workshop promises information on resources that may indeed aid my writing career. They’re making me jump through hoops, and I resent that, but I will not be dissuaded.
I found one of the only nearby restaurants designated with a one Yelp $ and ate tacos across from a young blonde and her mesmerizing giant engagement ring.
When I returned to the hotel, the session was about to start. None of the three Black women who’d been waiting with me previously returned. I wondered about others who’d specifically arrived for the free session and left because the advertised room was empty. How many would feel as comfortable as I to look for answers in that white space? Should they make it through the first “test” who would stay 2.5 hours for the session to begin? The answer was just me.
When I informed one of the speakers about the miscommunication, she seemed relieved that it was only a few people who had shown up and not returned (that we knew of). As a fellow woman of color, I found this response shocking. Where was the anger? The promise to bring this up with someone who would make sure it didn’t happen next year?
Not as Advertised
I wish I could say that my wait paid off, but it did not.
The session did not discuss writing from the heart or opportunities for writers of color. Instead, the conversation was dominated by two white-appearing individuals — a blue-eyed man who identified as half Chickasaw and an elderly woman with Mexican ancestry.
Much time was spent processing an earlier conference event during which a white woman stood up and took offense to being labeled “white.” “Do other people feel that way?” the other participants asked. “What did she mean?” Having not been there nor interested in dissecting “whiteness,” I remained silent.
The blue-eyed man shared an impassioned request that we step out of our communities to learn about other cultures. This was how he discovered there was such a thing as male prostitutes and was able to interview one, a Black man, for his newspaper. Success stories were shared about communities with racially integrated populations (everyone gets along!), and then the Boomer-age group bandied about the term “post-race” as a description of Millennial attitudes toward race evidenced by cross-cultural eating habits and the prominence of interracial dating.
The dialogue was infuriating.
I sat next to another Black girl who also did not say much. I felt my heart pounding and a lump in my throat – often an indicator that an opinion is about to be shared.
And, I’m Out
When the tension built to a level of intolerability, I offered my two cents with little elegance. I challenged the blue-eyed man’s diverse identity and suggested his white appearance afforded him white privilege of which no brown, black, yellow, or red person would ever receive. He suggested that because his brother was of darker skin, he did have some understanding. I wish I could have then pointed to his domination of the conversation as proof of his privilege, but I did not. Would have truly heard me anyway?
I dismissed this idea of “post-race” and asked for extreme caution in using such a term. Interracial dating and a palate open to a diverse menu in no way suggest racial tolerance or understanding. The wounds of race, a system created to benefit the white patriarchy, can only be understood with a close examination of how social structures support such ideology. Could we think of a single place where this had been achieved? I then got up and walked out feeling bad for abandoning the other black woman who like myself thought she was coming to a session to feel empowered and inspired and was instead silenced.
We thought we belonged, but we did not.
I fought this reality and was put in my place.
How and why did it happen?
Can I Interview You?
Unfortunately, all of this is familiar to me. I’m in the process of examining the idea of belonging at a deeper level.
I’m looking for bi-racial black women who might be interested in speaking with me. All of this can be anonymous and confidential. Please comment if you or someone you know would be open to being interviewed about their experiences of belonging or not in a 1-hour phone conversation. I’ll reach out privately, for more information.
Thanks for “going there” with me,