There's been a lot of conversation lately about people of color dealing with "only one in the room" syndrome in the workplace. But in 2016, it's still remarkably easy to be the only person of color in any given social situation. My Code Switch teammate Gene Demby and I were talking about this yesterday. We've both been to parties in D.C., Philadelphia, LA — all majority nonwhite cities — where we at some point looked up and realized we were "the only one in the room." We live in Chocolate City, for goodness' sake! How are we ending up at all these potlucks with nary another person of color around?
Turns out, it's pretty easy. As the Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham put it, writing about a study on race and social circles released last year, "the average black person's friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person's network is only one percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends."
On Friday, Rajini Vaidyanathan of BBC News wrote about housing segregation in the United States. According to the Brookings Institution study that he references, "more than half of blacks would have to move to achieve complete integration." Predictably, housing segregation leads to racially distinct social spaces even in the nation's most ostensibly diverse cities, and not just when it comes to schools or offices:
"In my reporting across the United States I've seen this first hand — from Louisiana to Kansas, Alabama to Wisconsin, Georgia to Nebraska. In so many of these places people of other races simply don't mix, not through choice but circumstance. And if there's no interaction between races, it's harder for conversations on how to solve race problems to even begin."
This separation, Vaidyanathan says, isn't an accident; it's the end result of decades of governmental discrimination; from redlining, racial covenants and blockbusting. "Decades on from the civil rights movement, many black and white Americans simply don't mix," he writes. "And as the U.S. contends with race problems, getting to know each other better is one step in understanding and fixing some of those problems."
The consequences of housing segregation can be severe. Gene has written about the effects segregation can have on life expectancy, education and incarceration rates.
They can also be intimate and nebulous, and pop up in the most unexpected places, like a holiday party or a Sunday brunch. Statistically speaking, this isn't that surprising.
Over at the Toast, Nicole Chung recently wrote about what it feels like to encounter casual racism in a room full of white friends and family members. Chung was at a post-Christmas dinner at her in-laws' when an acquaintance leaned over the dinner table to share her observation that Chung looks "just like everyone on that show" — Fresh Off the Boat — leaving Chung grasping for words. She hoped that someone would step in and say something, and when no one did, she realized that the pressure to "make sure everyone keeps having a good time" was on her:
"The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends' mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment's discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?"
Reading Chung's piece reminded me of a potluck I was at in Philadelphia last summer with my then-boyfriend, who is white, and his crew of white friends. I had gotten back from the beach a few days earlier and was several shades darker than usual. Everyone was busy gossiping about their summer adventures when one guy turned to me and asked, "So, did he realize you were black when he started dating you?"
In that moment, my instinct was to say something snarky ("Did he realize you were a doofus when he became your friend?"). But like Chung, I didn't want to ruin a good time. So I laughed, poured myself a drink, and let everyone move on.
In the scheme of things, did I experience that socially awkward interaction as a trauma on the scale of white-flight-induced school budget shortages, or the redlining-driven concentration of poverty in black neighborhoods? Of course not. But if we're going to have conversations on the effects of housing segregation, it's worth understanding how the accumulation of decades of racially driven policy may have leached into every aspect of our lives, and how a thorough scrubbing may be in store.