Philadelphia Metropolis

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Race and Roommates

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By Nita Jalivay

When I was a grad student at Temple, I studied a story, one whose details never left me.  In this story, a young black man, Oxford-educated, was living in London and was in need of a new dwelling to call home.  He scoured the classifieds until he found a place, desirable for its location and his budget.  The man called the owner, a kindly British lady, and after confirming the room's availability, scheduled a time to see it.

Then reality struck.  The young man, in all his Oxford brilliance, failed to consider one detail that has far-reaching implications and consequences.  He forgot he was black.  He was highly educated and cultured, and therefore didn't carry his race (that albatross!) around his neck.  But when he rang the bell and stood at the landlady's door, she stared at him as though they hadn't spoken the day before.  In her shock was the tell-tale betrayal, the disbelief that the polished English diction on the phone had given way to this.  The kindly British lady declared the room unavailable, and slammed the door in the man's face.

But that's just fiction, right?  The workings of some sensitive writer's overactive imagination.  When a variation of this story recently shoved its way into my world, however, I received a blunt tutorial on how art imitates life.

I posted an ad on Craigslist, one offering the furnished spare room in my apartment toBlack_Woman_Angry_On_Phone1-378x414.jpg students in need of temporary housing.  My ad attracted a sizeable amount of traffic because of my home's proximity to Penn, its coziness, and the fact that moving in would be hassle-free, as all the utilities were included in the rent.  Scores of people sent me e-mails requesting the room; I fielded offers from Spain, China and New York, and everyone wanted to know if I could please, please, hold the room for them.  I said no; the room was available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Only I broke my own rule.  I received one reply that tugged at my heart, a desperate plea from a mother whose daughter was on the West Coast and couldn't get to Philadelphia in time to find a room for her fellowship.  When I called her, the mother - intelligent, despite her frenzy -

explained that her daughter's prior housing arrangement fell through when the landlord gave the room away at the last minute.  The mother begged me to hold the room, stating that she lived a good distance from Philadelphia and couldn't come until the weekend. She promised to pay the deposit then, or even overnight the check beforehand.  Reflecting on my own mother's concern for me as I traveled and rented rooms around the world, I sympathized with her fears.  I told her I could wait.  Her daughter called me that evening, her voice ringing with relief.  We hit it off and talked for an hour about life in Philly.  I felt heartened by my decision to help her.

When I contacted the mother the next day to confirm our appointment, her tone was altered, distant.  She began questioning me about the "ethnic climate" in my neighborhood, while insisting that "it didn't matter."  When I told her that University City consisted of a mixed population of Asians, Latinos, gays, whites and blacks, as though fishing for the right cue, the mother responded awkwardly with, "I thought you were black."

I gasped, my mouth agape at her brazenness.  Sensing in my silence the rejection of her statement, the mother backpedaled, once again asserting how "it didn't matter" (though it wasn't lost on me that it mattered enough for her to broach the topic in the first place.) 

When I confirmed that, yes, I was indeed black, and asked how she knew, the mother brushed the subject aside with another of her rote phrases on the triviality of the matter.

I pondered whether I wanted to deal with people who questioned my race before they even met me.  After all, her daughter was the one hunting for shelter, not me.  I suspected that the mother had Googled me, pieced together a few details from the web and come up with a composite sketch of my life.  Though I'm a teacher, a writer, and a world traveler, to her I was nothing more than black, despite how much "it didn't matter." 

But maybe I was being too "sensitive", a word often bandied about to describe (neutralize?) complaints of racial discrimination.  As if I needed confirmation that something foul was indeed amiss, the daughter soon contacted me with an interrogation of her own on the race of residents in my building and neighborhood.  What the hell does it matter?!  I wanted to snap.  You're the one looking for a place to live, not them!  Besides, maybe the people here don't want to live around you, the yellow-bellied bigot that you're coming off as! 

I was incensed, but polite in my description of my neighborhood.  I wanted to sack the appointment on the spot, but I needn't worry.  When I asked the daughter if she were still interested in the room, she informed me, "I'm considering other options." 

 

       

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