By Nita Jalivay
When I was a grad student at
Then reality struck. The young man, in all his
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 to 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
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
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
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."