Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town
The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.
When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.
While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…
A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.
Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.
The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.
To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.
You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.
Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.
Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:
> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.
> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.
> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?
You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.
Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.
Here’s what I’ve done in the past:
> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.
> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.
> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.
I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.
And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.