Being a Black body in a white space is equal parts exhausting and entertaining
I must choose to either tolerate the ignorance of others or delight in their curiosity
This First Person article is written by Misha Maseka, a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in Mohkinstsis Treaty 7 Territory (Calgary). Her story is part of Black on the Prairies, a CBC collection of articles, essays, images and more exploring Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.
It was the first snowfall of the season. I had come to expect it this early after enduring 14 winters in Canada since arriving in 2004. The late October skies would release fluffy, cold stuff inconveniencing motorists, hindering social lives and forcing all to choose function over fashion.
However, this night had to be fashion over function. It was, after all, a gala. I'd wear my winter boots and semi-warm, semi-fashionable coat to the venue, find parking and trudge through the snow with my heels in my purse.
At the bougie ballroom, I headed straight for the back doors. In my mind, the wealthy guests sitting down to a seven-course meal were eagerly anticipating my appearance. I was there, along with three other performers, to provide Ella Fitzgerald-like entertainment as les aristocrates drank their champagne and ate their hors d'oeuvres.
"Schmooze them," my good friend and ally encouraged me. I had her to thank for the gig. She knew as well as I that the opportunity — as the only Black performer in the room — was a delicious one, with a slight dose of poison hidden in the crème brûlée.
But hey, I love dessert and as a racialized woman in the west, what's a little poison but, perhaps, a slight bitter aftertaste?
Being a novelty is something I've become accustomed to.
My globe-trotting Zambian parents made me an outsider throughout a childhood that moved from Eswatini to South Africa to Australia and finally to Canada.
As an adult, my career as a multidisciplinary artist with a background in opera — a traditionally white-dominated sphere — has kept me in a constant state of standing out. Yes, I have the echoes of colonialism to thank for the perceived validity of my career from my family, friends and beyond. Opera has a reputation as art for the "intellectual," the "dignified." So of course, I am applauded for such a career choice.
A little poison, a little pleasure.
I've grown into a chameleon, able to work, create and relate with people of all backgrounds and cultures. Presenting as "one of them" in almost any social situation is second nature now. And ultimately, I love my career journey and am thankful for the tools it has given me in my artistic practice.
But every now and then, impostor syndrome knocks on the door of my consciousness when I realize, yet again, that I am one of few Black bodies in the room. Lucky for me, I am skilled enough to be applauded for my talent and possess a palatable-enough personality to occupy not only the stage but also a seat at the table.
The unbearable stares
At the venue's back doors, I tried the handles but they were locked. The cold air was starting to overstay its welcome as I frantically waved through a window to get the kitchen staff's attention. No luck. I made my way to the front, my chunky boots making me feel like a little kid who insisted on wearing rain boots with their dress on picture day.
I stepped into the tuxedo- and gown-filled cocktail room and slid into the corner to quickly remove my coat and switch into my heels. A moment later, my friend showed up and led me through the crowd of curious eyes and up to the green room.
As a performer and well-versed "new kid," I am used to people staring at me but my reaction to it has remained visceral — the heat emanates from my face, my breath quickens, a thousand thoughts arise as to why they won't stop staring. Perhaps it's the peculiarity of my hair, or the depth of my skin, or the magnificence of my essence. Or maybe it's the horror of a body like mine occupying a space that some perceive it shouldn't.
Moments like these take me back to my first day of junior high in Drumheller, a town in rural Alberta, where I recognized the absurdity of being othered. I had freshly landed from Australia, sounding fully like a Hemsworth and looking like Dijonay from The Proud Family. I walked through curious eyes to my desk, heat emanating from my face, breath quickening and a thousand thoughts as to why my classmates were all staring.
"Misha, please, stand up and tell us about yourself!"
I braced myself for the collective aneurysm my new classmates were going to have as I opened my mouth to relay my rehearsed story. I started, avoiding the wide eyes making sense of the creature before them. Engaging my selective hearing, I pressed on, ignoring the giggles of teens intrigued by the girl with coffee-coloured skin and a funny accent.
Those 30 seconds felt like eternity and then it was over. My breathing slowed, the heat left my face, and my thoughts eventually turned to the math problem on the whiteboard. Lunchtime came and I found myself seated at a table full of girls lit up with warmth and excitement. To my left, my older sister was also seated at a full table. I overheard a boy ask her, "What rap music do you like?" to which she replied softly, "I like Switchfoot."
Blissfully clueless, painfully curious
"What kind of music did you train in? Jazz?" asked the lovely woman with tasteful Botox around her wise and warm eyes sitting next to me at the gala. I smiled slightly and shook my head. "No. I trained in opera."
We found common ground in our love for any chocolate and raspberry combo. We giggled frequently while exchanging anecdotes from our travels. She asked me about my hair and reached to touch it. I dodged her hand and laughed as I changed the subject. I get it. She was curious — something I welcome most of the time, for curiosity leads to knowledge and empathy.
Just like my teen years in rural Alberta, by the night's end, I was energized and exhausted by the attention. In the stares of most of my beloved Prairie people, I don't see disdain or forced tolerance but genuine interest and admiration.
Seemingly, there is a choice to be made: refuse to be weakened by blissful ignorance of those around you or savour the sweetness of their curiosity.
A little bit of pleasure. A little bit of poison.
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