Home > Uncategorized > The Merits of Discomfort

The Merits of Discomfort

I’m a bit bothered by what you did the other night my friend said. I found it weird and I think others did too. Okay I say and it was weird. The whole thing was weird. Do you think people were uncomfortable I ask her. Yes. Good I say. I was also very uncomfortable. And maybe that’s okay.

What happened is a good friend of mine celebrated his birthday and he gathered about twenty people to do so with him. It was a beautiful night in Cape Town, it would later rain but we all arrived dry as far as I could remember. It took me a few minutes to notice what I often notice, that apart from a mutual friend, Wiedaad, I was the only bit of coffee in the swirls of cream. I mean there were people with serving trays and aprons but they weren’t guests if you know what I mean. What I didn’t notice is that it really bothered me, it surprised me even though I’m a Capetonian – unless I’m a guest at a black friend’s party I wouldn’t expect anything different. It did bother me though. It was a kind of stone that dropped and then sunk to the bottom of me somewhere and would grow steadily heavier as the night progressed.

But everything was still fine then, no weirdness, wonderful people all around, really; the kind of stuff you get at parties, a lot of laughter, cool music. Every few minutes an obliging man with a tray of food walked past. And there was a make-shift stage set up for the amazing talent at the party – singers that would be performing later. The singing, actually, was the specialness of the night. The celebrant himself has stacks of talent and it was fitting having live performances. During one of the songs I looked around, people were crying, genuinely moved. I was too. I was pretty comfortable enjoying the music until the birthday guy suggested I sing. I didn’t want to sing. I’d recently convinced myself, in the way one does, that I can’t sing, I was embarrassed and not a little intimidated by people I thought really could sing. No, I said. And I said it vehemently enough that they left me alone.

The party continued. During an interlude another singer, lead singer of a much-loved band, came and asked if I’d sing with him in the next ‘set’. Sing what? Ah nothing hectic just some blues. I have a terrible affliction called being nice, it means I lie, I say yes when I really mean no. So the next set comes around. By now the stone is heavy. Why should I have to sing, and why should I sing his stupid song that I don’t even know? How easy it is for him to sing his song that he wrote for crying out loud but me, the woman who does not sing for a living, should come and make something up. If I were a cartoon I would have had smoke coming out of my ears. Except I wasn’t a cartoon, I was a girl at a party about to do something weird.

The singer did his bit and called me from the crowd. My feet walked to the microphone but my mind was trying to get them to run away – feet are so uncooperative at the times you need them most.
I don’t want to sing the white man’s song, I said. I’d thought it sounded funny enough in my head except no one laughed.

And there was the weirdness of the night. There, I’d said it. He didn’t quite know what he’d heard so I had to repeat it. Something sliced through the room. That age-old wish that floors had throats that could swallow you whole. That age-old truth that they don’t. I’d upset the singer, I could tell. He shrugged and played the tune I was meant to sing to. I took a breath and sang some stuff that I made up on the spot. I didn’t think about it but I sang the deepest notes I know how to sing, I made the words up, I sang heavy notes. I felt trapped somehow. I looked at the crowd, people looked at me with a bit of crazy-wonder. Not sure what they were thinking, would rather not guess. I finished. People clapped, maybe because they have to. He said something about white people not being bad after all.

It was all wrong though. It had come out wrong. I didn’t want to sing, that was one thing. And I was upset because no one was noticing or talking about what I was noticing – that was another.

The night carried on and I danced as much as I could because I had the hope that dancing would fix things, fix the wave that went through the room when I said the word “white”. Fix the broken. I felt so uncool, as if by mentioning race I’d somehow let the side down, we’re all good people here, we’re beyond that aren’t we? But are we?

And then a few days later my friend calls to ask for some kind of explanation or whether I’m okay and need to talk. And there is that stone again, heavy. No I don’t want to talk. If I bothered people, good. If I made them uncomfortable even better. I don’t know what it means that this is upsetting for me. Do I basically want my white friends to have more black friends, is that what it all boils down to? I don’t like that conclusion, it makes ‘black friends’ sound like a collector’s item which for some people it is. What a mess. And me? What does it say about me that I have all these white friends who have me as their black friend? Or maybe they have more stashed away somewhere else – just never at the same parties. Maybe I just want evidence that something is changing but in a true way, that people are integrating, that Cape Town is moving somewhere and not staying stuck.

My only certainty is what a friend shared with me. She, a white psychotherapist, worked in Khayelitsha for a short while. She had consultations with people who were hungry, she said, who were starving. The chasm between driving to her home and then driving to work each day almost made her go mad. These two worlds living side by side. And in Cape Town it’s so easy to not notice that chasm. You can ignore the N2. You can miss it and remain comfortable. You can have parties and not wonder. My same friend said it was only at one of my own parties that at thirty-something she ever had the experience of being the only white person at a birthday gathering. Good, I thought. I’m glad you got to experience what I experience all the time in Cape Town. She admitted to being intimidated and vulnerable that day. To being uncomfortable. But she acknowledged that discomfort. In fact, she said, after her experience of working at Site C she had never been comfortable since and she had no desire to ever be again. Life is uncomfortable, as is the truth.
I probably did misbehave at the party, I probably do owe the hosts an explanation. But when I feel like making myself noble, I prefer to think that all I did was bring some much needed discomfort. I could certainly have done so with more eloquence, I doubt my message got through to anyone. I didn’t have a message. Maybe I’ll work one out soon and I’ll know for next time. Except I don’t really want to have a message. I’m tired of having to explain. I just want to go to these parties and have other people notice what I notice. I want my friend to call me not to find out what’s up with me but to find out what the heck is up with Cape Town and these parties where I’m the only black chick – surely that is what is weird.

  1. Susanna Coleman
    October 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    So sorry that you had to feel all that, and yes, it is wierd. Not that people should look for collector’s items, but at least be more open to making a connection in social settings. Capetonians really do stick quite fiercely to their comfort zones!

  2. Chaany
    November 16, 2012 at 5:49 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed the way you expressed this experience you had at the party. I’m sorry you experienced discomfort. But I can appreciate the need to embrace the discomfort that comes with life. Well written.

    • November 16, 2012 at 11:10 am

      Thanks Chaany, for reading and commenting! I appreciate it.

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