The Only Black Person in the Room, by Lisa Teasley

What that means and how that feels

Belonging was a concept I could long neither feel nor grasp. Eight years ago while on a yacht circling the Marina del Rey channel, I answered my then white German partner why I didn’t know anyone besides the hosts of this party, and how common this was. I had often seemed to be that one Black friend or acquaintance who gets invited to the housewarming, birthday, wedding, or otherwise important occasion of even a casual white acquaintance. My partner had spent the last six or more months getting to know my family, my close friends, and now my acquaintances, and he was feeling sorry for me that I was frequently the only Black person in the room.  After I told him this has been a theme throughout my life—singularly integrating spaces—I had a more conscious conversation with myself about what that really meant, and how that really feels. If one’s Blackness rather than one’s being comes first as a signifier to the outside world, then does that become the psychological signifier in the mirror—even for a person who has been on a serious spiritual path for many decades?

Born and raised in Los Angeles, with seven childhood years in Durham, North Carolina, and seven adult years in New York City, I always considered myself a product of integrated terrains if I looked at the forest and not the trees. At my predominantly white elementary school in the wealthy gated area of Bel Air—where I was bussed from my all-Black neighborhood of Baldwin Hills—they called me “Treesley” since I was the tallest and had a big fro, as this was the Seventies, and that particular moment of Black Power when the word “Negro” had long fell from favor. Treesley was not a bad nickname but at the time I didn’t see myself as a tree or as powerful. It didn’t feel like the compliment it feels to me now, as I am a passionate lover and hugger of trees and spend as much time as possible in nature. Back then in grade school I felt like a protuberance, like my very presence was a disturbance.  The feeling went beyond Kermit the Frog’s song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” 

My father—who died only two weeks ago during the writing of this piece—was a math genius from Cleveland, Ohio, and went to the HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] school Fisk University in Nashville when he was fifteen years old. When he attended Occidental here in California for his graduate degree, his white roommates sincerely wanted to know if he had a tail. They were not actually being cruel, he said; they were rather going on rumors, as this was the Fifties. This kind of ignorance is astonishing and yet ignorance still lives large with us all in society. When Dad went to work in the space program, computing trajectories to the moon in an entirely white space, a visiting German scientist who befriended Dad let him know about all the meetings he wasn’t being invited to and exactly how thick was the glass ceiling. My father left within a few months of confirmation that being the only Black person in the room also meant being the only unequal in the room. He joined the historic Black-owned insurance company Golden State Mutual, where he climbed the ladder from actuary to Chairman and CEO.

Unlike my American father, my mother was an immigrant from Panama, and what some would call “Blatina.” Her cultural influences were West Indian, specifically Trinidadian and Barbadian, as well as British, as they were the ones who taught in the American-run Canal Zone schools, policed by Jim Crow law thanks to the American Southerners who lived there in the 1940s and 1950s. She was taught that white people were superior, and she accepted the separate fountains, the back door entrances, and the back wings of theaters.

Which is why by the time I was a freshman at UCLA in the Eighties and living in the Christian Science dorm where I met my first love, my mother told me he would not be allowed in the house. This took weeks of convincing her otherwise on my part. But meanwhile, the women’s CS dorm members voted to kick me out only a few weeks before the end of the semester for having the door closed, rather than ajar, when my first love from the men’s house came to my room to discuss our summer plans for Carmel. I remember the Sunday school teacher—I don’t remember now why they put eighteen-year-olds in Sunday school rather than in church—saying to me plainly, as an intelligent, empathetic white man, how sad and shameful it was that the dorm had never accepted me or allowed me to belong. Most of the girls were from Simi Valley, where the Rodney King police trial was held, a town widely known to be where many white cops live and retire.

Being singled out in school for not belonging was something I first felt strongly during kindergarten in a white private school in Durham, North Carolina. I felt the intense oddity of being the only dark brown body in what was a beige and pink student body. I felt large, different and awkward, almost monstrous, though I had a very kind first-grade white female teacher who nurtured my writing. This near inner-monster theme continued through the age of seven, when we moved back to L.A. and I was bussed to the Bel Air elementary school, when during that first trip up the hill rocks were thrown at the barely full bus of Black kids, making clear we did not belong there either.

As an avid hiker, I have often gone hiking with the local Sierra Club. Once when in the Pacific Palisades, the Santa Monica mountains, I was asked by one of the white male leaders of that hike what high school I went to, and where I lived, which prompted the quick and correct assumption that I had been bussed. He then complained that his son had his neighborhood Palisades bus taken away in order to bus in “people.” I took offense, wrongly or rightly, to his bringing up a problem he experienced some years ago (as his son is now in his thirties or forties if I remember correctly) and how someone like me decades ago had been in the beginning of this wave of change. It was Burt Lancaster and some other Bel Air residents who got together with my father and other influential Black men to privately back the bus, and the city took over the year later. I walked away from the hiking leader for placing this integration policy grievance on me. When he caught up with me—as I was the only Black person on this hike, as I had been every time I’d gone—he apologized and asked if this would stop me from returning. It almost did because it punctuated how much I did not belong, but I persevered.

For most of the past eight years I lived in Venice beach, renting my sister and her husband’s house when they left for New York for her job with Open Society.  I never felt welcome in the neighborhood, with the exception of the kind surfer who grew up there and became my walking pal. There was a cold distance with most of my white neighbors. As the years progressed it seemed to get worse, as Google had moved to Venice, as well as more app companies, and an even more exaggerated and young white privilege moved in and permeated the cold vibe of the neighborhood.

At the beginning of this year I moved to Jefferson Park, where the neighborhood is predominantly Black and Brown, and the white people are the minority— even with all the signs of coming rampant gentrification. Jefferson Park is near the historic Adams district, where my daughter lives, and where my grandmother used to live when the neighborhood was Black. This is also precisely what has happened to Baldwin Hills, where I grew up and where my father lived—the realtors hover until the older Black people die off and then sell to younger white families. During my new neighborhood walks I find that nine times out of ten I see only people of color. And it is a relaxing feeling not to stick out or be stared at as in, What are you doing here?

What is the solution? How can one actively help when in a gathering or situation where one person is the only one different from whatever the dominant culture is in the room? I say, smile. I say, even if you hate small talk, find a reason to begin a light conversation or offer to get that person a drink. The artist Simone Leigh said in a New Yorker interview that one of the reasons she loved her gallerist was that he was the one white person she knew who didn’t change when Black people entered the room. That line stopped me. I thought, yes! Why can’t people be themselves in every situation? Because we can all sense when someone is being stiff, disapproving, or uncomfortable. We don’t have to know them to tell this. So being one’s self, no matter who is or isn’t in the room, would be a great goal, because the essence of authenticity is being at home in one’s body, mind, and spirit. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Parabola, BELONGING. You can find the full issue on our online store