What’s it like to be one of the few people of your race in a tiny, faraway town? Novelist found out.
Zalika Reid-Benta discovered what it’s like to be truly alone when she became one of a town’s few non-white residents.
For three months in my early 20s, I found myself working at and living in a hotel in Bideford, a small coastal town in North Devon, England. According to a 2001 census, 98.3 per cent of the parish’s population was white, which means that of the nearly 14,500 people living in Bideford that year, only 246 were people of colour. Since then, I’ve spoken to friends and family, sometimes even new acquaintances, about how frustrated—how angry and bewildered—I was during my time overseas. But I’ve never quite articulated the depth of the isolation I felt, the melancholy that eventually shifted to numbness. Until now.
I had just finished my master’s at Columbia University in New York and planned on doing my PhD in the United Kingdom. I decided I would only move there with a job already in place. I submitted an application to an organization that finds jobs for young Canadians all over the world.
It put me in Bideford.
The day I arrived, I thought the town had a certain charm to it. Affectionately nicknamed “The Little White Town,” Bideford is made up of little shops, whitewashed houses and narrow streets that slope upward. The hotel I was placed in was on a hill above the town, with nothing else around it but a road and trees. Its location would come to perfectly epitomize my frame of mind during my time there.
I had no cellphone, and while guests were provided with internet access, there was no Wi-Fi in the staff quarters. Most of my fellow servers had been working together for several months and were already friends. Shifts ended after midnight, and they would all go to the local pub to blow off steam while I stayed in my room binge-watching the DVDs I’d brought from home. Nearly half of the staff were from various countries in Europe, and English wasn’t their first language. But I learned that stereotypes travel far, as one man found the words to ask: “So what is that you eat? Grape soda and chicken nuggets?” Two of the other Canadians on staff, both white men, laughed easily and continued to set the table as I stood in shock. Upon seeing my expression, the man tried to assure me he wasn’t being racist. “I just thought it was a racial stereotype, you know? Like a joke!”
Similar “like a joke” observations were common among my co-workers: “The ballroom is too hot, don’t you all think?” “Don’t ask Zalika; her kind likes the heat!”
The guests, on the other hand, loved to ask me questions. My hair was a popular topic. One man tugged on my vest as I served plates of English breakfast.
“Do you have a special comb for it?” He looked upward to my ’fro. “My wife seems to think you need special combs.”
Sometimes, bets were placed. “Excuse me, love, where are you from? We have a wager around the table, you see. About your nationality.”
In town, no one asked questions or made jokes. They mostly stared, puzzled at my existence as a person living there and not simply passing through.
Shifts at the hotel had five-hour breaks between breakfast and dinner service, which was the only time outside of my weekly day off that I could go into town and use the internet to contact my friends and family. I spent those five hours in a restaurant called Wetherspoon, eating lunch and leaving long rants on Google or Facebook Messenger. The time difference meant that my friends would wake up to another complaint and I could only read their responses during my lunch break the next day. Sometimes, my mother would rise early to Skype with me.
“You look tired,” she’d say. “Defeated.”
Finding the words to explain the nuances of my situation was difficult. I ended up becoming friendly enough with my co-workers, and I was never the only staff member who was teased. But other people seemed to be ribbed for things they did; I was singled out for what I was. My blackness was the target of jokes; my blackness always seemed to be a characteristic that they liked to laugh at. No guest called me a racial slur, no resident exuded hostility at my presence, yet they exotified me with their questions and didn’t hide their disappointment when my answers lessened the alien allure they had put upon me. Drunk men in pubs would say I looked like Lauryn Hill, and at work, my bosses would tell me to smile more so I wouldn’t look so “intimidating.”
My stint in Bideford wasn’t the first time I had been in a predominantly white space, but it was the first time in my life I’d felt truly and profoundly lonely and at a loss to know how to navigate the territory I found myself in. No one in my immediate proximity could understand the nature of my experiences, and the people whom I would lean on were an entire ocean away.
I was on a hill above a town, with nothing else around it but a road and trees.