Let me set some context for this post. This is written from a place of longing to belong, a place of wanting to fit in, a place of searching for being ‘enough,’ and a journey to community.
This is personal. This is emotional. I haven’t gone here before.
With that said, consider this story;
I remember sitting in my middle school Geography class when the teacher, Mrs. DeyThorne, broke away from the lesson of the countries of North, Central, and South America into a tangent, actually a rant about perceptions of race. “You know in America, you’re either Black or White – there’s no between.” Then, as if to confirm her point, she began to name popular celebrities whom she probably thought of as White and dramatically proclaimed their Black-ness as if to shatter our reality. “Mariah Carey? BLACK! Paula Abdul? BLACK!” The list went on. This was important because it marked the beginnings of my understanding of race politics in America.
See I grew up in Trinidad – a tiny island in the Caribbean about the size of Delaware that probably wins the award for ‘Most Colonized’ Caribbean country. This created a rich culture, a (I hate that I’m even using this phrase) melting pot of skin color and customs, and identities. But yet still, we created our own racial politics between folks of African and Indian descent. The tension between these groups was always palpable and to some extent, even the political parties were divided by race. Even with all of this being our lived reality, the stories I kept hearing were “well, it’s not as bad here as it is in America…it’s TERRIBLE there.”
So you can understand that years later when I finally moved to the United States I already had my own expectations and perceived understanding about the racism I would endure. Somehow, I accepted it. Why? I’m not sure.
I remember going to a Baskin Robbins with my dad and my step brothers and we were waiting FOREVER for service. I mean, we were standing there for over 15 minutes with no one in line. One of my step brothers whispered to me “it’s because we’re Black.” Because I wanted to seem like the funny one, the one who was most aware of what was happening, I repeated the phrase out loud, “it’s probably because we’re Black.” The back of my father’s hand met my mouth with such expediency and force that I’m not even sure how it happened but it’s a stinging sensation I’d never forget.
With tears streaming down my face and ice cream soothing my pain (yes, we finally got served) my father tried to explain to me that the color of our skin didn’t matter. “Your color is never an excuse. You work hard and you do everything you can to follow the rules, and your skin will never matter.” You see, his mother had done just that. When she emigrated to the U.S. she found a job, first as a hairdresser and then a construction worker, and she worked her ass off. She provided for herself and our family back home. Even at that point she was supporting us. She had worked to get everything she had and made sure that we all had some of it. She was living her dream and never let her skin determine her destiny. She did sacrifice some things, most notably, her accent.
If you know anyone from a Caribbean island, you’ve probably heard the distinct accent and it’s one of the first things people ask me when they find out I’m from Trinidad. “Really?! But where’s your accent?” I usually respond with a flippant “I dunno,” or a shrug, or a sheepish smile as if to feign some sort of embarrassment. And then as if I’m required to prove my roots, “say something in Trinidadian! What’s the language there?” “English.” “Well say it in your accent!” I politely decline and change the subject. My grandmother taught me about the hierarchy of Black-ness – in her experience, being from the Caribbean was less-than being African-American so to assimilate she unlearned her accent and encouraged me to do the same. I don’t think she ever did it on purpose, but I learned it. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to pass.
Because I’m an overachiever, because I wanted to go above and beyond, at some point I decided that dropping my accent wasn’t enough. I started trying to over-assimilate – I had as many White friends as I could find and resisted having and friends who were Black. I spent so much time learning how to assimilate to ‘White-ness’ that I’d become afraid that I’d never be Black enough again. I didn’t want to fail. So I became as ‘White’ as I could. I remember looking at my Black peers and longing for acceptance, but I just didn’t know how. In every Black space that I’d previously existed, I felt less a part of, to the point of living in this dead-zone of race. Definitely not ‘White’ enough (skin) and not ‘Black’ enough (culture, vernacular.) I wasn’t even Caribbean enough anymore.
It wasn’t until I went on my college visits that my racial awareness began to expand. The community of students-of-color on those two campuses were so tight-knit, so close, that even though I was just a prospective student, they wanted to take care of me. The colleges I’d applied and later was accepted to were predominantly White institutions so admittedly, these students-of-color who were ready to accept me as one of their own had their own experiences on campus that they wanted to protect me from. “When you come here, don’t hang out in that row of houses – that’s ‘Frat Row’ they’re not fans of us there.” I didn’t ask any questions – I learned what I thought they wanted to teach me – Greek Life is bad. Even at the college that I decided on attending, the first stories I heard were about how to exist on campus comfortably as a student-of-color. My education began, not in the classroom, but in the dorm room. The lessons weren’t all about survival though. There was a passion for our community, a ‘we’ve got to stick together,’ a ‘we’re shades of brown,’ a ‘our racial politics are complicated and that’s okay.’ I learned that my racial identity was more about being ‘Brown’ than it was about being ‘Black.’ Then things got interesting.
I started looking critically at myself and thinking about the choices I was making. Who I chose to date (mostly White,) where I chose to live (mostly White,) how I chose to present (mostly White,) because I didn’t want to fail at being Brown OR Black. I wasn’t confident enough in my identity to be authentic. So I kept trying to pass. Again, as what? I remember looking at people who looked like me and longing to date them, longing to share a connection, just wanting to be accepted, and being struck with sadness every single time because I would never be _______ enough. And at the same time, I never tried. I stayed away from the Black Student Association (even though they were always having the most fun,) I never lived in the Men of Color house (even though they threw the best parties,) I just gave up.
I. Gave. Up. But I didn’t change anything. I still dated people who didn’t look like me, chased after something I could never be, trying to achieve this unattainable…dream(?)
It wasn’t until a few months ago that I decided to stop trying to be someone I wasn’t or really stop trying at all. Why couldn’t I just be me? Why couldn’t I just take a leap of faith and be authentic? And even though I was afraid of failing, I decided to just be me. I was tired of being jealous of the Black men I’d see hanging out together. I was tired of feeling guilty for having the friends I did or the city I spent my teen years in. I was tired of…everything. I had written so many stories in my head about race that I had dug myself into a hole that I couldn’t get out of. That was until I met Jay.
Ok, no. This isn’t that story. It’s the story of how when you stop trying to be someone you’re not, and you live from your soul, that people have no choice but to love and accept you for who you are or walk away. Let me illustrate;
Jay and I had only been dating for a few weeks when we decided to have a game night with his friends – Taboo – and I got the word “Score.” I started to give clues, “when you have sex with someone, you ______.” Silence. “Dude, I totally ________ last night.” More silence. “You know…*thrusting hip motions*…” They tried guessing but…nothing. The timer ran out and in my frustration I blurted out “SCORE! How do you guys not guess SCORE!” And in the sweetest way there was this genuine laughter, not at me, but with me. They got it. Somehow they instantly understood where I was coming from and in that moment, I felt like I was enough.
Something as simple as that helped me break down walls that have been up for as long as I remember.
So I might never be Black enough, White enough, Brown enough, Caribbean enough, I may never be any of these things enough, but I can tell you this – I’m no longer afraid of being me enough. This weird, awkward, Brown guy, who is queer, and loves, and has ambitions, and a complicated history, and fierce, and powerful enough. I spent so much time being afraid to fail that I never allowed myself to pass…as ME.
Where in your life are you afraid to fail? What part of yourself are you afraid to let of in fear of being enough? How can you surrender and take the wildest leap of faith? It won’t be easy but when you decide to step into who you are you’ll find everything you’ve longed for.