I grew up in a small town about 25 miles south of Detroit, Michigan. Lakeside, farming, hunting and fishing folk. Hundreds of years before the French claimed this town in the late seventeenth century, it was settled by several Native American tribes. As with most tribes in this country, many were massacred, imprisoned or forced to flee. During the battle of 1812, Detroit surrendered to the British and from that point onward, this little southeastern city was predominately white and working class (manufacturing, farming, trucking). In fact, in 2012 92.2% of its population was white-only, not of Latino or Hispanic descent.
There wasn’t much diversity as I distinctly remember. I read that this little city contains a significantly lower than average percentage of Black people when compared to the entire state. Oh! and there were under 0.5% of reported lesbian/gay couples residing together. Even as a child growing up in the 80’s & 90’s, I experienced varied levels of racism because my skin was darker than most of the fair, mostly European descended residents. My background involves a blending of different nationalities, but I didn’t quite fit in because my fiercely curly hair, dark eyes and brown skin reflected that of a Native American, if not an African American. We humans worry so much about how we look.
I inherited those traits from my father, but because he chose not to be part of my life, I had little exposure to his family or others “like me”. Most of the friends I made were white and many of their families were actively passing down racist values. As a child I used to sit at my windowsill and pray I would wake up the next morning with blond, silky locks. I wanted to look like my mother – fair, blond and green eyed. My mother’s family was a blend of French, English, German and Polish, to name a few. I didn’t look like anybody in her family. However, I think I was only “fortunate” enough to have inherited a brawny bone structure from those Polish. At least, that’s why my mother always said.
But what I’m getting at is that from a young age I battled the concept of what it felt to belong. Even amongst my extended family, we were never close. Despite my mothers efforts to show me how special being uncommon can be, I wanted to be just like everyone else. I wanted to prove my worth by showing how I could fit in with everyone else. While in one ear I heard, “let yourself be different. Be proud of what you are”, the voice inside my head told me I was a “blackie” who came from a poor, single parent household. In this way, I didn’t feel it to be a blessing to be different.
In my late teens, I was more than ready to emerge from my high school bubble. I started talking of all these crazy ideas, “I’m gonna move to California”, “I’m gonna apply to a writing school”, “I’m gonna hop on a plane and get out of here”. Crazy talk, but only crazy because I didn’t have a plan. Or any money. I wanted to meet people with open minds. I wanted to talk about how to make changes. I wanted diversity! My high school boyfriend of several years told me to stop trying to run away. “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s the same everywhere, just different faces”. He was the “same day, different shit” type of guy. I was angry at him for telling me this because I wanted to hear him say he believed in me. I learned I’d have to figure it out on my own.
In my early 20’s after college I moved out of Michigan, and without looking back. When I said my goodbyes to friends/family, I knew it’d be awhile before I returned, even to visit. I moved to Virginia and began working as an archaeologist. I lived with a boyfriend there for 2 years and began creating a new life. As excited as I was to have escaped, I still found it important to prove to others I was worthy of their acceptance by adopting “their ways”. Once my Michigan accent was so kindly pointed out, I chose to tone it down. Those people in Va have a way of softening vowels that Michiganders don’t. I didn’t want my voice to stand out. My newly realized accent sounded horrible! Although, I could only say “soda” for so long before resorting back to “pop”. Who was I to be calling it soda?
It was my first experience away and it didn’t end easily. My heart was torn to shreds when the relationship ended, but I began a new journey to Boston to start grad school. I moved in with strangers I met on Craig’s List and hoped for the best – hoped they weren’t going to kill me or something. I struggled to find jobs and juggle school. I tried to make friends so I wasn’t always wondering around the streets of Boston alone. I’d walk past a bustling restaurant and (envision this like in a movie) I’d see well dressed people clinking glasses and laughing amongst themselves over a delicious meal. Imagine that, in slow motion, a violin playing and I’m the sad girl standing outside the window….watching.
Pathetic…and creepy, I suppose.
I began pressuring myself to be like everyone else there – always on the go, successful, motivated, determined, creative…because, that’s what everyone in Boston is about, right? In order to make friends, I began to adapt to certain ways of thinking and speaking. I had to toughen my skin a bit. There’s nothing wrong with taking on new characteristics, as it’s only natural when you take yourself out of your comfort zone. However, I began to fall away from who I had always thought I was. In fact, I began to feel the furthest from myself as I ever have. While the above traits are usually deemed positive, I lunged myself into believing I wasn’t capable enough. I was a liar. A phoney. I wasn’t the energetic person I thought I was. I found it tiring to keep trying to impress others with brains and ambition. Once again, I was trying to prove my worth.
Even though I had zero desire to move back home, I realized I wasn’t finding the comforts of home within myself. The folks of Boston are a proud people, as they have right to be in many ways. But I felt it overwhelming to accept their fast-paced culture as my own. In fact, I fought it. Sometimes it made me angry with all their Patriot’s this, Harvard that, clam chowder this and extensive, impressive and interesting American history that…. you know what I’m saying. Truthfully, I was just jealous I didn’t hold the same pride about my own roots. I was exhausted and I discovered, by no means, was I some sort of prodigy.
Fast forward a few years and now I live in the southwest, New Mexico. Yet, here I am once again reflecting upon my identity. New Mexican’s are very much different from those aggressive New Englanders, but their ideals of culture are just as prominent. The strong Hispanic background is quite foreign to me; in fact, culturally I may be most out of my element here. I find my coworkers poking fun at me because I can’t pronounce half the Spanish names in this city. Or I receive strange looks when, at a restaurant, I tell my server to hold the green chile. As I make friends out here, all of my old insecurities come to surface. Will I be too strange to them? Will they accept me?
Now is the time to ask what I find important to convey about who I am. What am I about? What do I do? One of the most refreshing aspects of relocating is the opportunity to unveil yourself anew. Nobody knows anything about you. It’s a freeing concept but also intimidating because it requires work. It means you must check-in with yourself and ask what you want. What sort of people do you want to incorporate into your new life? How do you want others to see you? What can you do differently from where you were last living? How can you be a better person?
So, I’m learning more and more about how to balance the desire to feel included versus the importance of finding the comfort to live as I am. I’ve always held so much fear about being an outsider even though I have a great appreciation for those who think outside the box. I admire them, in fact. Some of the most brilliant theories, inventions, words, buildings, discoveries, art etc. have come from some of the most eccentric and misunderstood people.
Regarding my childhood encounters of feeling cast out, things began to change with time. People were using tanning beds to achieve the bronze skin tone that was already natural to me. Women would always tell me they wanted to have my thick, curly hair. My sister and I are the only ones in our family to have lived out of state and do some serious traveling. I see that many of the kids I grew up with never left our little hometown. I have discovered what my mother meant when she told me to stop worrying about fitting in. You can go places, see things, learn and grow. New experiences have forced me to examine my life and come to understand the words of Plato/Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
I’m not claiming to have some uniqueness above others, as I’ve faced adult challenges that have humbled my ego and, at times, left me to have some serious doubts about my self-worth. In fact, I don’t advocate the popular concept of showering your child with compliments/praise and teaching him/her that they are the absolute greatest. But I do know the importance of attributing your own, personal culture into all that you do. Because once you leave home, you have to make a new one.