When I was 17, as a senior in High School, I was approached by one of the English teachers and asked to read a Langston Hughes poem for a school assembly during Black History Month. I've always liked poetry and was really into Hughes' work at the time, so I thought it was a pretty cool opportunity. I knew why I was singled out, being one of only a few students of color in a huge student body (over 2000 students). I was being used for effect, to potentially make the reading more meaningful. More specifically, my race was being used by the program director for the effect it might have on the mainly white audience.
Sure, I had some feelings about that. But it was hardly anything new, and by then I figured that's just how people are when they live and grow in a mostly homogeneous community. People of other races are something of a novelty, and can be exploited for a new type of feeling. I remember being selected to play Martin Luther King Jr in an elementary school play with my exclusively white classmates. Truth is, I like attention and I like to speak in front of a large, captive audience. I didn't mind that I was being exploited because it felt like a trade off.
When I was given the poem I was to read for the assembly, I immediately set to memorizing it. It's short, so it wasn't difficult. I wanted to be certain that I wouldn't forget once on stage, so I read and re-read it many times. Naturally I began to contemplate the subtle messages contained in the work. And I realized that, the core of this poem is an inquiry into what it means to be of mixed race in a society that places so much emphasis on racial classification. It's a simple question: where do I fit in?
As I type that last line, I get a little choked up. I've been asking myself this question my whole life. It was especially painful as a young person. I desperately wanted to fit in because back then, I associated fitting in with being accepted. I can still touch this wound in me, and this morning I'm moved to tears because of it. This poem echoes the inquiry that many of us have shared for different reasons: am I going to die before I manage to find the place where I fit in? It touches a deep sense of isolation, and a fear that it will always be this way.
Being racially ambiguous is my cross to bear, and I have long since come to terms with that. Like any cross, there is a redemptive element as well. Never fitting in left me with a large chip on my shoulder. I've wanted to confound people and make evident the absurdities of our racially inspired assumptions. I've enjoyed confusing and surprising people who don't know my racial makeup. Even now in my 30's I get a special pleasure from it. The deeper gold inside of this wound is that I have been uniquely prepared for the practice of self-inquiry. That is, questioning in a fundamental way just who I am.
I'll finish with this. Please, let's do our best to accept others right where they are, not because they fit with our notions of what it means to be of a certain race. Let's look at a person and see as much of them as we can and not stop at their literally most superficial qualities. Because not all of us have a racial identity. Some of us are just human.
If you dig this, if you dig me, just know that you are dug in return.