If you are reading this, it is okay to feel out of place.
I am a black boy from a black family with black history and black struggles, but from a young age, due to the fact that I did not live up to the stereotypes of my race, people have tried to take my race and my identity away from me.
When I was younger, everything from my wardrobe of too short shorts and tennis shoes and my lack of a shaped-up hairline, to my limited knowledge of black popular culture and my closest friends’ lack of black skin, caused me to be ridiculed and alienated by both my black and white peers.
But for some of my peers, it was not enough just to take away my black identity, but they chose to dismiss me as a “white boy” and I was and will never be accepting of this false identification.
Though I was never accepting of, and often deeply saddened and furthermore infuriated by the shared notion among my peers that I did not qualify as “black,” from a young age I still felt very out of place. Even though on the surface I would easily dismiss these attacks on my identity, just like any other young and naïve kid, deep down inside, the opinion of my peers was paramount.
The fact that I was constantly reminded that my personality and appearance disqualified me from being allowed to take ownership of the color of my skin, caused every thought and decision I made to revolve around the question of, “is this what a black boy would do?”
Unfortunately, my dire need to be accepted by those who I shared the same skin with, caused me to act out, and I consequently began to experience an unfortunate dilemma. Though both my black and white peers painted me as a white boy, when I began to encounter trouble with the authorities in my community and within my school, the true color of my skin took precedent.
I do not wish to get into the details of my childhood mistakes and if you disagree with the belief that color is a deciding factor of how you are perceived by the public from a young age, especially when it comes to how severely you are disciplined, I do not wish to change your mind. All I can do is tell you that I am a black boy, and many of the acts of insubordination that I committed caused me to be treated like a criminal instead of receiving help, while I would consistently see the insubordinate actions of my fellow white peers be dismissed as common childhood mistakes.
Reflecting on the rather grim events from this point of my life lead me to deduce the unfortunate truth that I experienced from my phase of acting out, that sometimes black kids are not allowed to “just be kids,” but instead are profiled as delinquents from a very young age.
It was at this time that I began to feel betrayed by my black community and began to wonder if I was truly better trying to fit in with my white peers.
After my short, but pungent, early experience with crime and punishment as it applied to me, I quickly began to hate the feeling of being in trouble, so I gave myself a rather naïve ultimatum: either continue to act out to legitimize my identity and therefore continue to suffer the consequences, or distance myself from my racial community that would not accept me, embrace the ill conceived notion that I could never truly be “black,” and consequently, do my best to utilize my “white” qualities to avoid the negative effects that came with the color of my skin at all cost. At that time, I choose the latter.
Unfortunately, I began to actively distance myself from, reject, and in some cases resent my black brethren. Instead I chose to spend a considerable amount of time associating with those who I was categorized as: white people.
As I stayed away from trouble, excelled to the top of my class academically, and developed a good standing in my community, I could not help but think, “hey, being white is alright.” But I severely misunderstood two critical points: 1) that doing well in school and developing a good standing does not exclusively apply to white people and 2) even though I could more closely connect with my white peers, that did not mean that they all could see past the true black color of my skin and avoid using my true race as a factor in their decision making. Spending time with my white friends was pleasurable, and I was often relieved to feel as if I had finally fit in, but I quickly began to realize that some of my white friends were not able to see past my black skin and racism started to permeate my relationships.
There would be many days when I would be alienated by my predominantly white friend group and I would find myself sitting on the edge of my bed frustrated and questioning why I was consistently singled out. I cannot give you data and statistics to legitimize my claim as fact, but what I can tell you is deep down inside I knew that because of my black skin, I would never be able to fully fit in with my white peers either. At this point, I felt lost.
It took me a few years of lonesome development to begin to embrace the fact that human qualities have no race and that though your race dominates your raw physical appearance, race has no clearly defined human qualities attached to it. There is no correct way to act either white or black, yellow or brown. Qualities cannot be attached to colors because the color of your skin should not speak for you, but rather you should be who you are in spite of the color of your skin. These notions not only apply to race, but also to gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and to all other characteristics that carry anthropologically imposed preconceived identities.
It is imperative that I clarify that the race and racial stereotypes addressed in this story of my past are not an accurate representation of such for all black communities around the world. Instead, this is my experience and thoughts that I had while living in a small rural town with an inevitably closed minded view of the world and race. Furthermore, not every black person in my town dismissed my racial identity and my family members, many adults, and some of my peers fully accepted me for who I was.
More importantly, I do not wish to affirm that everyone should be color-blind or characteristic-blind in any form because for some people race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics are an important part of their identity and consequently, said characteristics are used to connect with others and form beautiful communities.
What I am attempting to affirm is that your best characteristic can be who you chose to be in spite of worldly expectations, so if you are reading this, it is okay to feel out of place.
Denzel M., University of Virginia ‘22