To no-one’s surprise I have filled many spaces and defined myself for much of my life, by my otherness.
I walk in rooms and mentally count the faces that look like me—it is not because I do not like those who do not, it is because I fear that they don’t, won’t, or somehow can not, understand me. As I have grown older, and continue to infiltrate spaces with my otherness, I realize that many of these internalized issues I harbor are wrong. I’ve come to see my otherness not as a burden but as a gift— Today I hope to inspire each of you to see your otherness— whether it be ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, age, interests, or your extra finger— this way as well.
For much of my life I have been warned to realize my identity—You are a Black Woman, they would say. But it was everything that they left unsaid that would haunt me. I am a black woman, that is two strikes —tread lightly. I am a black woman, I should be quiet. I am a black woman, I will not be accepted. I am black woman, they do not understand my life or my experiences. I am a black woman, I should straighten my hair as not to highlight that (as if somehow straight hair can lighten my skin), I am a black woman, I can not disagree— they will think I am disruptive. I am a black woman, so I am a problem. I am a black woman, I should be confined to black spaces.
This is not true! I am a black woman- Period. My friends vary from the palest of whites to the darkest parts of the night sky, many have never mentioned that I am a black woman. Many do not care. To them I am a person. I have shared moments with them, and I have watched them be moved to tears as they try to explain their otherness to me, afraid that I am judging them, that I can not accept them.
The 1st generation immigrant cries about the struggle he has endured, being poor in America. His mom forgoing meals to send him and his siblings to the best private schools. The tears stream down his face, as he is equally thankful and shamed by this experience in his life. Admitting that it both motivates him and separates him. His otherness, shows on his skin and the assumption is that, that is all he is. He is humbled and relieved to learn that he is wrong.
The typical single caucasian male shares his story of being alone, his parents working all day — him spending far to much time in libraries. Being raised by bookshelves, we bond that we both found solace in Matilda. That we both practiced magic for much longer than we should have. His otherness does not ride his physical body, but it colors his thoughts. He resents his shyness, his inability to recognize social cues, his uncoolness—although I assure him, he is very cool. He enters rooms and admits he struggles to feel as if he belongs. I tell him what I tell myself—everyone feels that way. He says nothing, but his eyes say thank you.
The mother who limits her humanness to her relationship with her children. Limiting herself from parties, expression, love, relaxation—afraid that somehow by loving herself she is stealing time from her children. I am not a mother, and she hopes to have me understand this, but she knows I will not because I am not a mother. She fears being known as the girl with the baby at social events, so she decides not to go. She fears being judged, so she never shares and her story breaks forward like the levees in 9th ward, and all the fear and pain she tried to hide floods her eyes. Her otherness tired of being smothered demands to be shared. She wipes them away in embarrassment, admitting that it happens all the time, i nod. I know because it has happened to me, and I am not even a mother.
The muslim man who hopes to assure me the world is wrong about his religion. That he is peaceful and fair, and believes Allah loves us all. I tell him I know because I have read the Quran, that my father is muslim and he has completed his mecca, I ask him about mosque and tell him I have visited before and it is beautiful. He squeezes my hand and I squeeze back, we thank each other for trying to understand. He feels less other, I feel less other.
These stories one by one, have changed my perception of myself and of the world. My otherness is what makes me special, it is the part of me that quiets rooms in hushed anticipation. It is what makes people remember me. It has been and may continue to be the reason for my seat at the table. But it is not who I AM. I am not the black friend, so much as i am the nice friend, the smart friend, the funny one, the direct one, the take-no-shit and speak your mind one….who just so happens to be black.
Once, I realized in some way we are all other, we all harbor insecurities, we all walk in rooms nervous to be accepted—I stopped allowing my otherness to hinder me, but accepted it as one of the many aspects of me. I stopped being angry when people touch my hair, because I now realize it is because my hair is awesome. I don’t get irritated when people ask me about the Beyonce album, because I realize we both love the Beyonce album. I don’t get upset when people ask me about my culture, because I know that it is fascinating. Being other is not painted on me, as much as I think it is—I mean yes, I am often the only black person in the room, but I am only one of millions in the world. Just like you, and you, and you…other is not really so other now is it?