I cracked open a book that had been on my mind to read — Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Like every other experience with a Brene Brown book, I was looking forward to having my beliefs challenged and my experience affirmed, and it happened. Before I made even a small dent in chapter one, I found myself on the third page. Not in the way that I read to the third page — no, I mean I found this quote that managed to slice to the core of every memory and every minute of my life. A description of an experience I never quite knew how to speak, and in less than thirty Maya Angelou said “Baby, let me show you.” On the third page of a book written to help me understand my need for belonging, I found myself.
The way we learn who we are is by learning where we belong. Are you Muslim? Are you Black? Are you from the East Coast? These are the things that tell us where we find community and connection. These are the things that help shape who we are to others and how we see ourselves, but how far is too far to take that identity? Now understanding the elements of your identity are important because they give you stability as your life evolves. Something to remain constant as you grow and change, but I might argue that we’ve become too reliant on them. What should be a guardrail to ground us has become a point of certainty — a wall that has grown too high for us to see over. Understanding this changed the way I saw the world, my family, but especially myself.
In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw introduced us to the term “intersectionality” to describe the unique experience of those who hold more than one marginalized identity. To be Black is one thing. To be Black and low-income is another. To be Black and poor and differently abled is yet another. Try this. See yourself in a department store. You enter as a middle-class white man or woman, are greeted, and then allowed to shop at your leisure. Now what if you enter as a Black person? Maybe you peak some suspicions veiled behind a, “can I help you find something today?” However, because your clothes are seen as acceptable you continue shopping. Now imagine yourself in the same situation, but your clothes are stained and torn. What was a suspicion masked in customer service might now be someone following you closely as you thumb through racks. Now what if you were Black, with the stained and torn clothes, and in a wheelchair? Even if the salesman isn’t checking to see that you aren’t making off merchandise, can you find an elevator to the second floor? Can you find the handicap accessible bathroom? Essentially, how many ways are you being told that this space wasn’t made for you, or that your presence is an inconvenience? These are the intersections of your experience.
This past week was a flood that tested the levees I built to protect my understanding of the world. As the waters rose and began to crest, I was reminded that I live in a society where living authentically, embracing my intersecting identities, and being vocal about it doesn’t just threaten my “belonging” it threatens my safety. By the time I left middle school, I was well aware of my blackness. Despite being in classes with above average racial diversity and where race was rarely a topic of conversation, there were times where I experienced subtle slights at my race, or micro-aggressions. By the time I left high school, I was well aware of my family’s low-income status evidenced by the number of times I was publicly reprimanded for my uniform smelling of my grandma’s cigarette smoke that filled our one-bedroom apartment, or the number of times I walked to the next town over to go to dance class. But by the time I left college, I knew without a doubt that the identity that underscored the uncertainty I felt about belonging was that I was gay.
This was why I struggled to be friends with boys, but always found a group of girls to sit with. It was why I consistently responded to my barber of 15 years with blank stares when he made attempts at hyper masculine small talk. Why I never felt safe in church when the conversation about who was eligible for eternal damnation seemed to gloss over everyone but the gays. Why I felt uneasy when every piece of advice I received about love and relationships pushed me toward a heterosexual future. What I knew was there was no particular place where I belonged. Some places on my college campus I knew would welcome me being a man, but would also call me a nigger. Some places in my community where I would be greeted with “Hello my Black brother,” but would then call the man across the street a faggot. There were places where my sexuality would be welcomed, but my romantic interest would be met with “No blacks, just a preference.” Essentially, in order to belong somewhere the expectation was that I let something go, but what?
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place.”
In each of these situations, in order to belong I would have to let go of pieces of myself. In a male space that accepted only my gender, I would be expected to assimilate to whiteness. I’d be expected to laugh at jokes about my skin and have my culture mocked. I would be unfazed by issues that negatively affect People of Color, but make white people uncomfortable. I would do my best to cosign anything that affirmed the white experience, in the hopes that I might find belonging here.
In a Black space that accepted my race and my gender, I would be expected to assimilate to a heterosexual culture. Work to disassociate from my own needs as a human. Deflect when it came to conversations about relationships and marriage, knowing that even in my own community, for me to be in a loving relationship with a man is audacious and immoral. Masking my own romantic interests and navigating love in silence and in hiding. I’d be expected to live a fraction of my life in the hopes that I might find belonging here.
In each instance, my inability to deny parts of myself, came with a rage-fueled “Why?” I lived my life watching people enjoy the privilege of belonging that comes with their identities without thinking twice about it and even expecting others to conform. Why should I abandon my culture because it makes you comfortable? Why should I deny my right to love because you believe it’s inappropriate? Answer: I shouldn’t.
“The price is high.”
Late last month, I witnessed one of the most recent and jarring reminders of what it means to live authentically in the intersection of your identity. I’ve watched a man who is widely admired for his compassion and love be segmented and denied his wholeness. While the outrage was widespread it was also selective. Some expressed anger for the racially charged crime, while others spoke about the injustice of the crime clearly targeted at his sexuality, each side identifying with the crime familiar to their own belonging, few being able to name the dangerous intersection of being a vocal black, queer man in today’s society.
“The reward is great.”
I have found incredible power in being able to Brave the Wilderness that is intersectionality. In having the courage to stand alone, if it means standing on my authenticity. It means that for as long as any one of us feels unsafe in this country, I’m not entitled to comfort. That until each of us has a fair and equitable existence, I’m not entitled to comfort. That for as long as one of us is susceptible to attack, I’m not above persecution. It means that I will advocate for the rights of people of color, even if they disapprove of my love or harbor a fear of their children identifying as LGBTQ. It means I will advocate for the rights of LGBTQ, even if Black people are further marginalized within that community. It means I will advocate for people who show the undeniable courage required to exist in the intersections between identities because my belonging isn’t found in others, but in my purpose – to use my voice and my access for love.
Editor’s Note: This story was published on February 11, 2019 in the wake of Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack that was being treated as a hate crime. Although Jussie’s claims have been investigated and called into question, BlackLove.com believes this does not change the validity of Jared Williams’ points, personal experiences, or emotions.