Labels Can Be Our Prison or Our Key to Freedom

I was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Ours was the only white family on the block. And I attended a grade school that was 94-97% black on any given year in the 1980s. My experiences in my neighborhood and school were positive ones. I had good friends. We laughed. We jumped Double Dutch. We doubled up for bike rides. In many ways, it was an all-American childhood…well, the peer group part of it was anyway. I was a white child being raised by a racist step-father in a black neighborhood. I was forbidden from having my black friends stay the night, and I was lectured about interracial relationships. It was a confusing dynamic at best. Complicating it further was the dysfunction of being raised in an abusive family. Out in my neighborhood and in my school, I was safe. Those were warm and inviting places for me – safe havens, but in my home, there was never safety.

Back in those days, I was too young to understand the racial divisions in our country. I only knew that I loved running around the playground with the twins, Stacy and Tracy, and that DeShunda instilled in me a love for poetry when she and I would read and write poetry together – sometimes to woo her boyfriend, Johnny. I remember wishing I was more “tan” like my friends and wishing I could have cool hairstyles like them. I couldn’t have known then the societal punishments that came with those features (features I coveted).

In the 9th grade, I went to live with a foster family in a different area – a predominantly white area, but we were bused to a school that was still predominantly black. It was the first real race divide I witnessed. During lunch, the teenagers congregated outside to visit with their friends before their first afternoon class. The poor white kids grouped on one area. The wealthier white kids grouped in another area. And the black kids spread out everywhere else. The first time I witnessed this spectacle, I was confused and didn’t really know what to do or where to go. My foster sister pressured me to go hang out with her and her friends (the other poor white kids), but a white boy who took interest in me pressured me to go hang out with him and the wealthier white kids. Eventually, I crossed paths with DeShunda – whom I hadn’t seen since 5th grade. It was a happy and huggy reunion. She invited (aka: didn’t pressure) me to come hang out with her and her friends at lunch. Honestly, this is where I wanted to go. But I was torn. I felt obligated to hang out with my foster sister, because I lived with her. (If someone shares their home and food with you, you’re bound to feel indebted to them.) And so I did.

DeShunda and I talked less frequently – until we eventually didn’t talk at all. Only in retrospect can I see that perhaps she viewed me as a traitor…and I don’t blame her. I abandoned my true friends whom I had known for years, because I succumbed to peer pressure, which happened to be divided along race lines. This is a regret and guilt I lived with in the nearly 30 years since then, and only recently have I made my peace with it. (But I’ll get to that later.)

In 10th grade, I was sent back home by the state to live with my mother – who had by that time divorced my stepfather. We moved to a new area – a commuter city to Little Rock that was predominantly white. Moving there made me feel like I had stepped backwards in time. The black population in this area lived on “The Hill,” and I remember being warned to never go on The Hill alone. Funny thing is, our family was poor enough that we lived in a white area that butted up against the train tracks that separated The Hill from the white neighborhoods. I met this black kid, Antoine, at school, and we built a friendship. Since we both lived in the same direction, we often walked home from school together, and when I wasn’t around for these walks, Antoine looked out for my little brothers as they walked home.

My mom grew concerned about the relationship Antoine and I were building, and so one day, I asked her outright how she would feel about me dating a black guy. She responded, “I would just hope you’d stay in your own race.” I was frustrated by her mentality, but unsurprised. I retorted, “Would you rather I date a nice black guy who treats me well? Or a white guy who cheats on me and beats me?” She again responded, “I would just hope you’d stay in your own race.” Her stance was unequivocal. And so I told Antoine we couldn’t date. Today, I wonder if this was one of the first times Antoine’s race had been thrown in his face like this…if I was the first girl who told him she couldn’t date him because of the color of his skin…if I was the first girl who informed him that white parents would disapprove of his melanin level. Yet another burden that weighed heavy on me for years.

Fast forward to age 17 – when I had dropped out of school, completed military school, and was ready to figure out my next step – an old friend invited me to be her roommate in Salt Lake City, Utah while she attended college. I had nothing to go home to, and I was up for an adventure. So I moved. Fifteen hundred miles away. It may as well have been a foreign country.

I remember standing in Taco Bell one day on 400 South (back in the day when more people went inside than in the drive thru) – waiting to place my order. I looked around at the people in the restaurant. Every single one of them was white. I suddenly felt panicky…out of place. Time stood still, and I felt like I was standing under a spotlight. But then I realized that I looked like all of them. No one would ever guess by looking at me that I felt out of place. And so began my young adult journey of trying to “blend in.”

Problem is – blending in is easier than it sounds. When my late-teen and young-adult peers talked about music and movies and television shows, I was out of the loop. I had been raised in a different culture, listening to different music and watching different movies and television shows. When my new peers got excited about U2 or Depeche Mode or Metallica, I just forced a fake smile, because I had no idea what they were talking about. I couldn’t sing along. I had no desire to go to these concerts. But as is common at that developmental stage in life, I wanted desperately to fit in. I stopped listening to Rob Base, Kris Kross, Outkast, and Bone Thugs. Yet, I couldn’t tolerate what seemed like the screech of rock music. I started wearing less baggy pants and never again wore my Black Sox jersey.

I persisted for years like this. And as for that music dilemma? I started listening to “smooth jazz,” because it seemed “in the middle”…offensive to no one. I sometimes crossed paths with the few black people living in Utah, and I had an internal urge to squeeze them tight. But I knew that would just be weird. (I mean, really. If someone did that to me, I’d assume I was about to be robbed or assaulted.) It wasn’t uncommon for me to be reprimanded by my white counterparts because I couldn’t “take a joke” when it came to race issues or for “overreacting” when someone said something overtly racist. I persisted feeling like I didn’t really fit in anywhere – feeling like an alien that confused people.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I stopped trying to please people or fit in somewhere. I came to realize that no matter what I said or what I did or how I lived my life, there was someone, somewhere that thought I was wrong and should be different. The more I tried to please Sally, the more Frank was displeased with me. So I stopped trying. I rebelled and decided to just live the way I saw fit. I learned that I couldn’t fit in with anyone, if I didn’t fit in with me.

By the time I was in my late thirties, I was a white woman driving a Subaru with a dented fender and cracked windshield…listening to Tupac cranked up as loud as it would go. I also – by this point – was an officer in the United States Air Force, whose culture sometimes pressures officers to show their status through cars and other material goods. This beat-up Subaru certainly didn’t convey that image. I recycled, adopted a rescue dog from the shelter, owned guns, and played Cards Against Humanity. To many, I am a walking contradiction…a person whose contradictions confuse and befuddle others. But these contradictions are my liberty.

See, like nearly everyone else, I had a lifelong litany of people telling me that I should be more this or more that. People expressed (in various ways) their disapproval of who I was, what I did, or how I communicated. One person would say I should be more feminine; the next would say that it was desirable to be a little more rough and tumble. Some people thought I wasn’t religious enough. Others pressured me about my political opinions. People were quick to offer up opinions about the foods I like (or don’t like) and about my weight. Others suggested I parent different or decorate my home different or dress different. Some people even felt the need to tell me I could recycle better, while others scoffed that I would “waste” my time this way.

People’s opinions – if we give them any credence – can have us reactionarily bouncing around like we’re in a pinball machine. And at the core of others’ opinions is them telling you how THEY would live if they were you. They aren’t you, and you aren’t them. They are making assessments and assumptions based on incomplete data, because they have not lived your life and do not know the complete content of your thoughts and feelings. When we heed others’ unlimited slew of opinions, we are prisoner to the whims of others – and to things that might be beneficial in their lives, but not ours. We get locked into an unresolvable state of anxiety.

The fact of the matter is that if I want to paint my walls with ketchup, it’s none of Linda’s business; she doesn’t live with me. Similarly, if Linda wants to paper her walls with organic, locally-sourced cow dung, it’s none of my business; I don’t live with her. There is an unparalleled freedom that comes from being ourselves and blocking out the peanut gallery’s assessment of how we should be better, faster, bigger, more.

Today, my inner circle is comprised of people who never ask me to be anything other than myself. They accept (and even embrace) the fact that I’m a little weird – that my skin is pink, that my butt is oversized, that I hate shopping, that I’m a good shot, that I like to sew, and that I cuss a little (or a lot). Since I’m a big fan of reciprocity, I’d similarly never ask the people in my inner circle to be anything other than themselves. Loving others for who they are is an act of unconditional love – no strings, no debt. And expecting that others love us for who we are is the most powerful act of self-love in which we can engage.

Joye Henrie, PhD

October 2017