Photo: Skyler Burkhart
A friend of mine said something last year that succinctly summed up what much of my experience has been culturally and professionally: "Don't try to belong. Get along."
I'm a misfit. An interloper. And I'm not crying about it. At least, not anymore. But my upbringing in my childhood, and the early years of my adulthood were wildly confusing. I didn't know where I belonged.
I grew up in a mostly black, working class neighborhood in West Philadelphia. This wasn't a bad experience. I just never really fit in with the kids who lived on my block and I didn't say much at school. I was never bullied, I was never afraid for my life: seriously, I didn't experience any of the stereotypes of "living in the hood." So I can't speak on that kind of experience. What I do remember from my childhood, though, was being alone. A lot.
That didn't change when I moved to New York for college. And then moved back to Philly my sophomore year. And then it only got more and more uncomfortable throughout most of my twenties.
I spent time with all kinds of people from all different backgrounds, interests, upbringings, economic classes, and more. I reconnected with friends from home. I gained a diverse experience and got to fuse all that into my roots. This was great! But, it also made it hard for me to categorize myself.
Here's the thing about being black, especially a black nerd like me: often, other people who look like you will reject you. Nerdiness and intelligence and sensitivity are negative traits where I come from, and you can get marked for that. But then, on the other side of the river is a myriad of cultures that I only have wafts of understanding. I don't belong with the people who are different from me, nor do I belong with the people who are the same as me.
The only realistic solution to that problem seemed to be extreme isolation. That only exacerbated my introversion and made my anxiety louder and more pronounced. The more I came to understand my place (or lack thereof), the worse my attitude towards my identity, my professional future, and my interpersonal relationships became.
It took me 31 years to realize that I was actually doing just fine.
I'm terrible at trivia. I suck at knowing pop culture like the back of my hand. I'm that weird dude who wallflowers at parties and only ever feels comfortable talking about obscure Japanese anime and indie video games and graphic novels. I didn't enjoying reading books until I was about 25 and I didn't understand why. Nothing I was experiencing reflected me.
And that's okay.
I've become really good at understanding other people. Trying to belong has strengthened my listening skills. My compassion and my patience swelled. I get along with a lot of different kinds of people. I get it. And that's not as common as we all might think.
As an independent artist and an entrepreneur, I've been spending all this time picking out what I want and what I don't want to curate my own home. And a home, a place to belong, is a feeling, not somewhere you go. It's a cliche thing to say, but it's a difficult thing to put into practice.
I'm not going to force my personality to assimilate along with other groups. Once upon a time, I did it, and I'm grateful that I did, but in the long run, it's not a healthy practice. I'll be happy to get along, and to learn, but I'm not going to hide or shy away from who I am in order to do so. Belonging, for what it's worth, goes both ways. And belonging is a feeling that is best shared mutually between people.
I'm not going to apologize for being different anymore.