The In-between: Awakenings
In first grade, I came up with my very first sociological theory. After intensely observing my test subjects for several weeks (I had cleverly code named them “mom” and “dad”), I concluded that Black people were Black because they ate pumpernickel bread, and White people were White because they ate white bread. Even though the size of my test group was small, I was convinced my findings were accurate. What I was still uncertain of, however, was how to answer the question that had driven my research in the first place: where exactly did that leave me? My skin was brown, but lighter than my father’s; since I hated pumpernickel bread, did that mean that one day I would be White like my mother? Or perhaps it had something to do with my love of oatmeal, wheat and cinnamon raisin breads—maybe they were the reason my skin’s color fell somewhere in the middle?
Prompted by a rather cryptic exchange I’d had with my father about how being Black meant that I had to be twice as good, I was both fascinated with, and puzzled by, this thing called “race.” However, growing up during the 1980s and 1990s in a (mostly) all White, middle-class neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin meant that my opportunities for learning about it—particularly what it meant to be “Black” or “biracial”—were limited. At home, my parents generally avoided the topic of race all together, which was especially strange given that my mother’s family stopped speaking to her on account of her husband being Black. My father’s family was less reserved, but lived two states away, and we only saw them twice a year when we drove down to Missouri for a visit. At school, most of my friends and classmates were White, which never really presented itself as an issue until someone would point out that my hair was a little bit different from theirs or that my self-portraits always seemed to use the same brown crayon for everything. Occasionally, I came into contact with another Black or brown student, but they mostly just teased me about talking or acting “White,” after which point we would quickly run out of things to say to each other and then, inevitably, go our separate ways.
Looking back, I now realize that much of the confusion and dislocation I felt in these moments was nothing more (or less) than the growing pains of my awakening to a life in the in-between. Being told I was both “too much” and, at the same time, “not enough,” eventually became so commonplace that I barely noticed when it was happening to me. On those rare occasions when I did notice, I tried my best not to care, ignoring both the comments and how they worked to marginalize me. Instead, I learned to settle into it and go through the world as an outsider. I learned to make jokes about it, to laugh about it, and to smile at the jokes of others. It was a difficult task that often served only to facilitate the comfort of those around me, but I wanted to belong, to feel accepted, so I grew comfortable with the idea of always leaving part of myself at the door.
Throughout this slow process of what I now think of as my first awakening, I was also repeatedly confronted by feelings of my sexual otherness. My first crush was in kindergarten on a boy named Kelley, whom I aggressively cornered one afternoon demanding a kiss, which he quickly and flatly refused. Not one to be discouraged, I turned my attention toward my female friends, of whom I managed to convince a few to experiment with me over the next several years. Together, we tried kissing and touching and even a bit of fifth-grade-level bondage for the first time. It all felt incredibly fun and exciting to me; however, my romantic attentions continued to be male-focused exclusively.
In middle school, my body started to develop, which suddenly resulted in all of the boys around me (finally) beginning to notice me back. By high school, my focus on boys had earned me the reputation for being a “slut,” which was not only hurtful but also significantly hampered my confidence and enthusiasm for exploring my sexuality. Since my romantic interests were all male, it was relatively easy for me to pass as straight; however, even under this facade, my sexual appetite still relegated me to the margins. Amongst the LGBTQ community I felt relatively safe from slut-shaming; however, in those spaces I never felt gay enough to truly be at home there.
It wasn’t until several years later when I found myself living and working as a stripper in Guam that I finally began, once again, to sort out my space in the middle. There, I was surrounded by beautiful and confident young women, who were comfortable in their sexually and not ashamed to show it. Some were straight, some were gay, and many were somewhere in the middle. In this world, the word “slut” was basically irrelevant, which gave me more confidence and a new power over my sexuality, that eventually freed me up to reexamine it more thoroughly.
Initially, I was terrified by the prospect of adding another in-between component to my identity, and once again struggled with the question of where exactly that would leave me. Even though I had accepted my biracial status many years prior, I continued to feel the weight of its marginalizing tendencies. As a result, it was not until I also began to appreciate the benefits of this status by realizing my ability to serve as a bridge between worlds that I finally felt strong enough to embrace my sexuality as bi, too. The result, some thirty years after my initial introduction to the in-between, is that I now possess the ability to traverse many worlds comfortably, and while I may (or may not ever) be truly seen as an insider by any group, I am now confident and content in my own between space that I have carved out in the middle.