The In-between: “Behind Enemy Lines”

1/23/2019

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Back in June of 2017, my best friend got married on a farm outside Higbee, Missouri. For those of you who are not familiar with Higbee (which I have a feeling is probably everyone), it is a very small rural town in central Missouri, about an hour’s drive north of Columbia. Even though I didn’t make it into the actual town of Higbee much at all that week, the area struck me as being quite like what one would expect of the rural Midwest: a small and relatively homogeneous (White) community, scattered amongst fields of wheat and corn that were intermittently dotted by grazing cattle and the occasional red wooden barn.

Although I was excited to be in my bestie’s boho-country-chic wedding, and to be spending some much-needed quality time with her and my two oldest god-kids, even before I arrived in Higbee, I remember feeling a little nervous. While it was true that I had already been to the region several times before over the last fifteen years, this time I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Not only did I not know anyone else attending the wedding beyond my friend’s immediate family and her soon-to-be-husband, but also, what I did know, was that I was about to be smack dab in the middle of a deeply red state. This had been the case the last dozen or so times that I had traveled to the area over the years; however, on this visit, less than eight months after the 2016 presidential election, I knew the vibe would be different.

Growing up in the bright blue, hippie-liberal college town of Madison, Wisconsin, the sensation of being surrounded by red was not at all foreign to me. When I was a kid, the general impression I got from those around me was that beyond the city limits, things got real red, real quick. At the time, the most notorious example of this shift was the nearby town of Janesville, which was situated just 90 miles to the south of Madison, on the border of Illinois. During my formative years, this town was widely recognized as being the regional center for KKK activity, likely as the result of a major rally that took place there in 1992.

Because of Janesville’s reputation, I also remember being a little bit scared the time my high school gymnastics team journeyed there for a meet. Even though I had lived nearby practically my whole life, stepping off the bus and entering the gymnasium that afternoon was the first occasion I’d had to actually set foot in the area. Of course, my lack of personal experience hadn’t kept me from forming opinions about the kinds of people I would run into and what to expect while I was there, which meant that no matter how hard I tried, I was never quite able to quell the uneasy voice in the back of my head that kept whispering “be careful, these people are different from you.”

Flying into Missouri, that summer of 2017, from the liberal megalopolis that is the California Bay Area, I remember feeling that same sense of anxious uncertainty wash over me as I gazed out the plane’s window at the landscape gliding by below. Just as I did while a teenager, peering out the bus window as we drove through the city of Janesville on our way to the school, I looked at the houses passing by, and each time, thought to myself “I wonder if the person who lives there is racist.” Of course, a part of me knew that this was a ridiculous, reductive, and rather extreme question to be asking, but that didn’t prevent me from keeping my guard up, as I was first introduced to the other wedding guests and random strangers whom I encountered there that week.

Not surprisingly, these precautions were, for the most part, entirely unnecessary. All of the other wedding guests were there to relax and have a good time, just like me, and we found plenty of things to build connections on because, as it turns out, we were not actually all that different. Admittedly, there were a few awkward interactions that occurred during my visit, mainly in conjunction with the property owner who was visibly puzzled by my racial ambiguity. However, even he surprised me by revealing himself to be far more complex than the two-dimensional caricature of a small-town redneck racist that my imagination had presumed him to be.

I was reminded of this experience last month, as I was preparing to return to central Missouri once again. The night before my flight, I was speaking with a fellow activist on the phone, who, upon hearing where I was headed, groaned sympathetically and informed me that she herself never ventured out “behind enemy lines.” I chuckled at the reference and we ended the call amicably; however, after hanging up the phone I sat there for a moment feeling uneasy, her words echoing in my ear.

Perhaps it is the destiny of in-betweeners to be able to see all sides of a contentious debate, and to find value in the ability of individuals to stake out a position of understanding in the middle. While I certainly understand and empathize with the urge to avoid potential conflict and unpleasant encounters by opting not to engage, I also realize that pursuing such interactions is really the only way forward. As much as I enjoy the comfort of my bubbles (I wrote about their importance in an earlier essay), the very nature of the in-between dictates that one also grows comfortable with difference. Thus, I continue to find myself venturing out into spaces of unfamiliarity and exploring them in search of connection and mutual understanding.

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Lorien Hunter
Lorien Hunter is a writer, researcher and aspiring world traveler who currently lives in San Jose, California. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Southern California, where she examined digital media, popular culture and marginalized communities. Today, she is a regular contributing writer at Bi.org, where her weekly column, The In-between, centers on her experiences as a biracial bi woman finding comfort and belonging in the spaces between worlds.