The In-between: The Search for Belonging

2/22/2019

Image by rawpixel.com

Ever since I began writing this column last year, I have started recognizing the in-between everywhere. I’ll be listening to music while out running and a song will come on that talks about being caught between two worlds, and I’ll think to myself, “Hey, that person is singing about the in-between!” Or, I’ll be at a conference listening to a presenter discuss their research, and one of the slides will mention something about feelings of non-belonging, and again, I’ll think to myself, “Hey, that person is talking about the in-between too!” Consequently, over the last ten months, I have grown increasingly sensitive to the fact that I seem to be surrounded. It is perhaps of little wonder, then, that again this past week I became acutely aware of the in-between experience as I eagerly read through the pages of Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.

For those of you who are not already familiar with Trevor Noah or his memoir, first of all, you really should be. Whether or not you have any interest at all in the in-between, the dude is friggen hilarious, and, in my opinion, one cannot accrue too many good laughs in a single day (the audio version is particularly good for this reason). However, for those of you who are out there in search of clarity or a deeper understanding of the in-between, Noah’s recollection of his experiences growing up biracial in Apartheid South Africa serves as a particularly rich opportunity to listen in on it from a markedly different, yet still familiar, perspective. Even if your particular connections to the in-between have nothing at all to do with race, his recollections and insights will undoubtedly still prove to be invaluable and significant.

By this point, it probably goes without saying that I have always been one of those people out there in search of clarity and a deeper understanding of the in-between. As I detail in one of my earliest essays, the mysteries of race (and my own biraciality) hung like a thick fog in the air of my childhood home, which consequently led me into the world of books as a means of unraveling them. By high school, on any given day, I could be spotted engrossed in a memoir or autobiography detailing the life of some random person or other; however, I was always especially drawn to narratives featuring biracial experiences and Blackness.

My gravitation towards Noah’s story, then, is not at all surprising. Although my consumption of memoirs (or any other form of pleasure reading, for that matter) had dwindled down to almost nothing during graduate school, in the last eighteen months, as part of my post-Ph.D. life-reclamation process, I have slowly begun turning toward them again. Because Noah’s background is in some ways quite similar to mine (born to both a White parent and a Black parent in a time and place where there weren’t many other mixed families around) picking up his book after I finished The Autobiography of Gucci Mane (2017) seemed so natural and familiar that I didn’t even question it.

When I got to the fourth chapter entitled “Chameleon,” however, I was poignantly confronted with the reason I sought out these books in my childhood, and why they continue to be essential to my ongoing psychological evolution even today. In the opening vignette, Noah describes the preferential treatment he received as a child due to his race, but then points out that he had no way of accurately identifying its root cause at the time:

At that point I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. I thought of it as having to do with Trevor. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is [W]hite.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.” Trevor can’t go outside. Trevor can’t walk without supervision. It’s because I’m me; that’s why this is happening. I had no other points of reference. There were no other mixed kids around so that I could say, “Oh, this happens to us.” (52)

Suddenly, it occurred to me, that this is why I sought out these stories—not only to establish a point of reference for myself, but also to develop this sense of “us.” Growing up, even though my brother, who is also biracial, lived in that same house with me, he and I were kept rather separate and our treatment was noticeably different; therefore, I was not quite able to develop that sense of belonging with him until we reconvened as adults.

In the meantime, I sought out refuge in books like Noah’s for places to belong. Reading his “Chameleon” chapter, for example, I came to his discussion of language and how he used it as a tool with which to cultivate a sense of sameness with others, and was reminded of how my own penchant for code switching has rendered me similar results. Similarly, a few chapters later, when he describes his experiences navigating through high school as an agreeable outsider, I immediately thought of my own time floating between groups in high school, which I wrote about briefly in an essay about LA Pride last year. On these occasions and many others, I read Noah’s experiences and immediately got excited, because the realizations of sameness that I experienced was feeding a sense of belonging that I continue to crave.

When returning to this book in preparation of writing this essay, it then also occurred to me that this mission to seek out belonging was a driving force behind my writing (and perhaps also your reading) this column, too. In the process of my writing and your reading we continue to suss out our various points of commonality with each other, and we strive to build a sense of community between us. In a world where I would venture to guess that most people experience some form of either physical or metaphorical isolation, finding reflections of ourselves in other people’s lives is a very effective way of bridging those gaps and making us feel confident that we do, indeed, belong.

Lorien Hunter on FacebookLorien Hunter on InstagramLorien Hunter on Twitter
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.