2nd Grade: My only elementary school teacher whose name I don’t remember sits next to me as I practice writing the alphabet in cursive. Up until now, I have written with my right hand.
She sees my atrocious handwriting and asks, “Why are you using your left hand? You’re right-handed.”
I explain I wanted to try writing with my left. She tells me to practice with my “dominant” hand. I spend the next week forced to write with my right hand at school, but doing all of my homework with my left.
The following week, my teacher returns my homework and remarks that my handwriting has improved. Tears fill up my eyes as I tell her that I cheated and used my left hand.
After that, I am allowed to write with my left hand.
Years later I find out I am ambidextrous.
5th grade: I ask my Dad what the kids at school mean when they ask, “What are you?”
“What do you mean?”, he asks in that Dad way between discerning and unfazed.
I explain how they told me I didn’t look white, nor black, nor anything else. I tell him that they said I was weird looking. I ask, “Aren’t we white?”, not knowing what “white” even was.
I remember his raised eyebrow, the way he set his coffee down, the look of my dad finding words in his head. He explains to me what “white” is, as best as you can to a 5th grader, and that I am, in fact, not.
“Well, your mom is white, but I’m not. Neither are you kids.”
My dad’s dad was African-American, and his mom is Native-American (Creek). He explained our shared ancestry to me, though I did not grasp it. This ended up being one of those things he assured me I would “understand” when I’m older. In retrospective, the remarkable part is that I never thought my dad looked like anything. It never crossed my mind. He was simply Dad, and my mom was Mom.
I wrote this down on a secret list I kept for “things I would understand later”, a list that I unfortunately would lose before adulthood.
I remember the years following where I responded “other” to the kids at my southern, predominately white public school who would ask what I “was”. I wish I had found the words and the conviction to tell them who I was. Some of them thought it was neat. Most of them bullied me for being weird. At the time, I attributed this to the fact that I was weird, instead of that I looked different.
8th Grade: The entire grade took a test where we had to submit demographics. I remember nothing about the test, except the last page where we had to check a box indicating our race.
I’d seen these before. Normally I just put “other”. This one had a box with a word I’d never seen before.
I checked that box and was reborn.
High School: As I grew into my features, fewer people noticed. I either passed as white or people got less comfortable asking.
I rolled with off-white.
By the time I entered high school, I don’t even know if my friends knew my ancestry. I didn’t think about it, and I spoke of it even less. They knew I wasn’t white because they knew my dad, and that was it.
What I do remember are the jokes.
“Devon, you little Mexican, help me with my Spanish!”
“The only reason you’re good at math is because you’re part Asian.”
“Can you even see out of those eyes when you laugh?”
“Devon get your inside-out Oreo ass over here.”
I’d never confront them about it. Truth be told, I laughed along with them. This was a southern public school in 2007–2011. Racist jokes were in.
At the time, I didn’t even know they were racist. It would be years before I confronted my own internalized racism, and longer before I would’ve called these microaggressions.
I knew about racism, but because I saw myself as white-passing, I didn’t think I could possibly be receiving it.
12th Grade: Deadmau5’s Strobe blasts in my headphones as I tear open a letter marked Oberlin College in an eloquent typeface. I’m accepted into Oberlin’s Class of 2015. I literally bounce of the walls. All of the hard work I put in, despite (or even to spite) my parents separating my freshman year of high school, materializes in the form of this acceptance letter. I did it. After almost failing my freshman year and scrounging together a whopping 3.5 GPA, I got into one of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the country.
I read through the letter again and notice there’s an extra pamphlet. It turns out, I’ve also received an invitation to visit the college early for an all-expense paid trip as part of their “Multicultural Visit Program”.
At first, I am elated, as I would never be able to afford a visit otherwise, but then that’s replaced by distrust.
First, distrust in the offer: was I accepted as a statistic? Do I owe my acceptance to heritage instead of merit?
And then distrust in myself: I got an invitation to the Multicultural Visit Program. Why me? I’m a white passing, suburbia grown, southern kid. I felt like I barely even had one culture, and the ones I wish I knew, I never found.
I thought there must be someone else who deserves this more. I couldn’t possibly be “multi” enough.
Battling uncertainty, I end up going on the trip. I’m accompanied by my best friend, Emma, who also got into Oberlin, and decided we might as well visit together. On arrival, I am welcomed into the loving arms of the multicultural center at Oberlin. Oberlin is simultaneously not quite what I imagined and more than I could have ever dreamed of. I stay in Afrikan Heritage house (A-House) for the first night of my weekend visit, and the people there blow me away. My host and his friends take me under their wing. We spend the night shooting the shit, playing Super Smash Bros., and discussing the best and worst parts of Oberlin.
For the first time in my life, with the exception of rare gatherings with my dad’s side of the family, I feel accepted into a black community.
First Year, Oberlin College: My initial acceptance does not last and I never quite find my way back to the black community at Oberlin. When I try, I never feel like I belong. The racial impostor syndrome that had been simmering my entire life is now on full boil.
I find a home in the co-ops at Oberlin instead, specifically Harkness co-op, where it is joked that “Harkness is to Oberlin as Oberlin is to the rest of the world.” In other words, it’s the place where the others and the weird come together to shine. Harkness felt safer than anywhere else at Oberlin, which is ironic considering the rest of Oberlin gossiped how “unsafe” it was.
I’m fortunate to find a few multiracial friends, though we rarely talk about it. I regret not having those conversations more often. However, I am content.
Senior Year, Oberlin College: I’m in full senior year stride, enjoying a drink with a few friends at the only bar in the small town of Oberlin, Ohio. One drink turns into two, three, more. I get sloppy drunk, feeling invincible in my senior glow.
I remember nothing else from that night, except the anxious, crushing feeling that hit between vomiting and falling asleep, knowing I cheated on my girlfriend. Worse, I cheated on her with one of my only multiracial friends.
I ruined my relationship with both of them in a night. I told my (ex) girlfriend the following morning, and she was heartbroken. We stayed together until after graduation, but it was never the same. I broke her trust. My multiracial friend and I grew distant as well. She had the same heritage as me (black/native dad, white mom) and was one of the only people I connected to on racial impostor syndrome. We stopped speaking for the rest of the year.
Whereas in my past I felt disconnected from communities, this time I felt disconnected from myself. I couldn’t get over what I’d done to people I loved, couldn’t believe the person I saw in the mirror. The regret still sits with me today.
May, 2016: I’ve lived in the real world for one year, anchored on the isthmus between the quiet lakes of Madison, WI, where I share an apartment with my two best friends. It’s been a rough year, but I’m relieved to take a trip with my best friend, Emma, back to our Alma Mater to celebrate our friends in the class of 2016's commencement. The drive from Madison to Oberlin is 6–7 hours.
We speak at length about gender, and I fully realize something I’d been thinking about for a while leading up to that: I wasn’t a boy. Emma, who hadn’t yet transitioned, admits similar feelings.
Both of us were raised as boys, but we talked about how we didn’t feel like boys. Our families expected us to become men, but instead we found our true paths. Emma embraced hers, and I stitched together mine.
It took trial and error. I realized during that car trip that I wasn’t a boy, though I also didn’t feel like a girl. Over the months that followed, I couldn’t place what exactly I did feel like. I related to some parts of being a boy, and others with being a girl. Eventually I settled on the only gender that made sense to me: neither. I’m non-binary.
I try it on for size: They/Them. It fits a little loose, but comfortably. I admit it’s a good look.
June, 2020: Anger. Anger at the state of the world, at the deaths of innocents in a community I don’t feel fully accepted into. Anger that another 600-mile pipeline is being planned through indigenous lands. Anger at the thought that many years ago my black ancestor declared his freedom and took on the name Augustus, while today I sit here practicing the uncertain calculus of how much space my anger is allowed to take up.
June, 2020: I write this as an attempt to analyze and share my experience checking the “other” box.
Though I was looking for catharsis, instead I find myself wondering how many others share similar experiences. I would go tell each of them that there’s a community to be found in the cracks between communities.