When I'm in the Atlanta airport and someone working there calls me "baby," in that sweet, Southern, not-in-a-hurry kind of way, like, "What'll you have to drink, babay?" I feel something stir inside me. It's a feeling of warmth, of belonging.
I'm not from Atlanta, Georgia. Nor have I actually "been" to Atlanta. I've only flown through, and every time someone who works there calls me baby, I just melt. In the hustle and bustle of travel, it's a moment where I truly feel at home... something I rarely feel in any context, especially at an airport.
The idea of home is something I've always struggled with. I don't always know how to answer the question "where are you from." The honest answer would be, "DeBary, Florida," but I know that's not what people are really asking. I look Latina. They want to know more.
I don't even know how to be politically correct about my own identity, to be honest. I never have. I self identify as a Latina country girl. There's not a check box for that on any of the forms I fill out (yet?). I go with it anyway.
I'm a native of Central Florida, in many ways a place in between a more "southern" north (i.e., the Florida Georgia Line, also a band I love) and a largely Spanish-speaking south (i.e., Miami). My heritage, my parents, kind of embody both. One from Puerto Rico, one from Sanford, Florida.
I grew up in a small town where the only thing that ever made my biracial identity apparent was the difference in food (and language) amongst family holiday get-togethers, and that one time in high school a kid at my own lunch table called me a "spic" in jest (I didn't even know what it meant or that it was derogatory until I saw the shame on his face when he mistook my confusion for offense).
The thing I'm most embarrassed about is my quiet sense of accomplishment that my friends felt I was "basically white." Was this said, or implied? I can't remember. I never thought about race as a teenager, never knew about power and privilege or systems of oppression aside from history homework. I feel disgusted when I think about all the ways I was privileged myself, how easy it is to "not know" about race or power or privilege when you don't have to live the brunt of it every day. And thus, somehow, despite my naiveté, I knew being grouped with the white people was a privilege. That terrifies me.
When I started at a community college, it was the first time I became really close friends with a much greater diversity of people. They too were into academics and wanted to do more with their life. We bonded, and my groupings of friends were more diverse than ever before. I started to feel at home.
But, as happens in community college, as soon as you start to feel at home, it's time to go.
I graduated with my AA degree and transferred to a private school with an amazing scholarship. I loved the education, the professors, the old buildings, and the opportunities. But that sense of home I'd just started to gain was gone. Suddenly, I couldn't deeply connect with anyone and I didn't know why.
I couldn't bond with people over Greek life because I couldn't afford it. I didn't live on campus and I hadn't known these people since I was a freshman and my dad wasn't a doctor, lawyer, business owner, or pilot.
People were nice, friendly even. They were kind. But we weren't friends, and that was a first for me.
I felt at home academically, snug in the old buildings, listened to by my incredible professors, challenged by the curriculum, engaged by the extracurriculars. But, "home," that feeling of laughter with friends, talking about random TV and music, relating. I couldn't find that. It may have been there, but for some reason, it eluded me.
After I graduated college, where I learned so much more about the beauties and tragedies of diversity in society, I started to like my weird name that people always mispronounced ("Iza?"). I no longer tired of saying, "It's like "Lisa" but without the 'L.'" I even started to love that people asked "what are you?" Different, somehow, seemed okay, good even.
When my first book was published, the first article written about it was written in Spanish, in the newspaper El Mundo Boston. The paper asked me to speak at their annual networking event and do a book signing. This community was embracing me and I was thrilled.
The event program was in English, but, just as in family holidays on my dad's side, Spanish could be heard all around, scattered like sprinkles in my favorite funfetti cupcakes.
Except I am not a sprinkle; I don't speak Spanish. And while I'd like to tell you, "I finally know I'm enough and it's okay," I still feel a tiny sense of shame when I just had to write/admit that I don't speak this language that people, upon looking at me, assume I should speak. With a name like mine and a face like my father's (in response to the constant comments on our resemblance, he'd jovially say, "Yes, she's like me without the mustache!" -- thanks, Dad) I "should" speak Spanish, right? I've even tried to learn in my adult life, spending over $1,000 on learning materials and programs.
Yo soy terrible.
Language learning has been so much harder than I thought it would be, and it's discouraging when people who grew up being fluent tell me they have forgotten a lot when they stopped using it after moving to the US. What?? I think. I don't even know where I'd use it often. How am I ever going to get this?
I was hoping to talk to my grandma with it, but she died mid-Rosetta Stone.
So at my very first book signing, with beautiful Spanish being spoken all around me, a young girl gave me a dirty look when I admitted I didn't speak Spanish; she then talked to a friend loudly about how weird I was because I was from Florida and didn't speak Spanish, because everyone she knew from Florida spoke Spanish. All I could feel was her disdain for me.
I knew I should just shake it off, but in that moment, I felt inferior.
I was supposed to be speaking up for this community, being a role model. And yet, alas, I didn't even speak Spanish. Maybe I don't really count.
And that brings me to the movie Dear White People. This movie was the first time I'd ever seen a character struggle with the subtleties of navigating multiple races, especially on a college campus. It was the first time I'd ever seen such a visual of what it feels like to not totally feel like you are part of a "group." It was the first time someone else showed me what it feels like to sometimes feel like an impostor, a chameleon; what it feels like to wonder if you really do have to pick a side.
There's a scene in the movie where one of the main characters, Sam (played by the amazing Tessa Thompson), is "caught" for liking Taylor Swift; "I was so careful," she says about trying to hide her "secret" playlists, making everyone in the movie theater laugh. I laugh too.
And I feel relieved. Overjoyed. I jump up, popcorn flying, and shout, "Me too!! I have every album and song she's ever done and I've liked her from the first time I heard 'Tim McGraw' on country radio!! Let's be best friends and go on the 1989 concert together!!"
But thankfully, I'm still in my movie theater seat. This only happens in my head. But it's just as dramatic.
I feel recognized. I feel less alone. I feel whole.
The night before I saw Dear White People, I'd watched a special where Oprah interviewed Tyler Perry at his home. In response to critics he explained the pressure and problem of being the "only" in any world, of being the exception, the trailblazer. He's just telling his stories, he explains, he's writing what he knows, and he can't know or embody the stories of everyone. In the interview, he expressed the need for more storytellers.
Dear White People is what happens when we have more diversity in any place of power -- entertainment being a very influential one. There is no way Dear White People could have affected me so powerfully if Justin Simien, its writer, producer, and director, wasn't writing from a place of real experience. He knows this story. I'm guessing, on some level, he's lived it. And to me, Dear White People is exactly what Tyler Perry was talking about. More storytellers. More stories. More representation of both the beauty and the tension of diversity that we see (or choose not to see) every day. There are still so many stories that need to be told.
Most people think their story is boring, or paradoxically both equal parts weird and common. You may be right that your story is both weird and common, but I promise you, common is not boring. We're dying for common, shared, communicated experience. We want to be unique, sure, but I think we long more to not feel alone.
Tell your story. Give someone permission to feel whole, to feel like they belong, if only for a moment.
Your story matters.
And if you don't see anyone with your story doing what you want to do, no one who likes what you like or looks like you look or speaks like you speak, don't let that discourage you. Instead let it serve as a call to action -- if you don't feel you're represented, it may just mean we need your voice all the more urgently.
I can honestly say I've wanted to write an article like this for a long, long time. I was always too scared. Justin Simien gave me courage. You never know who might need your story, who might be inspired by it.
Because somewhere there is someone like you sitting in a proverbial darkened movie theater; a young woman wishing she could see herself represented; a young man wondering if there's really a place for him.
And while I hope you set out to do big things, because you can, know that a "big thing" can also be genuinely smiling at someone at an airport and making them feel noticed, loved even.
No matter how you identify yourself or where you happen to find yourself on the spectrum of power and privilege, think about one thing you can do or say or ask today that can make someone feel a little bit less alone, and a little bit more at home. If you're stumped, start by asking someone this question, "tell me your story." And then, here's the crucial part: really listen.