I was raised to make white people feel comfortable with my blackness.
I don’t blame my parents for this. They grew up in the generation of Strange Fruit, where looking at a white person the wrong way could (and often did) result in an Emmett Till type situation. My diction, clothes, and general temperament were carefully crafted in a way so as to keep my blackness from being an impediment in a society that was openly hostile to melanin. In the short run, my parents were trying to protect me from the harm of being “othered.”
In the long run, they were trying to save my life.
Changing the nature of who you are in an effort to keep from being othered isn’t a condition that is limited to melanated people. Every name that’s been anglicized, every accent that’s been muted, every hair that’s been straightened, every boy forced to “man up,” every food made less spicy (much to its detriment), every woman who’s been pressured to “be one of the boys” in a corporate situation, is an example of people contorting themselves, in vain efforts to be “accepted.”
While othering isn’t new, it took on diabolical tones as this country became a nation. Genocide requires more than just killing people by the millions; in addition to wholesale slaughter, you must kill their culture. Erasure was a necessary part of carving the myth of Manifest Destiny, as it assuaged the consciences of “civilized” men as they raped, stole from, and killed “savages.”
To soften the brutal assault on individual personage, the lore of the “Melting Pot” was created as immigrants found their way to our shores, as if anyone voluntarily wants to self-diminish; to be superheated to the point where they melt, and are blended into others in an endless sea of bland sameness.
Every sacrifice made on the altar of assimilation to the god of homogeneity is an act of violence.
For years, I used humor as a way of lessening the severity of the damage self-diminishing does to my soul. I squashed my polygonal peg into round holes never designed to accommodate the breadth and depth of my expanse, only to be rejected anyway. It took a long time for me to realize it is not my job or responsibility to shrink myself in order to make others feel comfortable with my oppression.
It’s others job to expand their bandwidth.
With all due respect to the survival techniques of my ancestors, I am entirely done with the self-mutilation of conformity, as if it ever helped. I’ve stopped trying to prove I have a right to exist to those who would extinguish me. I’m done with pretending to be less in order to make others feel more. It takes too goddamned long to become a person, and to LOVE who you’ve become to self-immolate just so others can stay warm. I’m done with self-imposed hushed tones if it means I can’t be embraced for all of who I am, and yet will be. No one has to like my Outside Voice except for me.
Y’all just have to deal.
This piece was written as a part of the OUTSIDE VOICES project.
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