Accepting my the Other Part of Myself

By McCall Brooke

(This piece is a nominated entry to "Who Am I/Who Are They" Multimedia Essay Contest)

What are you? I would be a very rich woman if I had a dollar for every time that I have been asked this fairly strange inquiry. While I often pretend to be annoyed by this silly question, deep down inside I’ve always secretly treasured my peers’ curiosity. In fact, it would be quite immoral of me to say that I don’t pride myself on my diverse background and my inability to fit squarely into any particular mold. Needless to say, I memorized my monologue of a response quite some time ago: Oh gosh where do I begin? Well, my father appears very European but in actuality...

However, the conviction with which I used to recite this monologue has often masked the truth, for even as I relish in my distinctive roots and appearance, I’ve always held a degree of shame for certain elements of my background, namely those that pertain to my African-American heritage. A Catholic school student of twelve years, it was hard not to notice my unique traits amidst my predominately Irish and Italian peers. None of my elementary school friends ever meant a stitch of harm when they playfully tugged at my big, “poofy” hair or insisted that there was no way I needed sunscreen, but nonetheless, their comments always made me uneasy.

My high school years played out in much the same way. I never found myself the victim of a hate crime or racial exclusion or even so much as a cruel joke, but I certainly became more aware not only of my own differences, but those that separate all members of Black and Brown communities. I always chuckled along each time I was designated the “token Black friend” or whenever a new love interest would attribute my curves to my skin color, but that too was just a facade for the inferno of shame that blazed inside of me, greedy to incinerate all ties with the Black community.

Sadly, Duke’s racial dynamics only added fuel to the fire. As I grew accustomed to Pegram in the Fall of 2013, I tucked — no, thrusted — my Black identity under the bed alongside my leftover room decorations. Though I wanted nothing more than to form a diverse friend group, I was simultaneously terrified of association with a community that clearly held less power at Duke. I didn’t want my opportunities to be limited as a woman of color, and even more than that, I worried that I would be outwardly shunned.

While I gravitated towards student activism, taking a role as a Senator for DSG’s Committee of Equity and Outreach, forming a coalition against financial exclusion of undocumented students, and taking coursework that challenged institutional norms, I did so as a sympathetic ally, rather than an empathetic community member. I was the first to preach about the systemic inequalities that marred Duke’s campus, but didn’t truly possess the courage to step outside of the circles that promoted the injustice I berated. Sadly, I allowed my identity crises to restrain me from fully engaging in the change that I wanted to see in my environment.

It wasn’t until last year’s tragedy, which has conveniently been labeled the “noose incident” that I decided enough had been enough, both in terms of our university’s racial relations and my relation with my own identity. Truth be told, I only first heard of the incident after receiving condolences from friends. Although I should have applauded their concern for the wellbeing of their Black peers, I found myself irrationality irritated. I couldn’t understand their reasoning for reaching out to me when there were certainly dozens of other students whose emotional turmoil and sense of insecurity far outweighed my own. It didn’t take long for me to realize though, that this too was a symptom of my strategically crafted disguise.

In the wake of this incredibly eye-opening event, it suddenly dawned on me that my attempts to subdue my Blackness hadn’t worked. It took all of my willpower not to explode when I was invited to represent the Black community before a room full of my predominately White sorority sisters. There is no question that I was just as enraged by the recent events as Duke’s most vocal advocates, but I was terrified of being portrayed as another victim. However, as I cut through the thick tension that hung heavily in the air, the site that awaited me on the Chapel steps that afternoon finally doused the fire of cowardice that I had let burn for far too long.

The same people from whom I had feared exclusion stood in determined alliance against the symbol of hatred that polluted our campus. It was the sight of the so-called “victims,” however, that hit me hardest. One by one, I watched Black leaders, visionaries, and change-makers express their unshakeable commitments to peaceful protest and cross-cultural collaboration. I admired more than anything their capacities to not only embrace, but flaunt their identities at a time when flight would have been more than acceptable. They had bravely chosen to cherish their roots even as they were being punished for them. I questioned how I had weakly denied my ancestry in much safer settings. It become undeniably clear that I couldn't possibly attempt to fight for justice if I didn't have the courage to battle my own demons.

That day, instead of wallowing in my supposed lack of privilege, I chose to celebrate the fact that I could defend a beautiful community's human dignity as both an ally and an insider. For the first time in my Duke career, I didn't run from the adversity. In fact, I inched, shoved, then sprinted towards the front of the crowd to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters, ready to take on the fight as one of them.