September 12, 2016
What does it mean to be a fraud? Dancing in and out of an identity trying to find your place in a system that forces you to make choices. Living in a black and white world that stretches from skin color to language, it is hard to understand who you are when our existence is defined by a binary. Over the past few months the world has been rocked with shootings, riots, and rhetoric that has caused a significant divide. We are reaching the tail end of election that has exposed the true nature of a “Great” America. In all of this, I have been left wondering where my place is in the conversation.
To go back to my original question, what does it mean to be a fraud, I have struggled my entire life to understand who I am. I am the son of a white woman. I am the son of a black man. I was raised by a white woman. I learned to be a man on my own. I was surrounded by friends that influenced me both positively and negatively. I am the older brother to four siblings. I am a first generation college student. I am a graduate. Yet, when I look around at the world today, I have come to understand that my life has been spent trying to fit into a box. My dueling identities constantly competing with one another like two devils sitting on each shoulder trying to win my heart and mind. Like a game of tug-of-war, I have been locked in this virtual zero-sum end game where the only acceptable outcome is for me to choose one identity and abandon the other.
Society is set up in black and white. We all know the historical context for this construct. It is engrained in our language, political structure, and our social structure. It is so deeply entrenched that we are predisposed to feel a certain way when we simply hear the word black and white. One, a symbol defined as sullied and dark. The other, a symbol defined as purity and light. So, as a young man growing up unable to truly stand in either, I was left with a great deal of confusion that I am still uncertain that I have fully been able to work through.
This life experience has shaped my worldview. I have come to understand the concept of passing. I understand what it means to be discriminated against, profiled, and harassed. However, I also understand that I have moments of privilege. These moments afforded to me by my light complexion that often leaves people questioning what my racial identity actually is. So, to connect it to the world that we live in today, I have found myself back in that familiar position of searching for my place and finding my voice.
The events of the past few months regarding police brutality and the election have found me in a strange place when it comes to managing my emotions. As someone who dances between the very real feeling of fear regarding police and political rhetoric and the internal voice telling me that others have it worse than me, I have struggled to deal with my concerns. My black identity has become far more salient than my white identity, however, I have yet to fully claim that space as my focus has shifted to concern, support, and fear for my friends and family who do not have the ambiguity that my light skin affords me. I sit and I listen to these fears which places me in a place of support, never truly dealing with concerns of my own personal safety.
How do I reconcile a life lived through two different lenses? One lens experiencing first-hand the oppression that comes with being a man of color. The other lens experiencing privilege and having the ability to choose how I identify and having that be, at times, accepted. A continual collision of oppression and guilt. Working to find comfort in an undefined place. Trying to be authentic at all times but continually afraid that my dueling identities challenge that authenticity making me a fraud, no matter the setting.
What does it mean to be a fraud? I don’t know. I am not sure if it is age. I am not sure if it is experience. I am not sure if it has been my career, which has been spent in the service of others, that has landed me at this place of being unapologetically me. I am a black man. This has become my core identity as it is the identity that is always at the forefront due to the way I have to navigate the world. I am a white man. I recognize that oppression is not always my first interaction with systems and people. I am oppressed. I am privileged.
I am the real. A man of color not defined by one identity but strengthened by the diverse nature of my experiences. I am a better support because of my oppression and have a full understanding that my moments of privilege provide me with an opportunity to educate and offer an opportunity for me to lift others up.
What does it mean to be a fraud?
I hope that I never find out and I live a life that is authentically executed for the service of others. A life spent leaving everything I touch better than how I found it. That is all I can do. As a student affairs professional, I have a responsibility to be the best version of myself. I have a responsibility as a lifelong learner to continually ask myself the tough questions. I have a front row seat to our future and if I can, by sharing my experience and bringing my authentic self to my work, influence the thinking of a generation; A fraudulent existence I will never have.
Nate Johnson is an Assistant Director for Residence Education at the University of Connecticut. He is entering his 13th year in Student Affairs. He has a sincere passion for the student experience and social justice. The definition of a helper, he is committed to the development of others as well as his own development and learning.
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