Growing up, I quickly learned that being the blackest in the room sometimes meant feeling like more of a museum attraction than a human being.

At home, Black culture was core to who I was. It was core to my mother and to my father. It was ironic then, that I seemed to gain a deeper understanding of my culture and identity when I was thrown into spaces that didn’t completely understand it. As I was forced to go out of my comfort zone, I was able to gain a stronger sense of self and a deeper love for my melanin.

In my freshman year of high school, I entered a world unlike any other that I’d experienced. Navigating spaces that weren’t predominantly Black was a new challenge for me. It wasn’t a question of feeling unwelcome, rather, there was a sort of quiet curiosity that followed my presence in the school. It was clear that some of the students had never met anyone like me before.

Code-switching was an art I soon learned I needed to perfect.

I couldn’t just be who I was in those predominantly Black spaces that I used to occupy. I needed to adapt. I was young and internalized the belief that code-switching and fitting in required me to compromise pieces of myself as well as the culture that I valued so much. At the time, it seemed to be the only way I could thrive in places where “blackness” wasn’t understood. 

At the same time, while I tried to shift and change, so many others sought to restrict that same “blackness.” They tried to lay claim over what traits I embodied that could be defined as such. And what other traits could be defined as something else…

“Whiteness.” An idea that followed anything I did that didn’t fit in the two-by-four matrix of what a Black man is supposed to be. I guess we have movies and TV shows to thank for that. “Blackness” has never been so simple. So bland and uninteresting. But so many people believe it to be.

I rock with people for who they are, and the energy they share with the world. I had to learn to exude that confidence in who I was, while remaining aware of the energy of the audience and the perspectives of those around me.

Instead of solely asking who my audience needed me to be, I asked instead, what are the values that represent me? What morals, beliefs, and creed(s) do I want to reflect? By asking questions about myself at a greater level, the weight of day-to-day code-switching seemed to slip away.

I know who I am. And occupying diverse spaces has only served to deepen my understanding of myself. Beyond that, I’ve also learned the need for understanding others for who they are, as opposed to what I may initially perceive them to be.