Growing up in inner-city neighborhoods, there’s a particular structure, which I’m sure is true of most social contexts. The type of person you are determines the role you play. The divisions between one part and the next are not always clearly marked, but everyone knows where the boundaries are. When kids are young, they don’t play a role. They just stick to whatever their siblings or closest friends are. But when young adulthood arrives, everyone gets sorted like Divergent. You become the part that best suits you and you play that role. As I grew older, I noticed five major roles I could possibly assume.
A gangsta must be an active gang member. Once you prove you’re committed to the family, even willing to kill for it, you’re allowed to join. Gangstas are responsible for holding down the block. They have to “put in work,” which might include tagging up a wall with graffiti and mark it with the gang’s name, robbing someone and bringing in money, or taking out an enemy. Unlike other roles, this one is not extra-curricular or optional. The “gang life” is a way of life.
Our community also boasted a few talented athletes. Everyone was proud of people who filled this role, so the community made sure athletes stayed out of trouble and away from drugs.
As far as my friends and I were concerned, if you didn’t fit any of the other roles I mentioned, you were an OJ or “Ordinary Joker.” These people are almost invisible. They often stay in their house or at least their own yards. No matter what I became, I was determined not to be an OJ. We didn’t want that identity.
As a kid, I spent most of my time with gangstas because of my Uncle Chris. When I hung out with my Uncle Chris, things got real. He was fun, talkative, and loud. He was the life of the party, and a magnet for mischief. Since he saw the world through a gangsta’s lens, he wanted me to become tough and aggressive. He would make me confront kids who stole from me or picked on me. He would make us scrap like pit bulls until one of us was bleeding and didn’t want to keep going. I got beat up a lot until I learned to fight a little.
I was hungry for male attention, and Uncle Chris offered a father-like relationship. I was hungry for acceptance, and Uncle Chris symbolized the promise of a family-like community. And I had idolized gangsta rappers like Tupac and Ice Cube and movies like Boyz In the Hood and Menace to Society. Uncle Chris seemed like the living embodiment of everything my heroes sang about. Hanging with him was like seeing all my heroes up close. Gangs have ranking systems, and I’m not sure where Uncle Chris fell, but it felt to me at the time like he was at the top. The more I idolized Uncle Chris, the more he drew me into his world. He was proud to have someone revere him, and he was raising me to be like him.
I shared this with you because at the end of the day we all look to emulate someone — whether a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, friend, you name it. We want acceptance, and we’re fighting for self-esteem. As children we look up to people, for better or worse, and see them as the standard for how we should act and identify ourselves. As we wrestle with questions of identity, we imitate those actions we think best fill an ambiguity we have within ourselves. And that goes for everyone; no one is free from this condition.
Knowing that this is true of everyone, we have a great opportunity to listen (not a well-championed virtue in our culture) and ask good, purposeful questions — always full of grace — to the people we meet daily. We can get to know their hopes, dreams, and fears. We get to know their story and find out whom they’re trying to be like. Maybe they’re trying to be just like you.