In my sophomore year of college, while navigating my gender identity and coming to terms with the fact that I might be a trans guy, I took a course called The Sociology of Gender. One day during class, the professor presented us with a scenario and asked us how our families handled the situation in question at home. The way he asked about our families went like this: “Black men in the room, how did your family address this situation in your home? White men: what about yours? Black women? White women?” My throat closed up as I held back tears. My breathing became incredibly shallow and the room seemed to shrink around my body. I ran out of class as soon as it ended and began pacing tree-lined pathways; the world a green and brown blur before me as I proceeded to have an anxiety attack on top of an identity crisis. Was there no space for me in the world as a biracial trans person? Did I need to become less ambiguous in order to be understood? Did I need to split myself in half in order to claim an experience?
When I was growing up, race was never discussed in my home. From the age of four until I left for college, I lived with the white side of my family in an almost exclusively white and predominately Jewish town. When white girls made fun of my “puffy” hair and I came home crying, my mom took me to a hair salon to get my hair chemically straightened. I don’t blame her for not knowing how to have a conversation about what it means to be black and to be surrounded by whiteness, what it means to be black at all, or what it means to have hair like mine or how to “handle” it. When black kids told me I wasn’t really Jewish, my mom enrolled me in Hebrew school so that I’d learn how to stand up for myself through my knowledge of Judaism. I never learned to stand up for, let alone even claim, my blackness.
Aside from typical micro-aggressions, I was never made to feel like an outcast. I got along with everyone, even though I felt I couldn’t truly relate to anyone. As I grew up, I learned to identify with my Jewish heritage through 14 summers spent at the Jewish Community Center — the only place I’ve ever truly thought of as home. My blackness, however, was simply a conversation piece; a one-time response to “what are you?” or “how do you tan so easily?” The first time I was truly forced to confront my racial identity was during sociology class, and then, through my understanding of myself as a transgender person.
Growing up with my white family and white friends in my white world, I imagined that once I started hormones, I would transition into a white man (or would at least appear closer to white than I did at the time). This was not a conscious train of thought, a will, or an intention. I simply imagined that I would look like what I had been exposed to my whole life — most recently through all of the videos I watched of white men documenting their transitions on YouTube. Somewhere along the line, echoes of the ever-present “you’re no different from us!” from my white friends and family became my truth. As my body changed under the influence of testosterone, I became disoriented. Why didn’t I look like those cute white boys with angular faces that I saw every time I scrolled through tumblr? Why was I starting to look like my dad? What did this mean for me?
Eventually, I realized that my gender identity was just as complicated to come to terms with as my racial identity. I wasn’t black or white, but both; I wasn’t a man or a woman, but neither. The two years I spent living as a man, and the following two years spent navigating my identity as an agender person inspired me to question everything I had been trained to see and embrace about myself — and everything I’d been taught to look away from. Had my mom said to me as a young child, “These are the ways in which you are like mommy and these are the ways in which you are like daddy. I can talk to you about what I experience, and daddy will talk to you about what he experiences. Your life will be different from both of ours, but we are here to talk to you about your questions and feelings,” I may have grown up with a radically different understanding of my racial identity, my gender, and myself. At 24, I now know that there is room for me to hold and explore all of my identities — though I am still figuring out what it means to be black, what it means to be agender, what it means to be me.
Here’s my question for the world: How do we begin to discuss race and gender with people (from a very young age and into adulthood) in a way that allows them to self-reflect, understand themselves, understand themselves in relation to other people, and understand other people’s experiences?
**Tyler’s pronouns are they/them.**