I Don’t Belong Here: My Otherness, My Privilege

I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.

James Baldwin

As I hurtle toward the midpoint of my 50s, I am more acutely aware of the intersection of my redneck past and anxiety.

Wrestling with debilitating and relentless anxiety is, I realize, a journey; there is no finish line where anxiety is left behind.

And there is only a tortured peace in knowing and having the compassion of those who understand because those who understand, we must recognize, share the same prison.

Anxiety, for me, is the tension between who we are in our bones as that contrasts with the expectations of whatever cultural or subcultural norms in which we exist.

This brings me once again to my redneck past.

Born, having grown up, and living as well as working in the South for almost 55 years, I am simultaneously a white, heterosexual man of the South and in many ways an outsider in that same homeland.

In my late teens and early 20s, mostly during the formative years of college, I had to confront who I was in my bones that did not match the racism and fervent, evangelical religiosity of South Carolina.

When I opened my mouth then, when I open my mouth now and utter the same words I write almost daily, anyone within ear shot has the same recognition that my dear friend and brief mentor Joe Kincheloe had the first time we spoke on the phone, “Why, you are from the South aren’t you”—in a drawl that sounded very much like home to me.

Joe passed away far too young in 2008, and we co-authored a book in 2006 as part of his limitless kindness as an academic who had struggled to find his place in academia—where from the South to the Midwest and then the Northeast (before fleeing to Canada), Joe confessed to me that he was routinely marginalized for his Southernness, notably his drawl that I share.

Joe and I share something else that is very important—an Otherness beneath the powerful veneer of our tremendous privileges of race, gender, sexuality, and academic proclivities.

I am not completely sure of how this happened for Joe, but I know that coming to recognize and understand my Otherness began to build in me the humility I needed to avoid falling victim to my privilege—to avoid believing that my accomplishments were more the result of unique effort or qualities in me than my unwarranted privilege.

Like battling anxiety, however, that is a journey, not a destination.

Especially in high school, I found myself nearly physically repelled by organized religion—drawn again by my bones to George Carlin and later Kurt Vonnegut for their artful deconstructing of moral and ethical ways of being that transcend religiosity or even claims of a Higher Power.

I was being told (and still am being told) in the South that without accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I was a sinner destined for hell—living morally and ethically simply wasn’t enough. The baseball bat of dogma batters basic human decency, you see.

These formative years built my lifelong repulsion for hypocrisy and judgment, coercion—both in my own ways of being and in the behavior of others (especially those in power).

My lingering drawl tells people without doubt I am a Southerner, but since at least my teen years, I have been a stranger in that homeland.

And then in 2002, I moved from teaching English in my hometown’s high school to a university less than an hour away.

Unlike my high school students, however, my college students were occasionally not from the South.

In one of those first years, a student who claimed I was her favorite professor told me during a conference in my office, “I know you are smart, but you don’t sound smart.”

And that resonates with me still, when I hear myself teaching in a blur of passion about that day’s discussion turn a one-syllable word into two. I find myself now stopping and confessing how my redneck self just slipped out of my mouth. It has become a self-deprecating joke, one that elicits laughter, but is yet more veneer to cover my anxiety, my low self-esteem born out of that relentless anxiety.

I know I am smart, but I don’t sound smart.

It’s a journey.

I left teaching high school where I was a badgered non-believer and evolving Marxist to find myself a working-class academic in a selective liberal arts university where otherwise enlightened souls trample on that redneck past.

I don’t belong here—this is my internal monologue on repeat, a not-so-soothing soundtrack beneath the other perpetual internal dialogue with myself that is anxiety (I narrate tales of impending doom endlessly to myself).

As I was recently talking with a rare wonderful who understands (remember the tortured peace of that understanding), I shared about my old-man coming to understand that we must not sacrifice the good at the alter of the perfect.

On my journey, I am trying very hard to honor those I love by being my genuine Self, although that still creates bitter anxiety within the cultural and subcultural norms in which I live and breath.

I don’t belong here (I think, hearing two syllables in “here”), but it is the only here I have. And it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

And seeing, embracing that good is a rare antidote to the prison of anxiety.

Part of that good for me has been taking the path of recognizing my otherness that has saved me from the callousness of privilege.

I am lucky for the people in my life who see and love the genuine me, but in a perfect world, Joe would still be here so we could talk about this unselfconsciously and laughing.

Joe Kincheloe passed away December 19, 2008.

For Further Reading

With Drawl, Laura Relyea

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

6 comments

  1. Scott Simmons

    I cannot thank you enough for sharing the uncertainty and anxiety publicly. I’ll always appreciate the hypercompetent Mr./Dr./Professor Thomas who speaks with unfailing clarity, but it’s the frightened and anxious man Paul who lights the way for others who know they can never go home and fear they can never truly belong to the places they’ve chosen to live their lives.

  2. Scott Simmons

    (Another Paul, the Apostle, says we’re at our strongest when we embrace our weakness and that the desire to armor up and present ourselves as smart, competent, and invested with authority robs us of true power.)

  3. Pingback: I Don’t Belong Here: My Otherness, My Privilege | Projects for the New Paradigm
  4. denizenrightly

    Thank you for your piece. Like you, my view of myself is hampered regarding my speech but for different reasons. I didn’t learn to speak until I was four and because of this I have difficulty with the relationship between sound and letter. And like you, I believe that people concluded that I a unintelligent, even as far as having an intellectual disability. Strangely enough I used to teach adult literacy and it was interesting to me how people would create a totality with regards to a small inability. For example if a person had difficulty with spelling, he or she would often claim that could not read or write which was often not the case. I always believed that this groundless summation of their abilities came from other teachers who judged them readily because they came form unacceptable backgrounds ( aboriginal, non white generally)

  5. Nigtingale

    I also grew up in the South and never had a Southern accent. At ten years old, I attended a country school where the teacher had a chart on the wall and everytime a student made a grammatical error when speaking, they had to put a star on the chart. My father was in the Army, although at the time I was living with my grandmother in the country. Just before the end of the second semester, my father was transfering to Germany, and I had to withdraw from school. At the time, I was the only student who had no stars on the chart. Anyway, on my last day, I said “can I go to the bathroom?” A student noticed it and pointed it out to the delight of all the other class members who stood up and cheered. Although, I was very shy and hated having a lot of attention, I wasn’t bothered at all by being called on the carpet.

    I was very beautiful and very shy all my life and wished I wIas invisible whenever I was around people. Although, I would have talked to anyone, I was afraid of initiating conversation so I later found out that many of my fellow students thought I was a snob. I had only two dates in school, and never went to school dances–not even my prom. As a child, I did terrible in grammer school because I was bored and rarely paying attention and when called out for it by the teacher, I twice just got up and went outside to wait for the school bus. I scored low on standard tests because I wouldn’t even read them. I just went down the pages coloring in the bubbles without a care. Despite my poor performance in primary school and much to the consternation of my well educated mother, I just didn’t care. However, I was reading the Illiad, As I Lay Dying, D.H. Lawrence, etc. In 5th grade, Mrs. Waterman brought me back into the student fold by letting me feed the snakes and guinea pigs. She let me read whatever I wanted and even let me lecture the class sometimes. I’m not sure why, but from then on I at least paid attention in school and wrote papers that challenged the beliefs of both my teachers and fellow students.
    I too suffer from anxiety, but it is more existential than from any feeling that I may not be what others percieve me to be. I just can’t understand how we all got here and why the world is so messed up, but I do what little I can to make things better. I have never had a friend to confide in except my shrinks, of which I have had many over the years.

    I understand anxiety and it is a problem hard to shake off and that cannot be hidden from.

    In the fifth grade, Mrs. Waterman let me do many unusual things

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