Displacement

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I grew up in Alabama and moved to a DC suburb in Northern Virginia the summer before my sophomore year. I got ready for school the first day like I always did in Alabama. After a month-long process of weighing current fashion trends, I put on my pleated jeans, a pink plaid shirt, pink tennis shoes and—forget a real belt—I tied a pink bow around my waist. I rolled my hair (remember hot rollers?) and loaded on my eye-make-up like always. I looked awesome in the way that any 15-year-old trying to look like a sorority girl does.

I was the only one on my route doomed to actually need bus transportation, so when we pulled up to my school I was a little nervous about exiting the bus solo. As the driver slowed in the circular drive my nervousness shifted to shock.  I saw kids with ripped tank tops, spiked collars around their necks, cut-off jeans with frayed edges, and people spinning on skateboards and trick bikes. No one was in long pants or a shirt with a collar, both of which were standard issue, if not dress code, at my public school in the south. Somehow, these kids hadn’t gotten the same fashion memo I had. It dawned on me that I was going to step off the bus and look like a fool.

There was nothing else to look at but me. And in this context, I looked…ridiculous, as if I were trying for the cover of Teen Magazine (which I had been) at grunge punk concert.  And so, all activity stopped. All the conversations, the bouncing bikes, the spinning skate boards, everything but the music.  I was relieved when the principle walked out to greet me (also wearing shorts) until I became painfully aware that everyone’s attention was riveted on my phrases punctuated with “sir” and flourished by my southern accent that trumped Daisy Duke’s by about 20 times.

Besides my teachers, no one spoke to me that day and I didn’t speak to anyone. But I noticed everything. I noticed mostly myself, feeling acutely displaced. My clothing and make-up, which had seemed my greatest asset, were my biggest barrier. My southern accent, which I never noticed in Alabama, was a bullhorn that blurred any content I might speak. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the arbitrariness of image management or see that all of those other students might have been just as invested in their “look” as I was. All I could see was that I had moved somewhere as different as the moon and the rules were all different.

I can see now that I’ve managed to displace myself more than a few times since then. I’ve migrated coast to coast twice, joining already established ministry teams both times. I got my theology degree at Howard University, a historically black university. What prepared me for these things? Might have had something to do with one pinked teenager walking off a school bus one day? You never know what uncomfortable experiences will empower you to do later. I will posit that those of us in the majority culture actually need experiences of displacement to help us understand that our perceived norms can be out and out arbitrary. I’m grateful now that I had this and other displacement experiences to show me that the world was bigger and much more diverse than I’d been led to believe by Teen Magazine.

How has displacement helped you grow? Or tempted you to shrink?

This blog is reposted from 2/16/12

3 Comments

  1. As a pre-teen I wanted so desperately to fit in, but coming from a poor family where (horrors!) all my clothes were either hand made or hand-me-down immediately made me stand out. Plus I was book smart in a culture that devalues anyone rising above the norm.
    Those experiences enabled me to have the strength to buck the norms of the culture: I became a born-again Christian who wasn’t afraid to (quietly — I’m no extrovert!) stand up for her beliefs.
    Here in the USA and even back home in New Zealand I will always stand out with my funny blend of Kiwi/American accent. The accent has been an asset in my work with clients — funny how people tend to remember what you said so much better if it is accompanied with a twist — in my case the accent.
    In my church, those early experiences enable me to be willing to think for myself, and be willing to challenge the conservative status quo so that others are forced to think more deeply about why they believe what they do.

  2. After literally decades of very visible church participation and leadership, I followed some bad advice and publicly declared myself an atheist.

    I continued to attend church. While we Christians say we are a welcoming bunch, and it’s true, one can’t help but feel like an outsider from both implicit and explict behaviors/words within the approved culture.

    My family, particularly my wife, suffered significant emotional stress and tension. My pre-teen kids were confronted with weekly sermons and sunday school lessons that reminded them “daddy” was going to hell. My wfie felt alone and betrayed, by me, not church. No doubt she felt like one of those “outsiders” too, as the wife with the unbelieving husband.
    I received at least one letter which suggested that I “grow up” and return to the fold. Others asked my family and brother to “do something” to get me “back on track”. They were all well meaning, but misguided. Conversation was strained because it was simply uncomfortable to not share the same beliefs.

    Thankfully, we both found new places of growth as a direct result those desert years on the outside looking in. We learned to communicate with each other, even when the feelings are very painful. We learned that the opinions of others are just opinions and we are ultimately only responsible to God. We learned we can survive what we originally thought might crush us.

  3. Newly married, I moved from St. Louis to Baltimore. Both big cities, one on a river, one on the bay. Both have the same weather and crime patterns. Moving was not my displacement experience but going into the city to work at a Crisis Pregnancy center was. A 12 year old mother and daughter jumping with joy because she was pregnant. My mother would have jumped on my head. I had to learn to not just accept, but to care for all the people who came from many different cultures as each day went by. Since then I have thought about the caste system in India and how we are really not much different in the U.S. If you live in Towson you are in the Towson tribe and may look down on the Dundalk tribe. If you live in Dundalk you might look down on the inner city tribe, and then them on the immigrant tribe and on it goes. I want to be part to the God tribe and try to let each person I meet sense I care for them for who they are not where they come from. I mess up and God is not finished with me yet, but at least I have a goal.

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