“Where’re you from and what are you?” Is your label celebrated?

As a recent part of our learning journey, NCRP staff have added gender pronouns to our email signatures.

Written by: Beverley Samuda-Wylder, Ryan Schlegel

Date: May 31, 2019

 

“Where you from?” Nice people have demanded this of me for most of my life with good intentions, but oblivious to my discomfort and hesitancy.

Because of the way I speak, I stand in an unwanted spotlight, cringing as my assigned category of immigrant other is highlighted.

Beverley Samuda-Wylder, Senior Director of Human Resources and Administration, NCRP

I feel angst and discomfort, sometimes even anger, as expectant faces wait for their favorite stock answer.

I often think in these moments that I am lucky my difference is being celebrated, and I fear no negative repercussions or harm.

Usually when people ask this question, it is before they complement my accent or speak glowingly of my beautiful island birthplace of Jamaica.

But I am also aware and reminded that at other times, that same difference — my immigrant status, color and economic status — was not celebrated or accommodated, and impacted how others judge me.

All of these are barriers to basic life-enhancing opportunities and, in some places, could cause harm.

In those moments, I am reminded of those who are still afraid, embarrassed or fearful because something about the way they appear to others is immediately perceived as outside the American mainstream.

I work at an organization full of people who are conscious and care, and our broader niche in the philanthropic sector also comprises people who are conscious and care. 

Still, sometimes even well-meaning people can act in ways that remind us we are different. And being different can still be dangerous.

 

Ryan Schlegel, Director of Research, NCRP

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel like I was different than most others around me – different in a way that could get me in trouble.

I was 6 years old when Ellen Degeneres grinned benignly next to the words “Yep, I’m gay” on the cover of TIME magazine.

Since then, the “coming out” process for LGBTQ people has almost become a cliché.

But coming out is still a central part of many LGBTQ folks’ lives, and it’s still way more complicated than Ellen made it look.

Other kids knew I was queer before I knew what that meant. My mom and my sister’s reactions to my coming out were – to my mixed horror and relief – “we knew.”

I’m lucky my identity as a queer person is embraced by those around me, and, as an adult living in Washington, D.C., my physical safety is rarely threatened by people who hate or fear LGBTQ people.

But my safety and security in my otherness is because I am like those who define the norm in our country in so many other ways.

I am white, cisgender, male and live in a high-income household.

For my LGBTQ siblings who do not fit that description – indeed the very LGBTQ siblings who have in the past been on the frontlines of the liberation struggle I benefit from now – coming out can still mean fearing for one’s safety.

 

NCRP’s staff is still learning – all of us – how to create an environment where our different identities are celebrated, nurtured and allowed the full expression that adds so much richness to our organizational culture and to the work we do in the world.

As a recent part of that learning journey, NCRP staff have added gender pronouns to our email signatures.

They’re there because NCRP staff don’t take gender identity as a given – to do that would be to embrace the normative categories and assumptions about gender that marginalize our LGBTQ colleagues, neighbors, friends and family.

This Pride Month we – Beverley and Ryan – have been reflecting together on what our experiences of being perceived as different share.

We are 2 people who don’t share many of the traditional identity markers:

  • 1 of us was born in the U.S., 1 wasn’t.
  • 1 is part of the African diaspora, 1 isn’t.
  • 1 is queer, 1 isn’t.

And we both are part of today’s multigenerational workforce shifting and adjusting toward deeper understanding, acceptance and workplace compatibility.

But our shared experience of being forced to “out” ourselves as different have given us insight into the other’s life.

And those experiences have special resonance with our trans and gender nonconforming siblings.

We know Black and immigrant queer, trans and gender nonconforming people have been on the frontlines of our shared liberation for decades.

And that history demands that we do what we can to create an environment where LGBTQ people who interact with NCRP know that not just our mission and our work in the world, but our internal organizational culture are unwaveringly pro-LGBTQ.

Our new email signature pronouns are another step on that journey. We’re looking forward to what comes next.

There are probably other ways NCRP’s organizational culture can knock down barriers to full inclusion and expression for people of color, immigrants and queer people.

Our organization is committed to the challenging work of self-examination and growth that will require.

 

Ryan Schlegel:

I am not and will never be done coming out. Happily, at this point in my life, when I’m at my most comfortable, I still read as “different.”

And most of the time I don’t mind the momentary discomfort when new acquaintances give the second look or the head tilt that means they’ve had their Ellen moment.

And I know on whose shoulders I stand when I regain my footing after those awkward moments.

I owe my trans and gender nonconforming, Black, brown and immigrant siblings the same solidarity they’ve shown for me.

On whose solidarity do you rely? How are you paying it back and paying it forward?

 

Beverley Samuda-Wylder:

Today, the “where you from” demand is no longer a burden. It is the catalyst to remind people that the answer is more complicated than they may be prepared for.

It’s an opportunity to tell a different story than they may expect – about the West African nations where my ancestors were taken from, about how proud I am to be an American, a New Yorker, about my birthplace of Jamaica and how my Blackness in that land is proudly bold, celebrated and allowed the power it contains.

It is a chance to enlighten, teach, highlight and share a deeper understanding and empathy for targeted universalism; to help stoke the flames of advocacy toward change that will made a difference.

Got time for a nice, long chat? Then go on, ask me “where you from?”

 

Beverley Samuda-Wylder is NCRP’s senior director of human resources and administration and Ryan Schlegel is NCRP’s director of research. Follow @r_j_schlegel and @NCRP on Twitter.

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