Living in the Hyphen

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I realize that the gaps between posts are getting longer and longer here, but I like to write about what I have learned in life so that I may share it with others. I have come to realize that everything I am learning in life right now is deeply personal, both to me as well as to others, and sharing it in a public space isn’t always the right solution. I write a lot for my own purposes, and some day these things may make it into a more shareable form, but for now much of my life learning feels deeply intimate and vulnerable.

That said, I have been learning more about a phenomenon which I have never understood before. I call it “Hyphen Life”. I have the incredible opportunity to meet with people from all different cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life in the counseling setting. I’ve always enjoyed being around people who are not like me, but I find myself growing more curious about what life is actually life for people who walk in different shoes.

I’m pretty much just a white girl. I don’t mean that in a negative way. There’s nothing wrong with being a white girl. But I am a middle-class white girl of some European descent. I am also from the South, but other than that there isn’t a culture I own or embrace with a lot of enthusiasm or allegiance. I mean, I am an American, but what does that mean? I speak English in a primarily Spanish-speaking area of Central Florida (which is its own culture completely) and I am not even from this area of the country. There aren’t really any hyphens in my life. I’m just a Caucasian North American female. I don’t have to think too hard about who I am or how I come across to others or if anyone will be able to relate to me.

There are many people, however, who life Hyphen lives. I know several African-American women who have black skin but live in white worlds. They struggle with how to be comfortable in their own skin when their skin looks so different than everyone else around them. I know a Korean-American woman who carries the rigid rules of her family while trying to fit into the “you just do you” culture of the West Coast. I know a Latina woman who lives in Florida and she speaks English at work and Spanish with her family while trying not to be “too Spanish”. I know many people who are working so hard to not be too white, or too black, or black enough, or white enough, or not too Asian, or Asian enough, or too Latina but Latina enough, or too Caribbean or African or Iranian…you get the point.

One young woman I know put it perfectly by saying she is “living in the hyphen” and doesn’t know how to be true to her native culture while still being relatable to the people she interacts with on a daily basis. This is something I have never truly had to contemplate. I just wake up every day and proceed with being who I am. I have never had to question if I will find someone who looks or thinks like I do.

This hit me hardest one day as I listened and cried while a young black woman told me about the first time she had “The Conversation” with her parents. When she first mentioned it, I assumed she meant the sex talk, but that didn’t seem to fit into our conversation. “The Conversation” she was referring to was the one where her parents sat her down and explained to her that some people may see her differently because of the color of her skin. People may think she is less intelligent, more angry, or less capable of work than others because she is black. Her parents wanted to prepare her for potential rejection in life based on their own experiences in the world.

As this woman spoke, I sat in stunned silence with tears streaming down my face. I didn’t know this was a conversation that many people experience. It never occurred to me that many parents need to sit down with their kids and tell them that they will, most certainly, feel less-than because of how they look.

I had no idea how to respond to this. So I just listened as I wiped tears from my eyes. As she told me what it’s like for her to live in the hyphen between being a black woman and working and living in a very white culture, I started forming a long list of questions in my mind.

A few months after this interaction, I joined a national group that brings people from all backgrounds together on one platform to educate each other on racial reconciliation. Upon being accepted to the group, I had to make one promise: that I would not speak, comment, or produce content for three months. For the first three months of membership, all I am allowed to do is absorb, listen, and learn. Whether I agree, disagree, or have questions, all I am allowed to do at this point is to listen.

This is vital, and also really hard. I find myself wanting to comment on EVERYTHING! But I made a promise to listen to what others are saying, and learn what life is like in their shoes. I am learning about other people’s hyphens, and what it feels like for them to live in the spaces between accepted and rejected.

The more I get work work with people from different cultures and backgrounds, the more thankful I feel for my job. People trust me with the most intimate parts of their lives, and that means I get to hear some of the most beautiful but also horrific stories of rejection, abuse, persecution, hatred, death, and devastation. Some days it is hard for me to maintain a belief that we are all made in the same image, and that we are all capable of love. But then I meet these people who are living in the hyphens, and I see how courageously they face adversity, and it restores my faith in people and in how people treat each other.

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