A few days ago, I was chatting with one of my housemates, when the conversation turned decidedly to Oakland and to why I was here. And I balked.
Don't get me wrong, I said the honest and appropriate things--that I was seeking refuge in Oakland, that I love the culture here, and that the Bay Area was my true home. I realized that I am a gentrifier in Oakland in particular, and that the presence of white people is unwelcome and potentially toxic for the existing communities of color that have always made Oakland their home--in large part because of redlining and other racist segregation techniques that are still used (albeit illegally) to this day. But that I was doing what I could to counter the difficulty of my presence, which, I'll admit, felt a little weak even to me. After all, I wouldn't tolerate that deflection from another white person who is called out for appropriating a culture in clothing, so why am I talking about land as though it is any different?
Things continued to grow in heat; I tried to stay--and to large degree, stayed-- pretty calm, but under the barrage of pointed questions, I was forced to concede that all the rationalizations of how it could be made "better" that I was here were just that: rationalizations. It didn't matter that I had read for years about how to navigate whiteness in a way that is deweaponized against communities of color. It didn't matter that many if not all of the things that I had suggested were originally brought up to me from radical folks of color.
And something else, a reminder that there are some things that will always be completely outside of what I can understand. Hearing my friend talking so passionately about Oakland--her communities, her place in them--brought home to me that I didn't know how to relate to that. At all.
That I was a refugee, and I have been for so long that I don't know the first thing about building a place in a community--or developing a relationship with a people and a place.
This isn't to say that I never had roots--for the first 22 years of my life, I lived in Tampa, in two houses in neighboring boroughs. But I never felt at home in them; I never felt safe in them once I was old enough to understand how dangerous it was to be myself. My place in them was predicated on looking like and acting like someone I wasn't. My place in the church, the closest thing I had to a community resource other than my family and friends, was predicated on being relatively quiet, straight-acting, and gender-conforming.
And once Mom died and I came out, it was only a short time before I was threatened with homelessness by my (shrinking) family, and most of my male friends (and a fair number of my female friends) slowly vanished. I felt ostracized by my dad's family, and slowly alienated by what remained of my mom's. At present, I only have a relationship with one cousin, occasionally, and my brother--who I could not be prouder of--and my uncle (godfather), on Mom's side. What was once a huge family (four sets of "grandparents", countless "aunts and uncles and cousins") is now, for me, three or four people tall.
About this time (between 15 and 20), I was slowly becoming aware of constant aggressions by strangers. Customers at work would be snippier with me than with my more conforming coworkers, to say nothing of how my male coworkers often treated me. Mothers would make noncommital noises in my direction just for being near them and their kids. Streets I had felt safe on felt less and less safe--this was especially true one fateful night when I was attacked in Ybor City for being a faggot, publicly, with friends. After I came out as trans especially, the level of violence climbed dramatically. Being a native child of the city never did me any favors so far as I can tell.
So although I had considered myself (and been considered) a relatively woke white person, I was confronted that night with my near-complete ignorance of having pride in where you come from, in part because my whiteness and my class and education privilege allow me to move basically wherever I saw fit--a luxury many people, especially people of color, don't often have. But also because where I was from in ways large and small, felt as though it had left me behind so often and with such sureness that I had never felt that it belonged to me anymore than I belonged to it. I am "from Tampa" only in the sense that I survived its constant and ongoing erasure of people like me, as any number of qt friends in Tampa can attest.
I talked with her about all of this later that night, and she talked with me about what community meant to her and to other people in Oakland, that there was a potential path for community acceptance for outsiders--even white outsiders like me--but I'm not so sure. If anything, I'm more uncertain than ever that it's possible for me to assimilate into or be accepted into a community based on shared history and land when it is so clear to me that even with the best intentions and taking the lead from activists within this community that I might not ever be able to get it.
I think I understand now why it was so important to Mom that my brother and I have roots. But in spite of that, I feel chronically adrift. Grief and patriarchy have made me a wanderer, and I'm not completely sure I can ever truly belong to a place the way my friend does. I feel so humbled, but it's not enough.