Standing Out in a Crowd
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
I didn’t realize I was different until someone else told me so.
I wasn’t born brown. I was just born. As a toddler, there was no colour for me. I guess I knew that my parents had different skin tones, but I never infer anything from it. It was just how things were. I didn’t realize I was brown until someone else told me so. My identity became black the moment another kid told me so.
Since the day I was told I was black, I have had a different sense of identity, a different sense of myself. It made me self-conscious of my difference, at least compared to what was around me. I understood that I stood out, and that’s when I started noticing how it sometimes influences how people behave around me too.
I carry this self-consciousness everywhere I go, although to various degrees. In some settings, I barely notice it. It usually happens when I’m surrounded by familiar faces, people I have know all my life and that do not see me as black, but just as me. In other circumstances, it is painfully evident. I notice it more in formal settings, such as a university student or at conferences and events. In those particular instances, I cannot help but look around and feel isolated. I feel like I can never be anonymous, I can never be completely forgotten.
That usually makes me anxious and uncomfortable. It makes me anxious because I feel like my every move is being watched, that anything I might do or say will be analyzed and judged. It makes me anxious because I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong, or something that would push people to categorize me, to put a label on my face - and that this label would just be “black” or “African” when I feel that I am so much more than that.
Standing out in a crowd is not exclusive to skin colour. I know many people must have felt isolated in a room full of people for reasons that wouldn’t be evident or visible at first glance. Someone may feel isolated in a room full of people that do not speak the same language as them. Someone may feel isolated surrounded by people that have a common interest that they don’t share. Someone may feel isolated due to their sexual orientation, their cultural practices, their gender or their religious beliefs. I do not think one is worse or easier than another. This feeling of isolation, of self-consciousness starts as much from outside as from within, and I believe we thus all experience it differently.
Every person that has ever had to deal with this feeling probably also manages it differently from me. I react to the attention differently depending on my own mindset and well-being. I will be more shy and withdrawn when I feel vulnerable and distressed. The stares then become almost painful and I crave the anonymity of my home. Other times though, I feel strong and powerful, and my mannerism adapts accordingly. I’ll walk my head held high, a smile on my face.
Truth is, we are all the same and different at the same time. Every human has a unique DNA. But we are all humans. It doesn’t seem like a surprising thought, written this way. Most people know that we are all humans, but it doesn’t prevent them from differentiating themselves from others. I guess we can’t help it. The instinct is primitive. It does not necessarily come from a conscious thought. But it’s there nonetheless. We tend to gather in groups that we identify with, and define the group by how different it is from another.
I understand the impulse, I feel it too. I think that society would benefit if we could refrain from mentioning or acting on it though. Trust me, many people do not want to be different. They want to belong somewhere, to feel at home and accepted in their communities. And having someone constantly referring to you as different, always stressing that aspect of yourself as if you could only be defined by this specific trait, is tiring.
Sometimes I just want to be anonymous. Sometimes I just want to step into a room and have no one noticing me. I want to walk around in the street and not feel the stares on my skin. But because of how other people perceive me, see me as different, as striking in a sea of whiteness, I rarely can. So that would be my advice for everyone. Be mindful of others. Respect their right for privacy, for anonymity.
Don't be that kid who’s going to tell the other that they’re different.