How Do We Know You Belong?: A Lesson in Gatekeeping


“Now sweetie, who’re your mama and your daddy?”

It was a question that I had to answer during almost every journalism assignment I completed during high school and college, when I was fortunate enough to have a job at my hometown daily newspaper.

I always answered the question comfortably.

“My mom is a substitute teacher and my dad’s retired from the Army. Now, he works as a security guard at the guard base.”

Most people would drop the questions at that point, but a dogged few would continue.

“The daughter of a security guard and a substitute teacher!” one silver-haired woman with a noticeably tight facelift once exclaimed. “Now sweetie, how in the world did you get this job?”

Looking back, I was never bothered much by the questions, even though I knew it was society’s way of saying, “who are you to be here?” But I did assume that in time, the questions about my background would stop, allowing me to be viewed independently of my family background.

What I didn’t know then is that life seems hell-bent on finding ways to sort all of us into neat categories, where our worth – and even our futures – can be easily assessed and assigned. I’m 44 today, and I still get those same questions.

In time, the answer of who I am – and even who my mama and daddy are – has become more nuanced.

I’m a kid, it’s true, of the wrong side of the tracks in an East Mississippi town.

I’m also the child of a substitute teacher and a security guard.

But those same people are more than what their jobs might indicate. The substitute teacher, you see, is a documented immigrant fluent in seven languages. While neither of my parents has a college degree, my father got close thanks to the education provided through his Montgomery GI bill. He can talk sociology and psychology, politics and religion with the most educated among us.

Other Identities – None of them Simple

I’ve picked up experiences and identities of my own.

At 14, I found out I’m an adoptee. Around the same time, I developed my identity as a writer. I was raised a Southern Baptist, then turned to the Assemblies of God church, independent evangelical churches for a while, and have now landed squarely in the United Methodist Church.

I’m still that kid from the wrong side of town, but I’m also someone who spent 10 years in Southern California’s Inland Empire and six years in the oil-rich Houston suburbs. While my parents didn’t have any college degrees to their names, I now have four to mine. I’ve been a journalist but also a public relations director, a teacher and an education advocate.

More recently, I’ve found my biological family and have started to integrate what I know about them into my identity. That’s been important but also challenging.

It shouldn’t come as a shock, but it does surprise me that when I do newspaper work these days in Meridian, the question still comes. “Now, who are your people? Who’s your family? Where are you from?” I get similar questions as I navigate the state as an educator.

The questions often seem like an effort at not-so-subtle gatekeeping. Do you belong here? Who are you to tell my story? Who are you to educate my children?

I Am ….

So here is who I am:

The daughter of a substitute teacher and a security guard.

Also the daughter of a nurse.

I am most everything I am today because of my hometown – Meridian, Mississippi. I still see the faces of my teachers and classmates several nights a week in my dreams. (And I always relish meeting everyone there.)

The town of Love, Maryland, is also mine.

It was named after some of my ancestors on my biological father’s side. They were hard-working, civic-minded Catholics interested in building a town that would provide a good quality of life to everyone who came.

I’m a Mississippi community college girl married to an Alabama community college boy. I’m also the product of a small, fairly exclusive private liberal arts college in Southern California, where I earned my doctorate. I was able to attend in part because I was lucky enough to land a job as an employee, and that job provided me with a deep tuition discount.

I’m a journalist – an outsider, in many ways, always set apart, always asking hard questions and never quite a part of some activities and projects because neutrality is the expectation.

I’m a nurturing and passionate teacher and an education administrator. Almost nothing in this world makes me prouder than thinking about the struggling students I’ve taught to read or the families I’ve supported through tragic times. I would absolutely hurl myself in front of a bus for any of my students and families, even years after they’ve been under my direct care.

I’ve been a college professor – and I’m thankful that some of those college students still choose to talk to me today.

I’m a wife and a mom of two junior high aged children. Their childhoods are turning out very different from mine. I’m thankful for the opportunities they have that I did not. But I also make sure they have at least some of the experiences that shaped me. They are just as comfortable talking to people who are mentally ill, who are homeless, who don’t speak English well – as they are speaking to their suburban neighbors. There is little I wouldn’t do for them to continue to learn and grow this way.

I’ve been and continue to be a suburban mom. I’m a wildly proud Mississippi and former Texas public school parent. My husband and I will fight for quality public schools –for our kids and for others. We are soccer parents and baseball and football parents. Nothing makes us prouder than watching our boy bang on a drum in his school band or to see our daughter acting in a school theater production.

We are all of these things – and we are the sum of all of these complex experiences.

People still ask me – in ways subtle and not so subtle: “What gives you the right to be here? Who are you to tell our stories? To educate our children? To strive for more, for your children or for ours?”

And I have to say, I have these rights because I am me – a human with complex identities, some that make me similar and some that make me “othered.”

I am all of these things. I know what it means to be on the outside and I also know what it looks like to build bridges and connections to the inside.

I’m glad to be here.

Thanks for having me.

I hope you know I’m glad that you are here, too.


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