In the Blog

An Outsider’s Insight

December 17th, 2015     by Tomi Ajele     Comments

Illustration by Erin McPhee

It took no time at all to notice that something wasn’t quite right. I would estimate that I was around 2 or 3 years old when I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I didn’t belong.

My friends would always ask me annoying questions about my skin colour, but what kid doesn’t? They’d say things to my sibling and me like ‘what does it feel like to be black?’ Irritating and demeaning as they were, these were shockingly insightful questions coming from 6 year olds. At that age, they had no idea what being black felt like, they had no idea what being black meant, but at so young an age, they already knew that they felt #blessed not to be it.

My white surroundings very quickly showed me that I wasn’t just simply different. I was less than. Perhaps it was the questions my friends asked me, what I saw on TV, or the way people instantly turned into fumbling fools when they started to talk about ‘coloured people’ or sorry, was it ‘black people’ or was it ‘darker people’? They never quite knew what to call me, and I soon realized there was a part of them that was afraid of me.

Yes, it took no time at all for me to come to the intrinsic realization that I would forever remain on the outskirts of humanity.

An outsider, by definition, is a person who is disconnected from the group. Outsiders watch and observe while often imitating what they see for the purpose of their social survival.

The moment I entered into the violent, oppressive, white, patriarchal hierarchy that we call western society, the world told me that I was ‘other.’ Because I was non-ideal and because I wasn’t the default human being, I was by nature an outsider, which meant I was more or less socially irrelevant.

I was put here to watch and observe and try as hard as I possibly could to imitate those who were on the inside.

So I studied them. I knew what they found funny, and I laughed with them. I knew what made them uncomfortable, so I actively denied that part of myself. And though I would never fully be what they wanted me to be, I could try. Though I would never be fully human to them, I could try. And though I would always be black first, a woman second, and (maybe) human third, damn it I would try.

As an outsider, I learned very quickly that I had to be what they (the insiders) needed, otherwise they could easily dispose of me. Most of the time, what they needed me to be was white; I could do that. Every once in a while, they needed me to be their token black person who was loud, hilarious and had amaaazing rhythm; I could do that too.

At the end of the day, what I came to know was that this was their world.

I was an outsider; and as such, I needed to know what they needed from me even more than they did. This led me to a profound understanding of their insider culture; an understanding far deeper than they would ever know.

We’ve all heard it said that you can’t understand something until you’ve experienced it, or that you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Both of these statements are more or less saying that unless you’ve been there, don’t judge, and although that sentiment rings completely true, no one can deny the power of the nonpartisan perspective.

We talk about how hindsight is always 2020, and the importance of seeing things from an objective point of view, which reflects the notion that when you’re in the centre of something, it’s hard to see things clearly.

This lends truth to the suggestion that insiders don’t understand our society as well as those who have been standing in the margins their entire lives. As outsiders, we can see ourselves for who we truly are because we’ve been forced to see ourselves. We weren’t born as anything extra special, but we’ve been called ‘other’ so we’ve been forced to examine what it is that we are. We’ve also come to a deep understanding of what the insiders are, again, because we’ve had to. The insiders on the other hand, just exist, and have little to no need to question what they are.

No one says it better than James Baldwin as he speaks to the insider vs. outsider dynamic. Baldwin says, “Whatever {insiders} don’t know about {outsiders} reveals precisely and inexorably what they do not know about themselves.”

In short, they don’t know us, and they don’t know themselves, because they don’t have to. We know both, because we have to. What is terribly important to remember is that we all have some amount of ‘insider status’ and need to remain forever humble because of it. If you’re white, you obviously have insider status. If you’re a man, well duh. If you’re cisgendered, straight, thin, and this list goes on. As an insider, you know very little, and you have the right to listen, ask questions, and assume you are wrong based on the fact that you’ve been blinded your entire life by the candy-coated curse that is insider status.

Perhaps insiders fear what outsiders know about them. Perhaps they fear what outsiders can see. Whatever the reason, they continue to deny the relevance of some of the most socially insightful people in the world, making for a pretty backwards society filled with people who really don’t know much at all, telling others what’s what.

As an outsider, however, you get it. You’ve been watching those on the inside, observing their privilege and understanding the subtleties of their discriminatory tendencies - subtleties that they wouldn’t possibly be able to understand themselves. And as someone who has been virtually benched from society, you know the game better than anyone else, and should celebrate the wealth of knowledge you have gained from being an outsider, knowing that it has made you more insightful than any textbook ever could.

Tags: body politics

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