I was born and raised in the Midwest. Specifically in the fairly small suburb of Oak Park, just outside of the city of Chicago. Having moved to Denmark and later to Los Angeles, I’ve spent half of my life outside of Chicago and it’s always a bit strange whenever I come back. Because to me, Chicago embodies a different person and perspective that I’ve left behind.
The Midwest is known for its cold weather and polite residents. But along with that are also a set of unspoken expectations for everyone who calls it home – find a job, buy a house, start a family as soon as you can. But the biggest expectation in Chicago is to know your place. And for me, knowing your place meant picking which side of the racial divide you belong on.
Ingrained into its DNA is a city of sides. North vs South side, Cubs vs Sox, deep dish vs thin crust – you are expected to declare allegiance and never waver. Never question the beliefs of the group you travel in. Chicago is also separated into distinct neighborhoods divided mostly along racial lines and it’s been this way for decades.
While it’s not out of place to see interracial couples currently, it’s still far from the norm. The expectation is that while it’s acceptable to have a friend of two of a different ethnicity. Ultimately, you’re to stick with who you belong to and fall in line. Race is hardly ever brought up in discourse, but it’s at the forefront of many a decision. The hidden separator that governs many interactions.
So where does a person like me, with a black mother and a white father, fit into that world? The easiest choice is to identify as a black man. Choose that side and fit in accordingly. Accept my place in the racial category assigned to me, and be content with the choice the city has made for me.
For a little while, I tried navigating an uneasy middle. I talked more “street” when around that peer group, more “white” around the other. I tried to be who I was expected to be and this was solely for the comfort of others. But as I moved and traveled both here and abroad, I began to see that the middle was simply another trap. It was keeping me from living as the person who I wanted to be.
I accept that, for the majority, I will be seen as a black man walking the streets of Chicago. I just refuse to play into the stereotypes of what is expected of me. If my relationship to another person is to make them feel comfortable with a specific set of standards, then perhaps our relationship will be a brief one. And the problem that I encountered in Chicago, was that mentality meant there would always be a limit to what I could achieve. Since I was seen as a “black filmmaker” there was an invisible push to create work so fill that nice. Refusing to buy into that designation meant there was not much of a place for me to ascend.
When I decided to finally leave Chicago the second time, there was resistance from several people who were close to me. Some even told me that they wished it didn’t work out so I would return. When you decide to leave the cave, there will be many who say it’s too bright and it will hurt your eyes. For all the wonderful people that I have met and still know, Chicago has a bubble that I needed to leave behind. An eternal chip on its shoulder from the perceived scorn from the outside world not giving the city it’s due. It’s one I also had, that I’ve since let go in years past.
Where we are born often shapes the way we see the world. We take on the values and identity of the people around us. And often we struggle when it doesn’t entirely fit. We sometimes hold on too long to the place we consider our home. When we travel somewhere new, it helps us gain a new perspective. And it’s that perspective gained, outside of the bubbles of our hometowns, that help us define who we are and who we want to be.
Home is the place where you feel comfortable. It’s the place where you can live as who you are without apologies, and without compromises. Where you were born, is simply just that. It’s the place your parents decided was home. Your home is only defined by you.