What Living Life in the In Betweens Has Taught Me About Adversity, Acceptance, and the Power of Authenticity.
The last couple of months have been challenging for most of us. They certainly have been for me. As I’ve struggled to remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of a global pandemic and economic meltdown unlike the world has ever seen, an endless stream of negative headlines has dominated my news feed.
I’ve read countless news clips and articles highlighting all the worst parts of life in Black America. I’ve isolated myself and obsessively washed my hands as to not become yet another brown body waiting to be claimed by their family. I’ve watched the never-ending barrage of videos showing people who look like me being gunned down while out for a jog, threatened while birdwatching, and mercilessly choked by police on camera.
It’s been hard to show up to work as my best self. It’s been hard to remain productive. Yet, as a Black man in white corporate America, I’ve been taught that I don’t have the luxury to just get by with doing the minimum as my coping skills fatigue. As the Black proverb goes, I must be twice as good to get half as much.
So for a while, I’ve said nothing. I’ve swallowed my rage, held back my tears, and done my job with excellence (and without excuse) because that’s all I know how to do. I’ve lived my entire life surrounded by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be stuck in between worlds. So for me, this is nothing new—it’s business as usual. Why would this time be any different?
And yet, this time is different.
People across the United States (and the world) aren’t just finally beginning to acknowledge the systemic challenges facing Black Americans. They’re asking questions, listening, and most importantly, taking action.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received more phone calls, emails, and text messages from my white friends, coworkers, and industry colleagues than I can count. Each of them reaching out to check in on me, apologizing for not knowing, or to simply say “I see you.” These calls and messages have sparked several immensely vulnerable conversations where I’ve shared my own stories of adversity and my struggle for acceptance as a man living in between worlds.
What started out as an exercise to share my experience navigating the intersection of racism and homophobia in America with friends who couldn’t conceive it happening to “someone like me,” quickly evolved in to something entirely different. As I told my story, something cathartic happened. I had an epiphany. Perhaps the time I’ve spent living in between worlds wasn’t the isolating narrative I spent most of my life believing, but rather the prologue of my life story where the protagonist hasn’t yet realized they’re a hero.
As I shared my unfiltered truth, some friends struggled to reconcile the boy in stories with the man they know today. They were shocked to learn that the “confident and charismatic” character they’ve come to know didn’t spring out of the womb that way. But that’s not where my story began. Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t, and that’s exactly what I told them.
I told them that I should have been a statistic.
I told them how I was born to a biracial single mother. How she was abandoned by her white mother at 13 after a tragic motorcycle accident killed my Black grandfather. I told them how my grandmother couldn’t imagine raising two mixed-race daughters on her own in the 1970s without her husband. How she left them, moved away, married a white man, and never spoke of her daughters again.
I told them how my mother sent me to predominantly white private schools because “You are black, baby. Your best shot of being successful in America is learning how to speak like white people, think like white people, and understand how to move through their world.”
I told them how this inadvertently created identity issues for me because I never quite fit in. I was one of a handful of Black boys (literally five) at a school of nearly 900 affluent white male students. I looked different, lived in a different part of town, and wasn’t an athlete. I was a nerd with a high-pitched voice and a bad habit of breaking my Coke-bottle-thick glasses (think Steve Urkel, 1996).
I told them how I had my fair share of name calling and run-ins with racism at school, but what was worse is what happened once I went back home to my community. How I was ostracized by my cousins and kids in the neighborhood for “dressing white,” “talking white,” and even “walking white,” (how is that even a thing?). How I was called an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) for most of my childhood—forever trapped between two worlds but accepted by neither.
My stories continued. How I desperately wanted to fit in, but things became more complicated once I came out. How the white students made up horrible lies about me that landed me alone in the principal’s office at 15 accused of being a “drug-addicted sex worker.” I told them the shame and embarrassment that came over me when my guidance counselor forced me to roll up the long white sleeves of my prep school uniform to prove I didn’t have track marks. How no one even thought to call my mother first.
I told them about my adult family members who continuously told me to “man up” and to “stop always acting like a girl” for simply being myself. And how they said our family name would die because I was the only male of my generation who bore the Morris surname. They even said I needed stop smiling all the time and quit being so outgoing. Because if I didn’t, people would think I’m “soft and desperate for a friend.”
But despite this onslaught of adversity, my mother always taught me to never be a victim. She’d tell me that “Your struggle will be your greatest strength, baby. You are smart, you have a kind heart, and you can make friends with anyone. Just get so good they can’t ignore you.”
So that’s what I did.
I made being a learner and an achiever core pieces of my identity. I studied the science of success, refused to be outworked by anyone, and made excellence a daily habit. I committed to entering any situation with the goal of figuring out the rules of the game so I could play it better than anyone else.
I wouldn’t just “dress white,” I’d make it a point to always be the best dressed man in any room. Rather than blending in, I’d always stand out and be remembered.
I wouldn’t just “talk white,” I’d develop such a command of the English language that I could build an empire or level a city block with my words alone.
I wouldn’t just “walk white” I’d develop such self-confidence and an unwavering belief that I was deserving of everything this world has to offer—and that the universe would have no choice but to deliver.
I wouldn’t just learn how to move through the white world, I’d learn to thrive in it. Not by dimming who I was but embracing it wholeheartedly.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, and I’m not confident it was entirely conscious. But the moment I stopped trying to fit in, accepted myself for who I was, and began to live my authentic life, everything changed, and not just for me.
As Author Marianne Williamson states in her poem Our Greatest Fear, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
That’s what I’m most proud of.
Looking back, there was so much wisdom in my mother’s words. My struggle of living life in the in betweens not only became my strength, it became my superpower. It’s like I can walk through walls. My unique perspective is sought out and appreciated. I’m regularly invited to the private conversations that influence the policies and decisions that shape my world.
I now walk into conference rooms, board meetings, and leadership summits where I’m the only Black person sometimes in a crowd of hundreds. But rather than continuing to focus on the smothering uncomfortableness of being “alone on an island,” I step into my power and acknowledge the unique opportunity I’ve been given to affect change for people who look like me from the inside.
I’ll leave you with this. Even in the face of impossible adversity, never dim your shine. Accept yourself and your story. Embrace exactly who you are because who you are is more than enough. It has always been enough. Your struggle won’t just be your strength; it’ll be your superpower. To quote the late, great Maya Angelou “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Damion Morris is president of SMPS Los Angeles and a Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM). As proposal manager for PCL Construction Services’ California Buildings District, he oversees all pursuit-related marketing activities for PCL’s largest and fastest growing district at $750 million in annual revenue. He can be reached at email@example.com.
SMPS invited leaders of different generations to share their experiences and perspectives to contribute to our community’s conversations on racism and its impact on our personal and professional settings. To read more, visit our Member Voices page.