April 14th, 2021
We can build an infinite amount of worlds in our head in which to live. Sometimes we create them as a means to escape, sometimes when we create them we’re returned a massive amount of guilt, and oftentimes these worlds do both.
This is going to be a deeply personal essay about something I’ve never really talked about before, partially because I didn’t know it was something I had to talk about.
This week’s episode of This Is Us is a must-watch, and it deals with subjects such as race and family in a very intimate and powerful way. This Is Us is an important show in our home, so I do want to warn you: I use moments from the newest installment in this post, and I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it yet. So maybe come back later if that’s the case.
The episode revolves around a conversation and relationship between Kevin, a white male, and his adopted brother Randall, who is Black. In explaining how it felt to be adopted, Randall uses a term I was not familiar with: “ghost kingdom.” A ghost kingdom is a place you create in your mind to imagine a life that is different than yours. In Randall’s case, he imagined a life in which his parents were Black, and not his adoptive Caucasian parents.
I did not know why this concept resonated with me so profoundly, immediately. I am not adopted. I don’t have any siblings of a different race.
But they went on. Kevin admits that he was jealous of Randall’s otherness: the fact that he was adopted, and that he was Black. He felt those things made Randall special, which causes Randall to tell it as it is: he did not want to be special. He wanted to blend in. He wanted to be normal.
And then I got it.
My parents are deaf. I am not adopted. We are also white, so we have that outer privilege that I recognize. But growing up, I could not help but be “other.” I could not have a conversation in public without attracting the eyes of everyone around me. I had to do things that kids with hearing parents did not have to do, or even think about.
“But that’s special,” you think. I didn’t want to be special.
I wanted to be normal.
I often imagined what my life would be like if it were “normal.” How different it would be. As an adult, I still feel guilty about these thoughts, about the ghost kingdom I would inhabit, and it never occurred to me that maybe other people did this, too.
I didn’t expect to find it in a fictional character dealing with a very different life.
As an adult, I cherish everything about my family. I clearly see how special it is, how it shaped me, how it made me see the world like I do. It gave me a language and a community that I may never have had otherwise. I have experiences that very few other people on this planet have or could have. And I realize that this uniqueness is extraordinary.
But as a child I resented it. As a child, you’re selfish and you do want to blend in, to be as normal as possible. You don’t want everyone staring at you as you try to ask your mom a question. You don’t want to have to deal with every comment and question, just for having the family that you do, just for deciding to do something “normal” like going out to eat.
Do you know how many times I’ve been asked if my parents can drive a car? It might sound funny to you, but it’s one of the most-asked questions I get, and it infuriates me even to type.
If there’s a point to what I’m saying, it’s this: we create these places, these ghost kingdoms, not because we’re ashamed, but because we have to. We have to imagine that other world to give us the perspective we need in this one.
I’ve shared this story before, but when I was really young I once threatened my mom. I told her that I was going to tell everyone she was mean. She, taking absolutely no bullshit from this blonde-headed little ass, told me that was fine, because they would take me away and I would get a new mom.
My brain immediately imagined a world without my mom, and the insurmountable fear and instant regret shut me up and brought me back to this one.
If I had to choose my world or a normal one, I would choose this one, every time.
I always knew that in my heart. Now I know it in my head, too.