Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
I’ve loved boxes ever since I can remember. Not the cardboard kind. I’m talking about the boxes on forms, on to-do lists. The kind we use every day to keep our lives and worlds in order. Being autistic with a love for everything neat and well-organized, I’ve used boxes all my life. Not just for tasks, but for people. As a child, I observed, categorized, and compiled each person in my life. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight, etc. For me, boxes were discrete packages of information that formed pictures of the people around me.
As for me, my boxes were pretty straightforward. I was a straight, female Choctaw who loved stories.
We were filling out some enrollment forms for school when my love of boxes betrayed me for the first time. My older sister checked the box next to “African American” on my form and “Native American” on hers. (There were no mixed race or other boxes on official forms back then.) My sister rarely made mistakes, so it was with some smugness that I pointed this one out to her.
I will never forget her reply. “You’re not a real Choctaw because your daddy is White.”
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) is one of six federally-recognized Native American tribes that require members be at least half-Native to be officially enrolled. Since my mother was half-Choctaw and half-Black, it meant that — even though I was raised on the reservation — in the eyes of my tribe, I was not and would probably never be Choctaw enough to be one of them.
Not officially anyway.
I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered this. What I do remember is how alone I felt, sitting there surrounded by a family I could never “really” be a part of.
I remember crying for hours until my mother gave me one of her rare hugs and told me not to be so silly. “You’re my child, my blood. Ain’t no list can change that. You don’t see Jon acting a fool, do you?”
Jonathan was my twin brother, and therefore in the same non-Choctaw boat as me. But at least he looked Choctaw. I, on the other hand, had inherited my maternal grandmother’s looks — a light-skinned Black woman with curly hair. Or redbone as they say in Mississippi.
It didn’t matter that my first language was Choctaw, or that I had grown up in the same household as my sister and cousins. It didn’t matter that I loved learning about our history as a people and the legends passed down from our ancestors. I would beg amafo (my grandfather) to tell me stories about heroes like Tashka and Walo, the brothers who followed the sun home.
In a world defined by lists and appearances, I was always going to be the odd one out. The one in a different box.
To my family, though I was Jacqui — the bookworm, the quiet one, the girl who loved stories and was always day-dreaming. As far as they were concerned, I was family and that was all that mattered.
I didn’t know I was autistic at the time. All I knew was that I really hated change. Change meant chaos, disorder. And going from identifying as Choctaw to African American was one hell of a change. There’s nothing wrong with being African American but, until that moment, I had always thought of myself as Choctaw. And having to change my perception of who I was, who I’d always been, didn’t sit well with me. It was as if altering the label on this one box called all the others into question.
I didn’t see how I could really be part of a family when I was so different from everyone else — different in looks, in personality, and now in race. I would always be an outsider in my own culture.
When I grew older, I found refuge in science fiction and fantasy. Reading, writing, gaming, and acting out scenes from my favorite books – I tried it all. And, as I did so, I met people who didn’t fit into any of my carefully constructed boxes. People who were non-binary, mixed race, disabled, trans, autistic, and queer. So many amazing people who were okay with just being themselves. They were comfortable being insiders on the outside of what society said was normal.
Meeting and interacting with these people taught me so much about myself and my place in the world. More importantly, they taught me to replace the unimportant categories (like male, female, black, white, etc.) with other, more meaningful ones (like friends, family, kind, inspirational, compassionate, irreverent, funny, etc.).
I’ve learned that people can’t always be classified as male or female, black or white, able-bodied or not. I’ve met people who refuse to be told who they can be, what they can do, and who they can love. These are people who make my life better, who make me better.
I still love boxes, but mine have changed with experience. Like how many forms now include categories for mixed race and other, I’ve expanded my view of the world and myself. I love my brown skin and curly hair, but they don’t define me any more than my autism does. I’m still Jacqui — the quiet one, the daydreaming bookworm who loves stories. But I’m also a friend, a sister, an author, and (like so many others) someone who is trying to do better.
Together, we make our own box.