StoryCorps in Fort Collins: Blending In By Standing Out
Rachael Dhakal and Andrew Milbauer are both are high school teachers in Fort Collins. Rachael, a black woman, and Andrew, a gay man, came to the StoryCorps Mobile Booth in Fort Collins for a wide-ranging conversation about embracing their differences and negotiating their identities and careers in a majority-white, straight environment.
The StoryCorps Mobile Booth wrapped up their stay in Fort Collins earlier in May - in the coming months, we’ll continue to bring you stories recorded at the booth.
Rachael Dhakal: I'm biracial; my mom is white, my dad is black. I really haven't interacted with my dad since I was 12. Mostly it was my mom's family that I interacted with because my dad's family wasn't mostly in Kansas, they were in Georgia.
I look at my skin, I see I'm black, but I'm like, “What the hell does that mean?”
I feel like I had such a sheltered life, my mom did a great job sheltering me from a lot of the bull s--t that a lot of completely black families — rather than blended families — have.
Andrew Milbauer: How do you pick the clothes that you wear to work as a black woman?
Dhakal: I think when I first started working in Fort Collins, which is a super white town from where I come from — Wichita, Kansas — I noticed that I stood out, so I made a point to be the one who stood out for a reason.
As you know, I were headbands every single day, and that's so I can be recognized. I know a lot of people wear headbands, but not everyone is a big tall black woman who wears headbands and has poofy hair and stuff like that. I make sure that I dress in a way that's not too "black" and not too flamboyant.
What about you? How do you blend in or stand out, or both or neither?
Milbauer: I'm kind of on a sliding 'gay-scale', depending on the audience.
When I first started at the school, I was a little bit more straight-acting. And yes, there's self-hatred involved in that. I don't like being identified as being a straight person, so after a few months, I kind of thought screw it, and I probably act gayer at work than I really am. Just because I want to make sure they don't think I'm straight.
Dhakal: Are you out to your students?
Milbauer: Yes, I am.
Dhakal: I'm obviously out to my students, they all know that I'm black. I feel like I'm probably the only black teacher that a lot of these kids have ever had. When I start talking about my black experiences it goes quiet. They don't know how to react to that.
Milbauer: There are definitely times in my life when I'm glad I can drop my voice a little bit and tone down the camp and pass. But I hate the fact that no matter where I work I have to ask my boss permission to be openly gay with my students.
So there's the tradeoff: When you can pass, a lot of times straight people expect you to pass.
Dhakal: I make sure that I stand out. That's how I fit in. With all the racial violence and police violence that has been going on in our country for the last 10 years or so, it's extremely terrifying, not just for me but for every black person I've ever known.
I actually feel safer here in Fort Collins where there aren't so many black people because I am the black girl. Like, "You know that girl that wears the headbands? She's OK, she drives a Subaru Outback. She has two kids in elementary school. She has a house with a lawn. She's married. She's super boring. She's a teacher at a high school, boring."
So I try to make my life as boring as boring and, shall we say, "white" as possible, so as to stand out. So that when — not if, when — the time comes that I am singled out for my race, I might be better recognized because I'm in this town of white people and I can stand out as a black person. I blend in by standing out.
For more from the StoryCorps Mobile Booth, visit our website.
If you didn't get a chance to record in the MobileBooth, download the StoryCorps app and tag your interview with the keyword #FoCoStories to add it to the Fort Collins collection in the StoryCorps archive.
StoryCorps is sponsored locally by Kaiser Permanente.