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During our group discussions and movie nights, I’ve noticed many times how it’s not just our own experiences that affect our thoughts, emotions, and reactions but it’s also those of our families. I can count on my fingers all my family members to whom I am still connected. Yet,…

during Merchants of Doubt, I kept thinking about how many of my family members still smoked and how many did not believe in climate change

and during Lorenzo’s Oil, I could only think about all the health conditions my family battles and how we’ve had to fight for diagnoses and proper medication

and during Bandersnatch, I imagined how few decisions led me to Duke instead of drugs

and during GATTACA, I realized how many unplanned children there are in my family (and I am including myself among those) and wondered if this technology would have blocked all the progress we’ve made

and during Three Identical Strangers, it hit me how different my life would have been if I’d born to anyone else in my bloodline other than my parents

and during Beasts of the Western Wild, I debated what made one person loyal to their family despite their circumstances and what made another run away.

These discussions made me recognize that even though I consider myself separate from essentially all my extended family, I’ve often said,

“I am white trash.”

I’ve said this more times than I can remember. My sweet and innocent “bubble” is partially a shield to hide this part of me. But I know that for anyone to actually understand me, I have to find a way to pop it. So I just declare the truth. Then, they recoil. They hesitate as they debate editing my words.

Some will whisper, “you know, you shouldn’t really say that about yourself.”

And they are right. I mean it’s not even completely true. I would technically not be considered white trash. But I was a sliding door away from being another addict in the mill ville of Gastonia, North Carolina. At times, I wonder how much of the cigarette smoke of the textile factory workers and the red clay of the tenant farmers is ingrained in my genetic expression. I wonder how many generations it’ll take before my descendants no longer feel like this label belongs to them. I wonder if they’ll just relapse. I fear my DNA.

I especially questioned why I still identify as white trash during our discussion of Beasts of the Southern Wild. There was a divide in that conversation between those who viewed Hushpuppy’s father as abusive and those who considered him a part of a misunderstood culture. Talking to individuals outside of that discussion made it clear to me how many of us came from places of pain in that conversation. But for many, it wasn’t their own places of pain. It was the pain of their parents and grandparents that weighed down their comments. Some were raised on the narratives of family who came from misunderstood cultures or difficult situations. Others saw the physical and emotional scars of neglect and abuse.

For me, I kept bouncing back and forth. At the same time that I vehemently disliked the father, I also admired this community on the fringes of society and strongly disagreed with the idea that the government should take away the children from their society. I’ve seen abuse. The moment Hushpuppy’s father hit her I lost all respect for him. At the same time, a blanket policy to remove the children of the Western Wilds from their homes could easily have meant that many of my family members would have been raised in their homes. We would have been a series of fractured generations. While I admit my family tree has many limbs that cannot support me, I also do not want anyone turning it into kindling.

When I applied to this DukeEngage, I only thought about how excited I was to learn about policy. I did not once think about how convoluted this topic could become for me. I did not think about how every scenario we discussed would have characters played by the people in my life. At the Office of Social Policy, I did not expect to have all the happily adopted children I know battling all the children I know from “rough” but content family situations.

I forgot that policy alters the lives of all my family members and friends. I have my own places of pain and privilege, some inherited and some shaped. Just like every member of this program reacts to the movies and discussions in a unique manner, we all react to policy from our various backgrounds.

I forgot that policy alters the lives of all my family members and friends. But after this program, I will never forget that again.