Where You Want to Be


Notes on Listening to Taking Back Sunday to Make White Friends



[Track 1 – Set Phasers to Stun]: 

I’m sorry it took me so long.

I’m sorry it took me so long.

In high school, I decided to make white friends. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had any up until that point, but in high school, white kids were team captains, student body presidents, the top of the class—all things I wanted, some of which my parents expected. Add to those a car, a job, the thrill of being watched and wanted at after-game dances, and the allure was too much for me to ignore. If I was going to benefit from the hard-won freedom my immigrant parents brought me to America to enjoy, I’d need to better understand white culture. So I turned to Kurt, the homie who sat next to me in Sophomore Algebra II who never asked what I was or where I really came from. Kurt was beautiful, quiet, perceptive, and kind. He had the kind of perfectly understated dark scene kid hair that fell just over his icy blue eyes. It gave him credibility with the actual scene kids and evoked enough “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to endear him to adults. Were he six inches taller, I always thought he could’ve been on the cast of The OC. 


[Track 2 – Bonus Mosh Pt. II]: 

Well, it’s love.

Make it hurt.

I would tell Kurt “I love you” to watch him fluster. Boys weren’t supposed to say that—especially to another boy. But I did. I loved Kurt in part because he lived on the periphery of so many different kinds of white cliques—including the popular, wealthy white circle I was trying to break into. He knew enough to sit with them, but not enough to be them. He was one of the few people (at times, the only person) I ever talked to about romantic feelings and the possibility of sex.

To the extent we talked about sex, it was always heterosexual, often theoretical. We acted out desire, clunky in our cheap imitations extrapolated from the story fragments thrown our way. We didn’t know what it meant to want, how to find what felt good. Of course, there were moments of earnestness (and for that I’m thankful to Kurt), but mostly, we teased and made fun of the desire for desire. We never had guides.

Ours was a town that eschewed difference and rewarded heteronormative, homogenous cultural norms. No one I knew had heard of The L Word, American television’s first queer cast, but the kids I longed to be buzzed over movies like She’s The Man and It’s a Boy Girl Thing, which both flattened subversions of gender roles into stupid punchlines. Without any seemingly useful advice, I hungered for cultural products that gave me archetypes to map onto. When I asked Kurt for music recommendations, he threw a CD case at me filled with mostly ska and pop punk. Among the albums was Taking Back Sunday’s Where You Want to Be. Here was a pre-made mold I could pour myself into, drowning my anxieties with the primal screams behind the heavy thrums of “I wanted you for nothing more / than hating you for what you were,” which is not at all advice, but it was as close as we were going to get.



[Track 3 – A Decade Under the Influence]:

Who’s to say you’ll have to go? 

Yakima was about 50/50 white and Latinx, and I grew up on the historic red line across the street from my middle school and the biggest park in the city where I hooped or played soccer. They were pick-up games, so spontaneous, temporary bonds formed with every “Dame!” or “Ira wey!” shouted at a total stranger—a brief shared language that was just ours. During lunch, I freestyled with some of the only Black kids at school. Moving from the valley to the town, we were farther from the Reservation, from my mom’s side of the family and the Filipino Community Center (one of the first in the country), but closer to my father’s mosque. My senior year of high school we moved about the farthest west we could, into the heart of whiteness.


[Track 4 – This Photograph Is Proof (I Know You Know)]: 

Well, I know you know everything.

I know you didn’t mean it.

I know you didn’t mean it.

When I say whiteness, I mean power. When I say my relationship to whiteness, I mean a reckoning with power and powerlessness. The way my father and I position our bodies in relation to others has always involved a negotiation. My father could pass as white sometimes—until he opened his mouth. That he had some power until he spoke was the first crack I encountered in the otherwise inescapable American doctrine that your voice is power. I can pass. If I cut my hair, straighten my posture, fill out the lines of a decent suit, I can pass. That’s how I learned there’s a difference between power and power: the power of making a choice versus the structural powers that determine the choice you get to make at all.

I can clean up, work hard, and gain access to a governor or a CEO. Many in my family do not. Many of my bygone beloveds cannot. If I paint my nails, my immigraiton status remains the same. So I don’t clean up anymore—my hair spills outward, curls around bright jumpers and glittering accessories—and that’s my choice. I can choose to betray myself, who I come from, and what I desire. I could do it today: another bite at the apple. I’ve done it. I know I can choose. Lucky me.

The choices I have aren’t available to everybody. I was afforded them due to some unfathomable mix of genetics and having made the first choice of this essay: to make white friends early. I make the choice to not try to pass now because it is an exercise in yet another kind of power. It feels good to make a room full of cis-gendered heteronormative white people uncomfortable, in great part, because it renders the white patriarchal power structures around all of us completely visible. Before, I would hammer myself into their form. Made new, I aimed to enter those halls  of power, only to crash into these invisible barriers: the brute walls that uphold a greater, structural power. I never seemed to see them coming—didn’t recognize that my decisions to pass as white and befriend white people were choices that had been placed before me by that same structural power from the start. I didn’t think there would be a limit on how far they might take me. I’d knocked on the door of power, but I was never gonna be allowed inside. My twenties were so confusing. Nearly every curtailed form of cultural and gender expression eventually came with the realization—suddenly and without warning—that I’d never really be able to enter that rarified room where power is brokered, measured, and shared.

In a violent system, all choices lead to violence. While there are moments of liberation and freedom in this new-found choice, a deliberate rage against the machinery of it all, that feeling is fleeting. It is also geographical. Now, on occasion, white discomfort sours into real and possible danger. I cannot dress the way I do now in the place I grew up without a reasonable fear that I will be assaulted. My body does not look as expected. I, posing a risk to whiteness’ sense of order and self, must be eliminated. At least in this, there are no more illusions. Their discomfort lies purely in my existence—their violence: a promise to find and obliterate the ones that made my existence possible. I am in touch with my own precarity, and for the briefest moment, in the fulcrum of that turn, so are they.


[Track 5 – The Union]: 

Well, I never made a scene.

Well, they came to me.

I never made a scene.

I didn’t have to.

I’m terrified I made the wrong choice all those years ago. So many aspects of my adult life can be traced to that first decision to make white friends. Fourteen-year-old me wasn’t fully conscious, but he was deliberate. Three different cheer team captains lived on Scenic Hill—where Kurt lived—which is exactly the lush, spacious, big-housed monument to suburban white nouveau wealth you’re imagining. They hung out with the single most popular kid in school, beloved by teachers and students alike, who was voted most likely to succeed and most charismatic, who emceed every pep rally and went on to Stanford. I wanted all of that. So yeah, I volunteered. Honors society. Varsity tennis. Student body president. Private liberal arts college. Corporate management consultant. Political operative. I’ve left a thousand rooms in favor of a better, more powerful one. As I get older, I find my mind returning more and more to the ones I left behind.


[Track 6 – New American Classic]: 

Retrace the steps, as if we forgot.

Say you won’t care.

Say you won’t care.

Before punk became my way towards whiteness, rap music from the 90s and naughties was already telling me how to act, who to be. Nelly. Lil Wayne. Kelis. T.I. Lil Boosie. MIMS. Soulja Boy. Black artists, mediated by white record labeled cassette tapes, showed me, in the full-length mirror of my basement room hours before a Southeast Community Center dance, how to stunt.

With what awareness my middle school self had, I learned the stunt was more than just showing off. The stunt—a good stunt—cannot merely be about the boast or the swagger, although those elements are important. A true stunt is predicated on accepting a premise. The premise could be social positionality, identity markers, a dance move, rapping itself. Whatever the form, to stunt means to embody it better than anyone thought possible: celebration and self-assertion in the face of an external constraint (which, though I didn’t know it at the time, often took the form of a white audience, which is to say: power). It is about transforming the material conditions of your surroundings, possessions, the very frameworks that shape you into a spectacle, something spectacular.

It comes as no coincidence then that the Black vernacular, in its own kind of stunt, turns the formal English meaning “to prevent from growing or developing properly” into a flex to be admired, something impressive, worthy of applause and approbation.


[Track 7 – I Am Fred Astaire]: 

All tired 

Scream, safe haven 

Let’s get this out and on the table

For the longest time, I avoided punk and the whole universe of music characterized by screaming over steady electric guitar strokes. The relentlessness felt oppressive. I couldn’t find myself in the narrow spaces between each guitar stroke and cymbal crash. It was disorienting. I had yet to learn to brace myself against it. But then spinning through Kurt’s hundred or so CDs, mostly pop punk, I found bands I developed an appreciation for like Blink-182 and Less Than Jake. Hawthorne Heights screaming “Cut my wrists and black my eyes” in “Ohio is For Lovers” is exactly what I anticipated, but Where You Want To Be was more melodic than I expected. It left room to breathe. Slightly edgier than Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday was a version of pop punk I could fall into without losing myself. The band presented the scream in a way that angst suddenly made sense as an expression of powerlessness for which language is wholly inadequate. Before Taking Back Sunday, white angst had always felt elusive to me. “Scream, safe haven” belts Adam Lazarra, and I’m thinking about how my father couldn’t open his mouth and be taken seriously.


[Track 8 – One-eighty by Summer]: 

Well, I hold my tongue, use it to assess 

The damage from way back when it mattered.

But nothing seems important anymore.

We’re just protecting ourselves from our self.

And I don’t think I’ll ever come back down.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back down.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back down.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back down.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back down.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back.

I don’t think I’ll ever come back.

Angst is the white analog of the stunt.


[Track 9 – Number Five with a Bullet]: 

We’re gonna die like this, you know: miserable and old.

Really gotta hand it to you. Really gotta hand it to you.

I’ve spent my entire adult life considering and subsequently comporting myself in relation to whiteness to no avail. The thousands of hours I’ve spent and tens of thousands of words I’ve written in the service of considering whiteness will never compel whiteness to change or reverse its flow of power.

In working with so many white people, I’ve come to understand there is a difference between structural whiteness and cultural whiteness. The highwire act of addressing, never mind dismantling, the structural forces of whiteness requires a certain level of cultural fluency in whiteness to render the otherwise invisible visible to the very people it benefits. Said another way: to be taken seriously, knowing what fork is used for what helps, but at minimum, this essay has to be written in standard grammatically-correct English to be given the opportunity to be read at all.

To take the inner conflict even further: I love some white people—my partner and children especially. There are times, in my deepest moments of frustration with them, where their whiteness obscures their personhood. If I stayed there, which I have every right and often want to, then neither of us get to be human, and the other side—the one that constructed and continues to deliberately wield whiteness as power—wins.


[Track 10 – Little Devotional]: 

I said I’m gonna have myself in shambles.

I remember buying my first pair of ripped jeans from the Hot Topic across the way from American Eagle at the Valley Mall. Buckle was a couple storefronts over. I hit up all three that day. I wanted to pull together an outfit that balanced the FILA jacket and Starter high tops, something punk but preppy, baggy but respectable (even—and maybe especially—then, I understood the power of a good collage). I still needed to sneak past my parents, who spared me no grief about buying something already in tatters. I could do that for you, my dad said. But he didn’t understand how this was currency. I was learning the code. Riding in the passenger seat of Kurt’s souped-up 1997 Honda Civic—red, hatchback, kevlar hood—blasting Brand New, I was in it. When we pulled into our school parking lot and found a spot between a lifted truck with energy drink decals and a hand-me-down Lexus with pink fuzzy flip flops hanging from the rear view mirror, I’d made it.



[Track 11 – … Slowdance on the Inside]: 

Cross my heart and hope to . . .  

I’m lying just to keep you.

The punk music I know comes from the mouths of cishet white dudes conflating love with suffering, renders women as characterless foils to create a false sense of emotional depth. It makes a posture out of personal, romantic tragedy. I wish this self-fulfilling prophecy of destructive heterosexual relationships were specific to the aughts. I wish listening to “…Slowdance on the Inside” today, didn’t make me a boy again so quickly. Love, of any kind, can’t be torture. It shouldn’t be. I want to say being in relationship with white people is a kind of love that can feel like torture—how, in whiteness, some are held captive and stripped of their humanity. But that simile is far too easy. It makes light of the brutality so many have faced at the hands of whiteness, and it reifies exactly what the punk music I came up on did. It reduces the whole social order, once again, to a set of individuated experiences. Any figuration here would be a disservice, allowing us to look away when we should stay. Right here.


[Track 12 – Your Own Disaster]: 

And I don’t think that you know.

I said I don’t think you know.

I said I don’t think you know what you’re missing.

Eventually, I let punk go. I stuck with the familiar rhythms and cadences of hip hop. A posture that feels more natural to me. Only years later would I understand the historical irony in this personal decision—that punk began as Black art and the hip hop that served as an entree to my own later tastes was a commercialized product for white consumption. Nevertheless, the hip hop I grew up on was one that created more space and made me less lonely. It was populated with people I recognized inheriting a world they never really had a chance at shaping. The sliver of punk I knew never approached that kind of self-awareness. Under the cover of emotional fluency, it re-animated the very forces that demanded I look, love, and act a certain way. In it’s self-certainty, it needed to strip me of my humanity. To understand white male punk was to be colonized by it, to eschew curiosity and openness, the sources of true desire, in the service of neat and aggressive binaries. I am sad. I am angry. I fuck. It’s your fault. You’re wrong. You get fucked.

Art is never just art, and whiteness’ vision of the world doesn’t include me in it. It took getting as close to it as I could—and almost losing myself entirely—to find that out. I walked away from a pre-set life in corporate America, a wife and kids, a 401k with a generous company matching program, and an assured life held within the confines of a suburban white-picket fence. Recently, an elder put to me, “What have you given up in the service of the work?” She asked this in regards to justice generally and abolition specifically. My bank account will give you one answer. The managers at my old firm, the boys I played football with growing up, and my children for that matter will tell you others.

Years removed from these decisions, I find myself in further precarity. In addition to unstable employment and immigration status, my presentation offers less comfort to white folks. Is that showing off? I’m wondering these days how much of the stunt is self-preservation. I want to say it isn’t, but I’m also just trying to make enough money to feed my daughter. And son. And second daughter. There is no real answer. In relationships, power is constantly shifting. But on the scale of social order, it stays relatively fixed.

By the standard of the kid who felt the need to make white friends, our life is probably disappointing. These days, though, I’m lucky to have begun returning my body to myself, discovering not just all the ways I’ve divorced it along the way but every moment of splendor and self-possession I get to reclaim in this journey. Like all of us, I live with (and within) whiteness, but I’m no longer interested in allowing it to arrange myself for me. I want more. I am more. The person I am becoming is not a reaction to or a desire for, but is my own beloved self. And maybe in another chapter of my life I’d have viewed this as a win, but that, like all games, is short-sighted. What harms me harms all of us until we can all exist as ourselves with everything we need at hand. One doesn’t follow the other, exactly, but we’ll all need both. I can start by discovering and loving me. And sometimes that means thinking about the person I was and that white boy Kurt I once loved.


Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick

Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. They are the author of Here I Am O My God, selected for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, and Salat, selected as winner of the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Award. Along with Luther Hughes and Gabrielle Bates, they cohost The Poet Salon podcast. More from this author →