"Please Describe Your Background"
When I’m asked “What are you?” a question which my slight racial ambiguity warrants on almost a daily basis, I say black. So I check black on my college app. Then sometimes (most times actually), the question is followed by “Yeah, but what else?” and sometimes “She’s Cuban!” “She’s Puerto Rican.” “She’s Italian.” from eavesdroppers. No, I’m actually not. Thanks, but I have my racial identity figured out.. I don’t really like to be the object of twenty questions.
When pressed, and not offended, I’ll explain that yes, my father is a white, non religious Jew. This often leads to further confusion about the Jewish people as an ethnic group. “Did you have a Bat Mitvzah?” No. “Then you’re not Jewish.” Right, I’m black. “Okay, you’re mixed.” I’m black. “Whatever.”
1. Are you Hispanic/Latino?
Yes, Hispanic or Latino (including Spain) No
If yes, please describe your background.
American Indian or Alaska Native (including all Original Peoples of the Americas)
Are you Enrolled? Yes No
If yes, please enter Tribal Enrollment Number____________________________
Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines)
Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean)
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)
White (including Middle Eastern)
So I’m seventeen and about to enter a four-month stretch of “the college application process.” My task is to simplify, summarize, and reflect on my life, my experiences, my education, and most uncomfortably my character within the boundaries of a 5-page questionnaire and at least one 250-500 word personal essay.
I can check as many boxes as I want so I could conceivably keep one foot in each pigeonhole. But I won’t. I have brown skin and curly, frizzy hair, I don’t get sunburned and my grandma Rosa was a black sharecropper who had very few choices about race or anything else. For me, blackness is not a rejection of any other racial details of my lineage. To embrace blackness is to embrace the strength and resilience of a people bound by centuries of slavery and colonialism, by another century of Jim Crow in the US, by the divides of who could ‘pass’ and who could not. My white father went to an all black school in Detroit and got arrested as a teenager for protesting at a grocery that refused to hire blacks. My mother further taught us what racism and slavery and oppression were all about. Blackness is embracing what I know and taking pride in being something that has been tied with shame and abuse by past generations. In my eyes, context and history are not details of race, but context and history create race.
I know the argument can be made that we are a post-racial society. But, honestly in the lunchrooms at both high schools I’ve gone to (public and private, suburban and urban respectively), with truly just a few exceptions, the black kids sit with black kids, the white kids sit with white kids. Almost all of the scholarship students at my school are black. So in my experience race is relevant. It indicates certain a level of opportunity and the bearing of a now usually subtle prejudice. It may not be so in my personal relationships, but it is relevant in the choices we make about identity and in the realness of the stories we hear about ancestors. If we were post-racial, I would probably do something like check all those little boxes or none of them or complain that we shouldn’t be asked. But I think claiming my black identity is important and a testament of recognition. So I check black.