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Demographics

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I often find myself pondering, to certain lengths, the precise purpose of the “demographics” section of most official documents. It's not that it bothers me much, really – on the contrary, I've hardly given it any notice in the past. It is simply that, being an incoming senior and college-applicant, I have had to fill in quite a few of these little surveys in the past ten or so months – be it for SAT forms, or résumés, or even the applications themselves. Always, it seems, it takes me a few moments more than most others to decide how to reply to the questions listed. Should I bubble in the “Black or African American” option? Or perhaps the “Native American” line?

Usually, I end up selecting the “White or Caucasian” choice, simply because, quite frankly, I look more white than anything else. The truth is, however, my ancestry is quite unique, and much more complicated than a simple paper scantron can attest to. And although the lines tracing my ethnicity are twisted and entangled, and sometimes not completely clear, I have always done my best to try to take on the burden of learning it, understanding it, and, most importantly, embracing it.

My maternal grandfather, you see – the great source of my unique ethnic blend – comes from two “legally Black” parents. Although my great-grandmother was more strongly of white descent than black, it was the official doctrine in those days that a single drop of African American blood made a person “Black”, de jure. My grandfather, on the other hand, was mostly African American, with quite a bit of Native American blood. This, in my opinion, is where things get really interesting.

My Native American great-great-great-grandmother went by the acquired name of “Mertie Outlaw”. Quite a jump from the traditional “Red Bear, Little Creek” nomenclature, yes? That's because she was no teepee-squatting earth-mother; she ran with the infamous Jesse James (James-Younger) party, the legendary “Wild West” gangsters of the late 1800s. Despite much research, we are not sure who exactly fathered her baby – my great-great-grand-mother or -father – or what his ethnic roots entailed. We can infer, however, that the child they bore eventually grew up to marry the illegitimate child of an English plantation-owner and his secret Black slave mistress. Together, this pairing yielded my great-grandfather, who eventually coupled with a Ms. Hattie Speller, my aforementioned, partially-white, but “legally Black” great-grandmother. My grandfather, Mr. Thomas Bond, went on to fight some of the fiercest stigmas of American history to marry a white Englishwoman by the name of Joy Toms, and to become a pioneer in Black medicine for the State of New York, as well as for the nation during the Korean War. Sent overseas as a lead medical professor, he helped to set up the very first Venereal Disease clinic for American soldiers in Europe.

That makes me, by the end of this lengthy trail, roughly two-thirds white, one-fourth black, and one-twelfth Native American (my mother married an Englishman named Mark Carlson who, despite having been born and raised for many years in South Africa, carries 100% Caucasian blood). By all appearances, I could be considered white – at most, I've been called “exotic-looking”. Most people are quite shocked when I share my “secret ethnicity” – hesitantly titled, because I am not purposely keeping it a secret, by any means. Quite honestly, I simply don't very often see any reason to share the fact, because it has nothing to do with who I am, and thus should have no bearing on the way people perceive me.

I'll confess, though, that I tend to keep my tongue locked away regarding the subject, simply for the sheer guilty pleasure of observation. Growing up in a town like Summit, New Jersey – a small, wealthy, upper-middle-class, mostly-white community – I've been granted a unique sort of “fly on the wall” experience, by which I can observe the way in which people talk about race, without their knowledge that I come from the very peoples about which they are joking. Believe me, I am no cruel manipulator – I am not the type who would take pleasure in politely listening to a Black joke, and then calmly informing the person of the fact that I am partially African American, watching as their jocular grin transforms into an expression of horror. I have never done anything of the sort. I can shamelessly admit, however, that I've come to see myself as a sort of undercover rogue spy without a team to which I am loyal.

The most intriguing part comes out of the reactions of the people who I do tell. At first, they don't believe me; then, they'll look sort of nervous – ask a few tentative questions, indulge in a detail or two; and finally, they'll laugh, and say things like “Ohh, I can see it now! In your nose... and your eyes!”

With my close friends, I guess I've become a sort of novelty – they show me off like a baby being passed around at a party. They never cease to find amusement in it: that thrilled moment, standing with a group of friendly acquaintances, when they take me by the arm and say proudly, eyes full of ecstasy and voices quivering dramatically...

“Caroline's black!”

I just laugh and nod in uncomfortable affirmation while the people gush. The questions pour out, the shocked laughter reverberates – and for a few moments, I'm a celebrity. It's strange, really – after that, I never hear another black joke within that group of people again. It makes me feel almost guilty, as if I've ruined their fun. Naturally, though, my ethnicity never been a problem of any kind with people; for this, I am thankful. My mother often tells me about what it was like growing up as a child, living in fear each day that they would go outside to find a cross-burning on the lawn.

I'm proud of who I am, and so I'm proud of where I come from. The unique perspective I've been given throughout life has taught me a lot about people, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. Just the other day, in fact, I was at lunch with a good friend of mine, and, as the bread-sticks arrived, the topic of conversation turned to college applications – a common topic over the past year or so.

“You don't have anything to worry about,” she said, reaching across the table for the butter. “You're black. Colleges eat that stuff right up.”

A part of me wanted to tell her how silly she sounded – how stupid it was to think that the skin-color of a few dead people whom I have never met should have any effect on my future, and what university I end up attending. But I just sort of shrugged, smiling bemusedly. Perhaps she was right. At the end of it all, though – after everything I had ever seen and learned – I didn't want that to be all it added up to.





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This article has 4 comments. Post your own now!

ryorke5000 said...
Oct. 19, 2009 at 8:17 pm
One last thing, depending on what schools you are applying to, this essay might be one of the "original" ones or it might have a couple of competitors. What schools are you applying to? If you are applying to very competitive schools, I suggest you personalize this essay even more and really make it reflect on you as a person
 
ryorke5000 said...
Oct. 19, 2009 at 8:09 pm
This is essay is a very good start! Being a former college essay editor, i think that the idea behind this piece is quite strong. Focusing on your unique background is particularly special. To take a further step, I would talk about how your background has shaped you as a person. Talk about a particular characteristic/advantage you have over others. Tip: I would boil down the two paragraphs on the technical aspects of your heritage. Admissions officers care about you, not so much your great-grea... (more »)
 
Caroline C. said...
Oct. 8, 2009 at 3:04 pm
thanks resident! appreciate the feedback.
 
Caroline C. said...
Oct. 7, 2009 at 5:00 pm
excuse me? was that supposed to be funny or are you just mean?
 
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