in a Name?
Anna Roberts ‘12
time I remember expressing my racial identity was my first
year of high school. I had grown up in several different
places, all largely suburban and White, and my race was barely
ever brought up. But when I entered high school in a suburban
Maryland city, a girl in gym class asked me “what I was.” I
was at a loss how to respond, but when she said she was mixed—half
Black, half White—I immediately understood what she meant.
I was the same.
Anna Roberts '12
It wasn’t until I got to Smith that I thought
about whether or not that identity truly represented me.
My self-identity was not necessarily important in terms of
race, but depended more on the things that I am capable of—my
talents, my ambitions.
On Thursday, Nov. 10—Otelia Cromwell
Day—I attended an afternoon workshop, “Naming and Claiming:
A Conversation About Racial Terms and Self-Identification,” which
explored the topic of what we call ourselves, what identities
we claim and why. Led by English faculty Elizabeth Pryor
and Floyd Chueng, we talked about using particular racial
identifiers when it was advantageous to a certain political
I suddenly realized, this is
what I have been doing. On the Census and the SAT, for example,
I would check two racial identification boxes, so as to be
included among the growing number of multiracial people in
the United States. On my college application, I filled out “Black/African American” as
well as White, instead of classifying myself as “Other,” so
that I would be grouped with “Black/African American” students
enrolling in an institution of higher learning. At Smith,
I was involved in the Bridge Pre-Orientation program, where
I was recognized by the college as a woman of color, and
thus participated in activities and discussions on race and
ethnicity within the framework of Smith.
The thing is, within
this mindset, where I was assuming identities based on my
circumstances at the moment, I never truly thought about
how I would identify if I didn’t have to represent myself
to a larger institution.
My father is Black, my mother
is White, and both are inherently American in every sense
of the word. I have only ever thought of myself as a product
of their identities. I do not identify as multicultural or
multiethnic, because both of my parents are the outcome of
mid-20th-century American ideals, though they come from quite
different ideological backgrounds. Mixed, or biracial don’t
quite fit the bill either, because I am one entity, one being.
The way race is talked about
in the United States is so static, as if you can be made
of separate, racially signified blood. Visually represented
ideas of race are such a small part of one’s biological makeup that I refuse to regard this concept
The only available way for me
to identify myself to others is through language that is
already in use. Historically I could have been identified
by others as Negro, African American, Colored, Black, Mixed,
Biracial, Interracial, a person of color or some other less
politically correct terms. But all of these terms are so
entangled in historical meaning, none of them really describes
Otelia Cromwell day was an interesting
experience for me, because I have never fully felt like my
racial identifiers significantly affected my trajectory in
life. Perhaps that’s why I never ascribed to
a particular category. I’ve never wanted to put myself in
a box and be thought of within that context. Does this mean
that I’m not fully assuming my position in our society, which
is so “raced”? If I don’t assume a consistent identity, does
it mean I am not confident with my race, or that I don’t
want to be associated with the stereotypes, positive or negative,
surrounding that race?
Otelia Cromwell is presented
as the first African American graduate at Smith College,
and that is seen as a positive representation of other African
American people. If, by not ascribing a constant racial category
to myself, am I somehow doing a disservice to Otelia’s memory?
The workshop conversation brought
to light so many points that are still relevant. Fortunately,
many barriers have been broken, and an African American graduating
from Smith is no longer a rare occasion. However, there are
still plenty of racially based issues that concern Smith
students of all combinations of racial and/or ethnic identity.
Otelia Cromwell Day provides
a platform for those kind of discussions to be held outside
the context of the classroom.