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   Date: 11/18/11 Bookmark and Share

What's in a Name?

Reflections on Otelia Cromwell Day 2011

By Anna Roberts ‘12

The first 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 cause.

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 as valid.

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 me.

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.

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