The first time I remember counting colors, I was about 7 or 8. Glancing around at the other kids in my swim class, I realized I was the only brown one. This was interesting and a little awkward for a girl so eager to fit in, but nobody else seemed to notice. As long as they weren’t bothered, I decided I was all right.
Although biracial, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s side of the family—the Irish-Catholic McCarthys. I attended a Catholic high school, where I predominately made white, Irish friends. I was used to looking different from everybody else. For the most part, nobody seemed to notice.
When I arrived on campus freshman year, I found a bastion of Irish Catholicism similar to the one in which I had been raised. I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble becoming a part of that famed sense of Irish unity. But there was a something else along with the unity. There was ignorance—more than I had been confronted with in my segregated, blue-collar hometown.
My roommate, who had never been close to a black person, had a wealth of questions about “my people”—"our" food, habits and thoughts. While straightening my kinky hair or applying black beauty products, I was embarrassed when she scrunched up her nose at the smell. I started locking myself in the single bathroom down the hall so nobody would know what I was doing.
To those who didn’t know me personally, I ceased to be a person and became “diversity,” diversity in clubs, groups and classrooms. At a student-media retreat before the start of school my sophomore year, Student Activities put on a mandatory prejudice-reduction workshop. The leaders often called on me to speak for African Americans—an ironic choice, since I have little contact with that part of my heritage. They proudly announced that they didn’t want to single anyone out, even as they consistently pointed to me as “the only African-American sister” in the group.
I quickly discovered there was little room for me on a campus divided along racial lines. Much of the segregation among the student body is voluntary: Students stick to those they feel comfortable around, and much of that comfort is color-based. So that left me on my own. What was I supposed to do? Cut myself in half?
Straddling the line didn’t work. Moving in one homogenous circle distanced people in the other to the point that I lost a good friend over my mixed loyalties. It soon became clear that I would have to choose a side and stay there.
I chose instead my passion for writing and met my closest friends in journalism. They come from a handful of backgrounds (albeit mostly Irish), but neither my color nor theirs seems to matter. They are different, my group of friends, because they look at the world differently.
We debate race, religion and politics late into the night. I don’t have to speak for anyone but myself. To them, I am an individual, not a representative.
Like my former roommate, this student body is a kind one. It is caring, friendly and welcoming. But it is a homogenous one that often has trouble understanding different perspectives. Many would like to understand but aren’t sure how to go about it, or are even taught by their family that they shouldn’t.
A friend of mine, after one such discussion, asked bluntly, “Why would a minority come here?” I didn’t have an answer for her.
I do, however, know why I stayed: I found people I love on this campus, and I found myself. I don’t have to count colors anymore; I know the ratio too well. But at this point, it doesn’t matter much to me.
Sarah Childress is an English major (journalism concentration) and editor of Scholastic magazine.