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I have blond hair and pale skin. On the color wheel, my father is a rich mocha, my sister is a warm copper, and my mother is a perfectly tanned caramel; I am somewhere between cream and eggshell on the opposite end of the spectrum. Being stereotypically white can be difficult when you’re African American.
The beginning of high school was when I first began to feel that my fair complexion hid my true identity. When I entered ninth grade, I was delighted to find myself in the company of an entirely new group of friends. Upon meeting my parents for the first time, my friends smiled warmly at my mother and gaped at my father, their eyes widening as they flitted between him and myself. However, I was pleased to find that all of them were accepting of my family’s ethnic composition. As our group became closer, we often discussed our futures. During one conversation, we outlined our weddings, collapsing into fits of giggles upon hearing each other’s extravagant dreams. Once our laughter had subsided, one girl said more seriously, “One thing’s for sure, I could never marry a black guy. It would just be too difficult with the race thing.” I blinked, waiting for a reaction. None came. Why had no one jumped to my defense? Did people not see my white mother and my black father when they looked at me? It was then that I realized to my friends, I wasn’t black.
Incidents like this made me recognize that being biracial has inherently given me perspective that many people lack. When a friend told me that her parents would never allow her to date someone of a different race, I couldn’t understand why. When I revealed my biracial heritage to a black friend, she became noticeably warmer toward me and happily shared the news with her friends as we walked by them in the hall. My much darker sister does not share these experiences. We draw from the exact same gene pool, but my sister’s complexion allows her complete racial inheritance to shine while mine cloaks half of it.
My sister knows her race because her appearance reflects it. But do I? Is a girl still black if nobody sees it? Should it matter? Growing up pale, blond, and black has influenced me. I feel obligated to immediately tell people about my race because my looks do not convey it. Nevertheless, I know who I am. Though my friends joke about me skipping the “black gene,” I am just as connected to my father’s Louisiana roots as I am to my mother’s Alabaman ancestors. Racial identity is marked by more than arbitrary features like skin tone, and while we are unable to choose our exact coloring, we do choose who we are. My appearance and the responses it elicits have shaped me but do not control me. Beneath fair hair and light skin, I see a girl who is both black and white. I see me.
At first glance, Caden’s essay seems like a generic essay about “diversity”—a hot college-acceptance buzzword. Wrong. Caden takes the important topic of identity and weaves it into a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale, showing how her self-confidence and ability to overcome challenges grew. She writes in a playful tone that makes reading her essay an entertaining experience rather than a chore. By incorporating memories of conversations with friends in her freshman year in high school, she lets readers into her personal life, taking the edge off the serious undertones of her conflicts with “extravagant dreams [of weddings].” This combination of her racial identity issues and her youthful memories shows a maturity of thought and understanding of others as well as herself.
However, she does not forget to draw the attention back to the key point of her story—her firm acceptance of her character. After her first two sprightly paragraphs, her tone shifts and becomes authoritative. She employs short and straightforward sentences as the essay progresses, such as the declaration: “I know who I am” in the final paragraph. Caden writes with a powerful voice that distinctly proves she accepts her biracial identity, despite her appearance that leads others to make false assumptions. Although the final line, “I see me,” can be seen as a reach, it works for Caden. By that point in the essay, she has earned it. It caps off the confident tone of the last few paragraphs that express her comfort with her racial identity. All in all, Caden created a well-written story that displays both her writing prowess through smooth transitions between different voices and her ability to overcome the greatest challenge of being comfortable in one’s skin.
Copyright © 2014 by The Harvard Crimson
Excerpted from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, Third Edition by Excerpted by permission.
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