In this series of essays, Lawyers Update helps you to get into world's top law schools.
Constructing Your Identity
White. It is just one word, five letters, a mere syllable, yet it categorizes the ethnicity of over two-thirds of the American population. I check its box on standardized tests, job applications, and demographic questionnaires quite regularly, but every time I pause, conscious of a vague resentment that the label stirs in the recesses of my mind.
You see, though "white" may describe the colour of my skin, it tells nothing of my background, my culture, or the rich heritage my family brought to America less than a century ago. It is a legacy that I have fought hard to revive and preserve, part of my identity that I feel is cheapened by our society's blanket Caucasian moniker. I am not merely white - I am Norwegian, a distinction to which I ascribe considerable importance.
My heritage did not always play such a pivotal role in my life. When my ancestors emigrated from Norway in the early twentieth century, they strove to assimilate into their new homeland, to be "white" instead of foreign. They encouraged their children to speak English, wear American clothing, eat American foods, and otherwise forget the country they left behind. In a single generation, they succeeded. Neither my mother nor my father grew up understanding the Norwegian language, and until a few years ago, they knew little of Norwegian culture and traditions.
As a child with a diverse array of friends, many of whom lived in homes where their ethnicities were actively celebrated, I became increasingly aware of my comparative lack of heritage. I watched my peers preserve their ancestral cultures with a touch of jealousy, longing to know and appreciate my own background. I was not satisfied with being just "white". I wanted to find something unique about myself and my family's past, something that could differentiate me from my classmates. Unfortunately, my parents, and grandparents were no help; having grown up with no awareness of their heritage, the questions I asked them about our family's history were met with shrugs or vague memories at best.
Taking matters into my own hands, as a young teenager I decided to attend Skogfjorden, a Norwegian-language camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, that promised to immerse me in all things Norwegian for four wonderful weeks. I spent every summer during high school there, studying the language, literature, and culture of my ancestral land while earning three high-school credits for my academic work. In an unexpected yet welcome concurrence, I came home from those summers to a progressively more Norwegian home. My newfound knowledge of and enthusiasm for Norway and its traditions spread among my immediate family members upon my return each year, and together we integrated them into our daily lives. Scandinavian desserts at Christmas, Norwegian blessings before dinner, traditional costumes, fireworks on May 17 (Norway's Independence Day); bit by bit, our home began to re-establish itself as a Norwegian American household.
Upon leaving for college, I continued to actively seek information about my heritage. I enrolled in as many courses as possible related to Scandinavia, studying topics that ranged from the Old Norse sagas to modern Scandinavian international relations. My interest deepened commensurate with my knowledge as I delved deeper into the colourful history from which Norway had emerged-folklore, mythology, kings and queens, heroes and explorers, ancient texts, rune stones, and legends. At the same time, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a few Norwegian exchange students who supplemented my formal schoolwork with their firsthand accounts of modern Norway and its youth culture.
Yet for all my studies I still knew very little of my personal Norwegian history, a shortcoming that I felt compelled to remedy. So, during the summer between my first and second years at Harvard, I finally travelled to Norway itself. The three weeks I spent there could not have been a more perfect complement to my years of academic and extramural study. I hiked on mountains I had read of in the sagas, saw the ruins of Viking ships, ate hearty Norwegian food, toured the Parliament building in Oslo, and practiced the language constantly. Most importantly, I paid a long-overdue visit to my Norwegian relatives, those whom my forefathers had left behind. Their joy at my arrival and eagerness to share their way of life, the way of life that I had sought so fervently to understand and imitate over the years, overwhelmed me. Only after many happy tears and many long conversations into the night- for, after all, we had decades of catching up to do-did I leave with promises not to lose touch again, promises that have since been kept and that I am certain will never be broken.
In the years since that visit, I have persisted in seeking opportunities to learn about and participate in my heritage. From the experience of my parents and grandparents, I appreciate how quickly inattention can stifle a family legacy, and I am determined not to repeat their mistake. I still have much to discover about Norway and my past, but I think I can safely say that I will never be simply "white" again. Though the colour of my skin remains the same, my sense of self has changed forever.