In this series of essays, Lawyers Update helps you to get into world's top law schools.
Constructing Your Identity
It usually takes people several attempts to figure me out. With the toffee-colored skin and curly hair that I inherited from my black father and Puerto Rican mother, my racial heritage has never been easy to guess. I've been assumed to be white, black, Hispanic, South Asian, and Middle Eastern, to name a few. With my background so hard to place, I could fit quite nicely into the pre-dominantly white suburbs where I grew up. I didn't look or feel all that different from the Dohertys or the Barravecchios living there. The racial homogeneity of my upbringing had an unfortunate side effect: I never had an opportunity to connect with black or Hispanic culture outside of my family. Growing up, I didn't really notice. Acute racial awareness did not hit me until college.
At that point, Rice University was the most diverse place I had ever lived. At first, I spent my free time with my South Asian and white roommates, as I was not ready to explore the black and Hispanic groups on campus. Soon enough, though, I ventured out, hoping they would add a sense of belonging to my life that I thought was lacking. I joined the Black Student Association, eager to find my niche. Instead, at every meeting or event I attended, I stayed on the outskirts, feeling separated, as if I were observing through a glass wall. I couldn't commiserate about being racially profiled, and I could get my hair wet whenever I wanted. My feelings of disappointment were so cutting that I didn't attempt a single foray into the Hispanic group on campus. As someone who didn't speak Spanish fluently, I feared that I would feel similarly disconnected.
By the time I graduated from Rice, I had decided to take steps to grow into my ethnicity. To begin this journey, I spent three weeks in Puerto Rico. My intent was to speak only Spanish for the duration of the trip and lose myself in the culture. Unfortunately for me, everyone on the island spoke English and could tell my Spanish was not up to par as soon as the first anglicized hola came out of mouth. As for culture, I felt oddly unexposed. My relatives took me to all the tourist spots and malls, where the customs mirrored those of the white neighborhoods where I had been raised. Ultimately, my trip brought me no closer to identifying with my Hispanic heritage, and I returned to the States disappointed.
The next part of my journey involved my post-graduation plans; teaching in inner-city Atlanta. I did not pick this path so that I could explore my "blackness," but it was a fortunate side effect. I saw the experience as an opportunity to connect with and learn about African- American culture-my culture. From the start, my seventh graders branded me as an outsider by not referring to me as light-skinned, their sign of acceptance. Instead, I was white. I quickly learned that to them, being black was less of a genetic fact and more of an attitude, which I initially lacked. The rejection I felt fully eclipsed the disconnection I felt in college. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and I needed my students to accept me in order to achieve my goals of racial acceptance and effective teaching. As each day passed, I related to them a little more by spending time with them at school and at their homes, both during the week and on the weekends. By the end of the year, my students serenaded me with songs about their light-skinned teacher. My personal quest for ethnicity was over; my students had taught me how to belong.
Part of my duty as their teacher was to return the favor by teaching them how to belong in the world outside their inner-city neighborhood. Unfortunately, I was unable to give my students a complete picture of their greater surroundings within the confines of the classroom. I realized that in order to help my students, I needed to go beyond the classroom into the realm of the law. Many of the obstacles preventing them from attaining a complete education stemmed from issues within the legal system, such as the emphasis placed on standardized testing. An understanding of law and policy making will give me a greater basis to provide minority students with resources to reach beyond their borders to their fullest potential. I not only want to understand the existing law, but I also aim to make laws more equitable and fair for my former students. Law school will better equip me to give them the opportunity to expand their horizons, as I had done.