Authentic Eagles: On Diversity

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Griff Stark-Ennis, A&S ’14

“Please choose one of the following options: African American, American Indian, Caucasian, Asian American, Hispanic, Multiracial, Other.” –SAT, ACT, PSAT, NYS Regents Exams

I hated standardized tests in high school. Not for the reason that my school didn’t prepare me well for them, or because they consumed four hours of my day, or because of the stress that surrounded my expected performance; not for any of those reasons. I hated those tests because of a simple set of directions they made me abide by, the set of directions that’s quoted above. This piece of paper wanted me to identify my entire being by simply bubbling in a little circle, and quite honestly, I couldn’t do that. So, like with any standardized test that I took, I would quickly search for the circle that would mark me as “Other,” fill it in, and reclaim my focus. With four hours to take the test, I couldn’t really afford to think about what that bubble meant to me. I was the “Other,” and the “Other” was me.

“Yeah, my Dad’s kinda racist, but I think he likes you guys because you aren’t really, you know, ‘black’…” –Girl in the Fifth Grade

These shocking words will always be branded into my memory. They were said to me eleven years ago back in middle school but I can still picture the girl’s face as she expressed them to me. There was no moment’s hesitation about whether or not they were offensive or even politically correct for that matter. She said it quite matter-of-factly actually, as if she was simply pointing out the obvious. And in some strange and blunt way, she had only pointed out the obvious.

I was born on July 13, 1992 in Fort Worth, Texas to a young Mexican-American single mother, but before I was even born she knew that she wouldn’t be keeping me. Born into circumstances that would have made it difficult to raise another child, my birthmother decided that taking a risk and relinquishing her chance to be a mother to me was what would be best for her new baby. Though I can only imagine that it was incredibly painful for her to make that decision, that choice—a choice made twenty-one years ago—was and will continue to be the most important decision made during my lifetime. Fortunately, her courage was answered with grace and within a few days of my birth a Caucasian couple living in Upstate New York caught word of a little brown baby boy who needed a home. A few weeks—and a lot of legalities—later, I was on a plane heading to what I would eventually come to call home for the next eighteen years of my life.

I grew up in the small town of Hammond, New York, which is two hours north of Syracuse (yes, there is life north of Syracuse). Before I begin I think that it’s important that I relay a couple of very interesting statistics about my hometown. According to Wikipedia—which, if we’re being honest, is where we draw most of our statistics from these days—as of the millennial census, the population of Hammond stands at 1,207 people… a population that is almost nine times smaller than the undergraduate student body population here at Boston College. To say that Hammond is a small town would be an extreme under-exaggeration. Now, one might be curious about the racial demographics of a small town like Hammond, and trust me, they don’t disappoint. To save time, I’ll quickly cover three of those statistics, the ones that directly relate to me: White: 97.18%. Black: 0.50%. Hispanic or Latino: 0.33%. Now I’m not usually one to take credit where credit isn’t deserved, but I am fairly confident in assuming that those last two statistics had a lot to do with me. As a half Black, half Mexican kid growing up in an overwhelmingly white town, it’s hard not to trace those numbers back to my family.

Growing up in Hammond provided me with an identity that was visually confusing but one that was hardly ever questioned, by my peers or by me. I was always seen as the “white-black kid,” ...the kid who was “black on the outside but who couldn’t be more white on the inside,” as my friends would oftentimes say. This identity always peeved me, but I never questioned it. I mean, how could I? The only points of comparison I had with either of my Black or Mexican biological roots were the examples that I saw on TV or in movies, and Hollywood isn’t always the best at portraying cultural accuracies. Growing up I never really knew how to come to terms with what I identified as, so I tended to just brush off their “Oreo” jokes with as much ingenuine laughter as I could muster up. But towards the end of high school, when standardized testing was at peak lifetime high and when I began considering college choices, I found myself growing both excited and a little nervous about the newfound diversity that I was bound to encounter at whichever university I would choose. In the end, I chose Boston College. And so my micro-journey began.

“Hey Griff, you’re looking very African American today!” –Anonymous Student Freshman Year

I always think it somewhat funny when I hear people commenting about how “undiverse” Boston College is because, for me at least, this is the most diverse place that I have ever lived in. In Hammond I couldn’t walk into our microscopic school cafeteria and see someone who identifies as Asian, or Muslim, or Hispanic, or Black. When I walked into any room growing up I brought with me that room’s diversity, diversity that is exemplified by those tiny statistics above. Here at BC, that isn’t so much the case anymore.

Any kid who transitions into college brings with them hesitations and anxieties. “Will I make friends?” “Will I get good grades?” “Will I get a job in the end?” I’d be lying if I said that these questions didn’t follow me here to Chestnut Hill, but none of those were at the forefront of my mind. What I was thinking was, “With whom will I identify with?” I mentioned that I was excited about encountering a larger sense of racial diversity in college, but I don’t think I really considered how to go about actually encountering it.

Before leaving Hammond, I saw diversity as different shades of brown. Tan, light brown, brown, dark brown, black. That is the spectrum with which I measured diversity. Now although this can often be a very beautiful way of measuring diversity, it isn’t the only way and I didn’t fully realize this as a high school senior, so that’s the method I used as soon as I got here. I immediately felt comfortable with the types of kids I was used to seeing but I was debilitated by my confusion with everyone else. It seemed that my eighteen years spent in Hammond didn’t prepare me to navigate around the cultural differences I encountered here at BC, a sad yet retrospectively predictable truth.

I also quickly saw kids becoming confused with me as well, and the jokes that I so often heard in high school turned into fleeting statements born from this confusion. “You talk differently.” “You dress…different than they do.” Different…different…different. Sure I’ve heard that word a lot in my lifetime, but at home that difference was old news. After primary school, few people questioned it, so why would I have? It wasn’t until that first night in Keyes South, as I lay in bed across from my Asian American roommate, that I had to begin to really examine this difference. My time here at Boston College has consisted of a great deal of learning, not only academically but personally as well. It’s not worth your or my time relaying every “aha” moment that I’ve had here at college involving my identity, but one thing that I do want to express is my changed concept of what it means “to be different.”

“It's really important to share the idea that being different might feel like a problem at the time, but ultimately diversity is a strength.” – Carson Kressley 

My time at BC has helped to teach me that diversity can’t always be quantified. Why? Because people can’t be quantified. Yes, diversity can be those color eyes versus those color eyes, or that skin tone versus that skin tone. In this sense, it can be quantified and neatly organized onto a spreadsheet for marketers and sociologists and anyone else that wants to view it that way. But diversity can also be born from experiences—the intangibles within one’s life. My time here at BC has given me a new way of looking at people, namely, through their different life experiences. Much of how I used to view diversity came from one’s outside appearance, but it wasn’t until I got here that I also started to examine what lies on the inside of people, myself included.

I don’t know how many other kids from Hammond will attend Boston College in the future and to know that I might be the sole representative of my hometown for a long time to come is both frightening and exciting. But if there was a freshman coming to BC from my home school, and they asked me the same question that I was asking myself as a freshman, I’d probably tell them this: Finding other people isn’t as important as finding yourself first, and if a half Black, half Mexican kid who was adopted by two white people as a baby and who grew up in The Middle of Nowhere, New York can find himself here, I bet that you could too.