Senior Kelsi Thomas says people call her an “Oreo”—black on the outside, white on the inside.
She grew up in a white neighborhood and went to predominantly white elementary, middle and high schools. She’s always been the one black kid in a group of white friends.
So people say she acts white, and, therefore, they see her as a white girl but with darker skin.
But it’s not that simple.
Because although Thomas concedes she does look “black,” she’s not just black. She isn’t just white, and she isn’t just Hispanic. She’s everything.
“I can’t say I’m not black,” Thomas said, “but your life experiences—say, your socioeconomic background—become the criteria on which people judge you.”
But for right now, let’s just call her “African American.”
Thomas didn’t always think about her “criteria.” In fact, she said she didn’t think about race at all—until sophomore year when she checked the box on the PSAT where she was asked to identify her ethnicity.
She checked that box that day, and again the next year on the SAT and again on the 12 college applications she sent in.
But she also checked the Cuban and Native American boxes.
And as she checked those boxes, Thomas started to question what difference her race made—and what difference it should make in her search for the right college.
“America is obsessed with placing people in categories,” she said.
“People are forced into this awkward in-between state because of how they look, and society just hopes this gives them an identity.”
Next year Thomas will attend Georgetown University, a school known for being “white,” she said, as Georgetown University is only six percent African-American.
And Country Day is five percent—so technically for Thomas, the change is not too drastic.
But because it’s so much bigger, Georgetown has a significant African American population.
Unlike at Country Day, where Thomas had no choice but to hang out with an un-diverse group of students, at Georgetown Thomas believes she will have to make a choice.
But despite the fact that it is a choice—and it’s hers to make–she is still being forced into it.
Because of the supposed categorization that plagues America, she said.
She was forced into the category of “African American,” and these are the choices she was left with.
And she knows she’s not alone.
Thomas said she sees two paths for minority college students at Georgetown.
She can stay on the path she’s always traveled—be a “token,” the sole black student in a group of friends.
Or she can choose the other path—seek out black students who might give her a window into a community she’s never truly felt a part of.
The reason why minorities face this issue is because society tells them what they are, Thomas said. Therefore they must pick.
According to Thomas, it’s no easy choice.
“Either way minorities see you negatively,” she said.
“And either way it’s like you’re trying to forget who you are, even though I don’t believe that people are defined by their race.”
Senior Imani Ritchards, another African-American student, doesn’t believe people are defined by their race either. Like Thomas, Ritchards thinks that her race and upbringing have made her into an “individual.”
And it’s this individuality that makes Ritchards not necessarily able to associate with a group of those of her own race.
“There’s an expectation as to how you’re supposed to act if you’re a certain race, and I just don’t fit,” she said.
“Being an individual growing up was how I defined myself. It was about what I was going to be and who I was going to be as opposed to what I looked like.”
Ritchards’s college choice came down to two midwest schools that both have small minority populations. She chose the one where she would be the most “individual”—in other words, the college with the least number of minority students.
Of the two paths Thomas described, Ritchards seems headed down that of “tokenism.”
But she doesn’t see it this way.
Next year Ritchards will attend Carleton College in Minnesota. On her visit to the campus, she noticed that the minority students self-segregated into groups of their own race.
Ritchards, who has never made the conscious choice to do that, said one cause of this is the programs the college itself promotes.
Since 2001, Carleton has been in partnership with the national Posse Foundation, which identifies high-achieving minority public high school students from Chicago who “may have been overlooked by the traditional college selection process,” according to Carleton’s website.
The college’s goal in this program is to extend an opportunity to the students by creating small, multicultural teams to “serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development.”
To Ritchards, the convenience of a “built-in friend group” (due to this program) ex- plains why minority groups were so separated from non-minority students at Carleton.
But at Grinnell College in Iowa, Ritchards experienced a very different minority situation. On the campus, she said, the minorities were not nearly as separated and there seemed to be a much stronger African-American community.
But Ritchards still did not feel as comfortable as she did at Carleton.
“It came down to the question of whether I was going to go to Grinnell and not have to make that choice between self-segregation and tokenism and actually be a part of both worlds,” she said.
“Or I go to Carleton where I felt more at home because it was what I was used to—the only one, one of the only African Americans.”
“And it just felt right there.”
Still, Ritchards won’t know what path she will take until she actually arrives at Carleton in the fall and is able to decide how much of a role race plays in the social activities.
“It’s not really a conscious choice for me,” she said. “I feel like I will probably continue with my choice of individuality, but even with that you have to make the choice to not join the African American community.”
But Ritchards has already made this very same choice once before.
Earlier this year Ritchards declined her offer to attend Spellman University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU).
HBCU’s, which include schools like Howard, Morehouse and Spellman, along with 103 others, are institutions that were established pre-1964 with the intention of serving the black community.
But it was this community Ritchards experienced on her tours of these schools that dissuaded her from choosing to attend an HBCU.
“I just didn’t fit in with the girls I was with,” Ritchards said. “It wasn’t as though we couldn’t be friends, though—we just didn’t have the same things to talk about.”
And as a result, she feels her chances of choosing to self-segregate next year at Carleton, in the form of joining cultural/intercultural groups, is significantly lower.
“It comes back to those two paths,” she said. “And I feel like if I chose to live in an all-African-American themed house, for example, I would be cutting myself off from the even larger group that is the entire Carleton community.”
But Thomas has different worries in relation to Georgetown.
After she had been accepted, Thomas came across a page called “Georgetown Confessions: Microaggressions.”
“And it seemed like every post was about how hated black people, poor people, Hispanics, Asians—every group—were,” Thomas said.
The obvious “categorizing” of minorities and evident racism on the Georgetown campus made her seriously reconsider her decision to attend the school, but after visiting she decided she could “cope.”
Sasha Ragland, ‘12, an African-American student who attends Connecticut College, has been through the choice Thomas and Ritchards are anticipating.
And while she agrees with Thomas that there are two paths minority students can take in college, Ragland believes she has chosen the “Middle Path.”
Ragland described Connecticut College as “probably one of the least diverse colleges in the country”—and it is, with only 27.1 percent minority students.
But Ragland never made a conscious choice between tokenism and self-segregation—rather, she came upon her relatively diverse friend group naturally based on shared interests.
At the beginning of this year, however, she did sign up to join a number of Connecticut’s cultural groups.
But she never ended up attending any of the meetings.
“In all honesty, I would feel uncomfortable joining any of those groups,” she said.
“Having that group and the culture associated with it is just not a big part of my life.”
Ragland, whose mother is African-American and father is white, has been described as an Oreo like Thomas.
And while she is “half-and-half,” as she puts it, she doesn’t understand the reference in terms of herself because she’s “not sure if I can act like one and not be the other.”
“I just live my life as an individual, not really putting myself in either group.”
Regardless, she may transfer to University of Pennsylvania, in part due to Connecticut’s lack of diversity.
Ragland has never experienced racism at Connecticut College based on her skin color though.
But Thomas is not comforted.
She knows assumptions, based purely on skin color, will be something she encounters at Georgetown.
“In college, your life experiences or social standing don’t matter to those who don’t know you—they just lump blacks, or any other minority, together anyways,” she said.
“Suddenly I’ll be treated some way because of how I look. People shouldn’t be forced to not embrace all sides of themselves. It’s wrong to negate part of who you are.”