Sample Diversity Statement # 4
Although I can articulate it better now, I knew when I was ten years old why Carrot Wilkins and I would not always be as close as we were then. He was white, and I was black. I lived on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, North Carolina in a predominately black neighborhood. Carrot lived about a fifteen minutes’ walk away in a largely white rural town called Walkertown. We met in the third grade on a school bus that took us both to Thomas Cash Elementary School. Being country boys at heart, we shared a lot of interests. We fished together -- a lot -- hunted squirrels, and played Robin Hood in the woods that separated our neighborhoods. But like kittens and puppies, we were being raised with very different perspectives of the world. And we were being oriented towards what society believed should be our roles in it.
Those different orientations revealed themselves in many of the innocent activities Carrot and I shared, things we talked about, and even games we played. We often played superheroes. We would each choose a popular superhero and either do battle with each other or perform some heroic feat like rescuing a neighbor's cat from a tree. (It's probably not accurate to say we "rescued" the cat from the tree, since we always put it in the tree to start the game).
On one particular day, Carrot chose to be Aqua Man because he had found a comic book that pictured Aqua Man with the same orange hair that he had. After debating the color of Aqua Man's hair, he produced the comic book and proved to me that the hero was indeed pictured with an orange crop. Having seen this, I was determined not to be outdone. I was going to be a superhero who looked like me. But running down the list of heroes that I knew, I couldn't think of a black one -- not a single one. This was very much distressing to me because superheroes represented every great thing that a man could be. They were smart, strong, handsome, and noble. And, until this incident, imagining that I was one of them had given me the feeling that I could do just about anything.
I did come up with an answer to Carrot's Aqua Man. I decided I would be Magic Johnson. This, of course, met with immediate protest because Magic Johnson was not a superhero. Carrot demanded that I choose a real superhero. I decided I didn't want to play the game anymore, that I would never play the game again. We both went home, angry. Carrot didn't understand why, after I had played the game dozens of times with no problem, I had decided that I would never play again. And neither one of us understood why the people who created the superheroes made them all white. The only thing I knew was that Carrot would be able to continue pretending he was a superhero, but I never could again.
Today, I am able to articulate the difference I perceived between myself and Carrot. That difference was based on the luxury of unlimited aspirations. This luxury allows a white child in America to believe that this is his land. And in his land he is taught that limitations are set only by his own work ethic. If he gives life his best shot, the system that distributes the spoils of life will reward him. This is called the American Dream.
Black children are allowed the luxury of unlimited aspirations for a brief period in early childhood. But American life has various ways of taking that luxury away. It can happen through repeated exposure to the harsher realities of racism such as police harassment and brutality. Or it can occur by way of daily exposure to hundreds of minor inequities: the way the teacher seems to call on the white children more frequently, the way a high school guidance counselor discourages a bright black student from applying to the top universities, or the way managers follow black kids around a department store. All of this comes together to make black children realize that self actualization is going to involve struggling against society rather than working with it.
These very different orientations would set the tone for my relationship with Carrot Wilkins. In 1984, Carrot told me that Jesse Jackson just wanted to be president so he could give Mr. Wilkins' job to a black man; later that year, Carrot's mother and father were part of a movement to change the name of the local high school from George Washington Carver because they felt the name implied an inferior education. It was shortly thereafter that Carrot and I stopped playing with each other for good.
By our senior year in high school, Carrot and I were in fierce classroom debates concerning everything from the lack of black history in the school curriculum to the L.A. riots of 1992. We had come to assume the roles for which we were bred. Carrot would always argue for the viability of the American Dream, because it worked for him. And I would always argue for change, because without it I expected that achieving my dreams would be a tiring struggle.