Carnegie Mellon University

"Eskimo Box Days" by Cherisse Tompkins

Honorable Mention for High School Prose

My plaid jumper made me feel fat as I sat in my navy blue chair, whose legs were longer than mine, causing my feet to hover above the ground. The grey spotted trapezoidal table in front of me still held the aroma of shaving cream from shaving cream spelling earlier that morning. As I waited for my first standardized test, I drew my name with my finger in the invisible shaving cream on my desk. Once I received my Gates test, I opened my booklet, only to be scolded by Ms. March.

“Don’t open the booklets until I tell you to Cherisse.” I sunk into my chair, slightly embarrassed from the sudden attention from all of my classmates. I quietly began to distract myself by drawing on my desk again with my finger.

After what seemed like hours of boring meaningless directions, Ms. March finally said, “Open your booklets to page four.” I filled in the bubbles to spell my name and birthdate, but halted after that. Had Ms. March explained this section? Or had I not been listening? I didn’t worry myself for too long before I tried to figure it out. This unfamiliar word, race, was staring me in the face, and five options were listed below it.

Native American
African/African American
Asian
White
Eskimo/Alaskan

At the age of six, I hadn’t a clue of what the word race was, let alone what race I was. What went through my mind wasn’t the time in kindergarten that my mom and dad brought in the vibrant red and gold lion and dragon headdresses to teach my classmates about Chinese New Year and Chinese culture; it wasn’t the endless days I would sit on my bedroom floor watching DVD documentaries about the past Chinese Emperors with my dad in Chinese and laughing at the fact that they had to poop in bowls and ahh-ing at the beautiful cheongsams the women would wear. What went through my mind wasn’t all of those weekend hours spent at Chinese school learning characters and piecing together sentences in Mandarin; it wasn’t cooking Chinese food with my Mom’s side of the family and celebrating Chinese holidays. What went through my mind was Eskimo

Upon seeing that word, I instantly felt a connection to it because in all of the movies I had seen, they were tan like I was and had squinty eyes like I did. I smiled to myself with pride for figuring out the answer to this question all on my own. After marking that I was Eskimo, I became very proud of my self-declared race, which I believed was the correct one.

I was always very excited to check the Eskimo box whenever we took a test. On occasions I would mark Native American because I had tan skin like them, and I was also fairly obsessed with Pocahontas at the time. Sometimes in the winter I would mark White because my skin would pale like the snow, sending my tan into hibernation until the summer came out again. As a naïve child, my brain didn’t make the connection between all of the Chinese culture I was surrounded with at home to the idea of race. Even my best friend didn’t know what race I was, and she is half Asian herself. Looking at it now though, I find it absolutely hilarious.

Race is a social construct that we willingly allow ourselves to be subjected to. We check those boxes. When I checked mine, I wasn’t aware of the concepts and meanings behind it; I wasn’t aware that some people could potentially be severely offended by my “stereotyping” of my looks in attempts to fit into a category; I wasn’t aware that race was all of who you were, because it really isn’t nor should it be, but in today’s society it seems like that’s all we’re seen as: the color of our skin. 

I didn’t fully recognize my race until third grade when we were studying China, and we put on a Chinese Play about a man and a tapestry. I sat on the left-hand side of my classroom with my hair in a bun and two chopsticks shoved into it while wearing my traditional red cheongsam. I felt so proud that my race and culture was being taught to the rest of my classmates. I felt pride in how interesting Chinese history seemed to them. I felt pride in myself for being half-Chinese. But I hadn’t learned everything there was to know about race, and I still haven’t.

The first time I was told something I had said was racist was in sixth grade. I was on the far end of my science room when I was asked what someone looked like. I began to describe her by saying, “She’s black—” and that’s where I was stopped. 

“That’s racist! You should say African-American,” they said, and I sank inside of myself, similar to the way I had that day in first grade when Ms. March told me not to open the booklet. I wasn’t aware that there was such sensitivity towards the color of someone’s skin. I went home to my dad that day and told him what happened, and he told me I had done nothing wrong. 

“If ‘black’ is racist, then so is ‘white’,” he said to me. Now, people seem to get annoyed if you call them African-American if they are simply African: a “Non-American Black” as Adichie would put it. 

After seeing this new side to race, one that wasn’t necessarily about pride, but about defending yourself, I became cautious of everything I said. I became cautious of what everyone else said to try and detect whether or not I should be upset. I was allowing other people’s views on race to dictate how I viewed myself as a multiracial person, trying to take offense to things that I would not normally take offense to. 

My view of race was of one that celebrated mine, not one that searched for aggression just to defend myself in front of the world. I have experienced racial slurs before, and I know that in terms of history my people were definitely persecuted by whites, but I don’t dwell on the history. I look towards the future because I don’t want to consume myself with my race and the history behind it. My race is about as important as the color of my eyes—not all that important, just something I wake up every day with and can’t change, but have learned to love.

Eleven years later at seventeen years old, I know I’m half-Chinese and half-European. I don’t look in the mirror and wish I was someone else, and my faulty judgment of my race does not haunt me. In fact, it makes me laugh. I find it so reassuring that a six-year-old believed she could be whatever race she wanted. In first grade, I put myself into the Eskimo Box before hopping from there to the Native American Box and occasionally visiting the White Box. While they were all boxes with constructs and walls, I didn’t seem to let that stop me from picking what I wanted to be. I didn’t let race confine me to one thing. I didn’t know that race was supposed to make up so much of my identity. I look back at my six-year-old self and smile with pride at how I didn’t let my confusion of race consume me. I am proud that I didn’t go with the flow of society and equate my identity to my race.

There are those who wish that race did not exist, and I understand, but I am so thankful that it does, because if we were all the same, we would be bland. Every race and every person has a different history and a different culture. Being aware of race does not have to be scrutinizing; being aware of race can be as innocent as visiting the Eskimo Box; being aware of race can be enlightening. Although race is a label placed on us by society that we wear on our foreheads, who we are is not made up entirely of what society claims us to be. After all, I switched my race multiple times with the mark of a pencil, and my identity did not crash and burn. Race only has as much power over us as we give it. I respect race, and I love race, but at the end of the day, race is just another word begging me to create a box for myself.

As I am filling out my college applications, I quickly scroll through the options under race before checking “multiracial” and clicking the “Yes, I have completed this section to my satisfaction” button. I then move on to the section that will tell colleges more about me than my race ever could—the personal essay.

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