In the fall of my senior year of high school, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — a memorial for those who died from racial terror lynchings in the United States. There, I interviewed nearly a dozen visitors for my senior independent study on the remembrance of lynching, an offshoot of a research assistant project I started in sophomore year.
Walking deeper and deeper into the belly of the memorial, underneath the hundreds of hanging steel beams representing each county where lynchings had been documented, I felt a heaviness in my chest. It felt sacred. Visitors described coming to the memorial as a pilgrimage, an opportunity for people to mourn and reflect on the anti-Black violence that is at the core of our national history.
Up until that point, I had struggled to find a topic for my Common Application essay for college. On the drive back home from Montgomery, I knew what to write.
I hate that that was my first thought.
The final essay carried an overarching theme of cross-racial understanding. Though I was an Asian American researching a history that was not my own, I felt connected to the descendants of this history. Seeing the real emotional, familial, and political connection that people had to this history made me realize I wanted to do people-centered work. The work of the Equal Justice Initiative, the legal nonprofit that created the memorial, is one of the primary reasons I decided to study history in college.
In retrospect, however, my Common App essay makes me uneasy.
I was hiding a lot. The first drafts of my college applications came together only after pages and pages of freewriting — writing anything that floated across my mind without pause. I wrote about how much I hated applications. I wrote about my failure to bully my mind into doing what needed to be done. How I didn’t know if I was “interesting” enough as yet another Asian American applicant. How I didn’t know how much to write about my race. If I mentioned it, would the admissions officer — whom I always imagined as white — think I was pandering? If I didn’t mention it, would they think I hated my race?
Most of all, I wrote about how close I was to giving up. How I didn’t have any sense of self after two years of trying to make it through every day in one piece. I wrote about how much I was sick of writing about my own mental turmoil but couldn’t write about anything else. In all my freewrites, I felt that I was begging these colleges for my life.
Even after filling up a notebook and a half, I didn’t know myself at all, and I certainly couldn’t know myself in 650 words. Even if I could, the admissions officers could skim my whole existence in 30 seconds and determine that I was unfit — especially if I looked like the archetypal self-hating, mentally unwell, unproductive, burnt-out Asian kid. And it didn’t matter if I thought that archetype was a gross mischaracterization of who I was.
Writing about my research seemed like the best solution to these problems. As I completed the rest of my application, my father often told me that this essay topic would distinguish me from other Asian applicants. I now know for certain that it did; in my admissions file, both readers made note of my project.
But it wasn’t just an essay topic. The history was horrifying to research, and the photos documenting it were horrifying to see. The ramifications of lynching still live with us today. Though the memorial represents a step toward public reckoning, this history of racial violence is the foundation of our current justice system.
Inside the Common App, however, all of that was condensed into the tiny story of me and my one-day trip to this memorial. In running from my own turmoil, sometimes I feel I co-opted the historical trauma of another group of people for the sake of a college application. I didn’t do the work of funding, creating, and protecting such a memorial in the deep South; the legacies of this history were not mine to adopt. Yet, at the time, these were my genuine academic interests. I don’t know if I could have written about something else, nor do I know in retrospect how I could have revised the piece. It made me deeply uncomfortable to center myself in this history, yet the college essay practically required it — it demanded that I inflate my sense of importance while obscuring my inner life.
My teachers at the time told me I was “brave” for taking on this research topic. But was I truly the “brave” one?
— Associate Magazine Editor Meimei Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.