by Sydney Sykes
I invented a cupcake for a student business competition last summer and the creation best describes me: vanilla cake, chocolate frosting and Oreo ice cream filling. It is the filling-the inside-that surprises the cupcake lover. She may feel satisfied with the yummy rich chocolate exterior, but she really falls in love with the surprise inside-ice cream.
Perhaps the first time I really confronted the conflict of my own frosting and filling was in South Africa the summer following my freshman year. Susan, my classmate at LEAD Global at the University of Capetown, asked a question about Tyler Perry's movie, Madea's Family Reunion.
"Is that how people in the U.S. are? Or the black people, are they like that?"
I immediately felt ashamed. Yes, this is just a movie, but unfortunately entertainment largely shapes the international image of African Americans.
"No, no, no." I tried to be the race superwoman to her misguided train of thought.
"What are most African Americans like?" she asked "Are they like you?"
I hesitated, caught off guard by the complexity of the question. "No, they're not."
At that moment, I could not run from what looked like a big conflict between my frosting and filling. I felt like I had been procrastinating my whole life, and finally Susan's question forced me to face the mirror I avoided all those years. She compelled me to question how I fit into my race, something unfinished in the back of my mind ever since Aaron, a white student in my Kindergarten class who is still a good friend, told me I wasn't black. I've always explained to people that despite the light skin and eyes, curly hair, education, manner of speech, hobbies, and, more or less, everything about me, I am African American. Still, you can't reduce me or any African American to universal black frosting.
My love for baking began four years ago, with the first dessert I ever made from scratch: cupcakes, which are perhaps the best way for me to address Susan's questions. So let's start from scratch again. We begin inside before we get to the frosting, since the center is the base of the cupcake. A cupcake's frosting is partially decorative and not totally informative, just as race is only one part of a person's identity. Through baking, I discover part of the answer to Susan's question: race is a small part of a person's recipe or identity. In the case of my cupcake, the ice cream or, inside, heavily creates the flavor just as my filling strongly drives my passions and interests, many of which are not at all tied to race. You taste my filling when I draw, cook, tutor elementary school students, rush to the net to score in a volleyball game or represent the U.S. at the League of Historical Cities conference in Nara, Japan. My sweet tooth is also part of my filling and pushed me into baking, not my race. And like me, my cupcakes are defined more by their fillings. Let's allow the surprise to happen, before we try to guess the composition of the filling. Neither the foil nor the frosting can tell the full story which unfolds more with the surprise inside-perhaps the very best part of a cupcake.
Sydney Sykes, who just completed her Freshman year at Harvard University, is a 2012 graduate of Milton Academy in Milton, MA.