The Mask

During my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to interview for admission to Cornell University. The interviewer asked a common question: "can you describe your experiences and how they have made you into the person you are today?" I quickly probed further to see if he was inquiring about my academic or personal experience; he proceeded to make it clear that he was seeking the latter. I found myself doing something I had done so frequently in the past, which is translating the truth into the "mainstream American" answer. This meant not mentioning how most of my consciousness and maturation came from witnessing and experiencing the marginalization of people who look like me.  Having to code-switch is something that I have found myself doing far too often since graduating from high school. I am not in any way ashamed of how I grew up. My habit to censor myself is motivated by the fear that one thing I say can confirm a negative stereotype about my race and myself. This fear not only causes me to choose my words carefully, but it also influences the way I carry myself and dress as well. This "mask” effectively puts a filter between my reality and the way I present myself, inhibiting the opportunity to make personal connections with others. After putting the mask on enough times, one starts to question one’s identity. I struggled with this dilemma as a young man preparing to embark on my journey at Cornell. This identity crisis is something that I am just now, as a junior in college, figuring out.


Growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, I felt that I had a good grasp on who I was as a person and how to go about life. It was normal to be surrounded by students and teachers that looked like me. I didn't have to go far to find examples of how to navigate the challenge of being a Black man in America. I came from a place where the plight of Black people didn't need to be explained, because we lived it everyday. These things that I took for granted, allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. These comforts were soon relinquished as I was placed in a sea of people who are nothing like me.


I had to fully embrace the challenges of being a member of a minority race at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) to grasp how difficult the next four years would be. In addition to being a member of a minority race, the gap between my family’s household income and that of many of my peers became obvious. The mask that I put on for my admission interview stayed on when I interacted with most of my non-Black peers. In most instances, the cultural differences were too strong to avoid doing so. When venturing out of the small, tight-knit minority communities at Cornell, it is easy to feel “tokenized.” Sometimes this “tokenizing” comes in the form of micro-aggressions and other times it is much more blatant. I found myself in a conversation for the sole reason of acting as a mouthpiece for my race, as if I represented all African-Americans. I have caught far too many awkward glances from people at parties because half of the White people in the room were screaming the words to a song with the n-word in it. After I tell people I attend Cornell, I get the annoyingly repetitive question: “do you play basketball?” When I say “no,” they are surprised to hear I was not recruited to play a sport and even more shocked to hear that I am an engineering major.


I had my first Black professor in a STEM class in my 5th semester, and if it weren't for the friends that I have in my major making sure we had the exact same schedule, I wouldn't see a Black face very often. Fortunately, I was exposed to people that would alter my four years at Cornell and the remainder of my life. These people are the men of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.


I did not come to Cornell with the intention of joining Greek life, but after getting to know the brothers that were on campus, I quickly realized that these were the people I wanted to surround myself with. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated was founded at Cornell University in 1906 to combat the barriers that Black men on Cornell’s campus faced. We still face some of these issues today, a realization that helped me see the importance that the fraternity has for men of color. Alpha Phi Alpha was a blessing for me in many ways. It gave me a sense of community and brotherhood that I had lost. It gave me the opportunity to be a part of something much larger than myself, as well as a platform to influence change in my community. Becoming an Alpha allowed me to realize my full potential and inspired me to help those around me to do the same. My chapter is filled with like-minded brothers, who are also very distinct. Each one has taught me something important. I know what it means to truly serve a cause, what it takes to tirelessly strive to achieve a goal, and how to be unapologetic about who I am. My fraternity is to me, what all Multicultural Greek Letter Organizations are to many Cornell students. Multicultural Greek Letter Organizations provide a unique brand of brotherhood and sisterhood and are founded primarily on the principles of service and advocacy. These organizations serve as a means for students to celebrate their culture while using their education to give back to their communities.

Today, I do not walk around campus with the mask or feel the need to alter who I am to fit my surroundings. I embrace all parts of my identity: the kid from Baltimore, the Ivy League engineer, and the Alpha Man.




Ishmail Grady

Cornell University, Class of 2018

Fall 2015 Initiate of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Alpha Chapter President 2016-2017