I do not remember when it began, , but I do remember why I finally stopped enduring it. The jokes about my taste for indie and alternative rock, the way I spoke, and the people with whom I associated, accumulated with each passing year. By the time I graduated high school, the name ‘Oreo’ was imbedded into my mind more than my grade eleven functions course.
For clarification, Oreo is what I was called because I was a black girl, who was “white” on the inside (see also: white-washed). To my peers, I acted the way white people did. I shared their attributes. I was a white person in the wrong body.
What’s disappointing, is that for a few years, I started to believe it too. I thought it was strange to love Marianas Trench, while it seemed like every person of colour was appreciating Drake. I wondered why “y’all” and other choice words did not roll off my tongue as easily as “buddy” did. I thought I was abnormal because I was the only black camper at a predominantly white summer camp.
I was the reverse of Rachel Dolezal. The key difference was that my misconception grew from ignorant peer torment, not a belligerent negation of the black struggle for the reward of the lovable culture.
What’s worse was that, in an attempt to secure myself with what seemed to be shortcomings, I began to believe I was better because of it. I started to puff my chest at the fact that I didn’t let my “nappy” hair show; that I didn’t speak like the black girls fighting on viral videos; that my group of friends were more Caucasian and Indian, than they were African.
The pivotal moment was when I was targeted by the parent of a friend. I remember going through high school weary of spending time at Indian friends’ houses because the consensus was that Indian parents did not like black people. One day I asked if it was okay to go to my friend’s house because her father – who I knew to make racist comments – was home from his business trip. My friend assured me, “Don’t worry, he likes you because you’re not like the other black people.”
She went on to explain that he approved of me because I was valedictorian of my class. He respected my academic excellence. He liked that teachers liked me. I did not swear. I was not loud (around them). I did not listen to any rap (as far as they knew). It was as if he was delighted that I could have these positive traits while inhabiting a black body.
It was then that I realized that being white-washed had less to do with the attributes I shared with my Caucasian friends, and more to do with the black stereotypes I did not conform to.
I did not want to seem ratchet for wearing my hair in cornrows and beads. I did not want to be bolted under the angry black woman trope when we learned of injustices in class. I did not want to playfully twerk alongside the girls in the changeroom for fear of getting filmed and made a fool of under the allusion of laughing together.
It built an odd dichotomy of liking aspects of black culture, yet wanting to turn from it because I knew all too well how they were received. It birthed a subliminal self-hatred inside of me. Everything associated with black people was a joke. White people were taken seriously. White people were respected.
Isn’t that the essence behind being white-washed anyway? The eloquent way I spoke, the way I was well-behaved, the music I could listen to in the halls because they did not have explicit versions that would land a detention in my private, Christian school…
It was observed and decided that as a black girl, I could not possibly obtain these quality factors of my own accord – I had to have been under the influence of white people, or I was trying to be like them. When a teacher picked me for a special task, students who believed they favoured white people, would tell me it was because I was “basically white”. When a white boy expressed interest in me, it was because I was white on the inside, of course (the idea of person of colour being special because they are desired by a white person is a whole other can of worms).
When I internalized that my traits were acknowledged as a novel concept due to my blackness, I was livid. Why would the traits I loved about myself be credited to white people? Why couldn’t my Cameroonian immigrant parents be smiled upon for raising me well?
It is a destructive train of thought, the notion that a person outside their race “acts” like another race – from white people, black people, and everyone in between. The white people I heard it from expected me to take it as a compliment – I liked the attention. The black people I heard it from used it as a way of division – it made it harder for me to make friends with black people for fear of rejection. The other races I heard it from birthed an uneasy feeling of ‘other’ inside me – I did not know where I belonged.
I thought to myself, What am I, if not the colour of my skin?
Now, I have learned, I am nothing and everything.
Though I should not be defined by my skin colour, it does shape the way I experience life. I look like black girls because I am a black girl – trying to change my hair will not help. I dance to Makossa music at Cameroonian parties, and I enjoy it. I love Beyoncé, and I should not have to feel like I am perpetuating a stereotype by simply enjoying her music videos – they’re fire! At times, I will mutter Cameroonian phrases under my breath or shout them at my friends when I’m excited because it’s part of my life at home…and that is okay!
On another note, I speak English with a Canadian accent rather than West-African. I enjoy Miley Cyrus’s music. I have white friends whose families have been in Canada so long they don’t bother associating a European country with their identity. I have the children of first-generation Cameroonian and Indian immigrants for friends.
I will not be caged by my skin colour, or an alternate one that I supposedly fit the mould of.
I am no Oreo. I am not white-washed. I am not “basically white”.
I am black on the outside, and me on the inside.
Written by Sherlyn A.
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