Growing Up an “Oreo”

You’ve heard it before: “Too black for the white kids. Too white for the black kids.” A simple phrase that completely encompasses my experience as a child growing up in a predominantly white community.

I remember this day like the back of my hand. I was in fourth grade. We were at lunch when one of my fellow black classmates looked at me and said, “Candace, you’re such an oreo.” You can imagine the look of confusion that clouded my face after she made that statement. An oreo? I thought. I’m a cookie?

“What does that mean?” I asked. Another one of my black classmates scoffed at me and said, “It means you’re black on the outside but you’re white on the inside.” My confusion was clearing up and annoyance was settling in. “What’s that suppose to mean?” I asked, taking a bite of my peanut butter jelly sandwich. “It means you act white but you’re black,” they said.

I sat back. I didn’t know how to take that. Was that suppose to be an insult? A compliment? What did that even mean? I “acted white?” In my mind, I was just being myself. I never placed a color on my personality. I didn’t think I had to. Whatever “acting white” meant, from the look on my black classmates’ faces, I gathered that it wasn’t necessarily a compliment. It was a dig. They were reducing my blackness because I didn’t neatly fit into a box.

The “you’re not black enough” narrative didn’t even just come from my black classmates. It came from my white classmates as well. “You know, you’re not like other black girls.” “You’re different from.. ya know.. other black people.” “You’re not ignorant like the rest of them.” I didn’t know what racist micro-aggressions were back then but if I did I would’ve most certainly ask “Well, how are black people suppose to act?” and would’ve probably cringed at the racist stereotypes my white classmates would’ve listed off. Even with my lack of understanding regarding race relations, their comments still made me uncomfortable. I was never really flattered by their comments that they intended to be a compliment.

I didn’t buy into the whole “exceptional token black kid” label that my white classmates were trying to sell me. I don’t think there was ever a time in my life where I truly hated being black. It was just one of those traits that I was comfortable with but wasn’t too terribly passionate about. Example: Back in the day if you asked me if I was black (even though it’s clear as day but this is a hypothetical so work with me), I would shrug and say “Yeah.” Nowadays, if you were to ask me if I was black, I’d throw a balled up fist in the air and say, “Fuck yeah. I’m black as hell.”

But it took awhile to get to this point. Growing up, I was uncomfortable with my blackness only because I didn’t know where I fit in within the spectrum of blackness. There were some “conventional” black traits about me such as I loved hip-hop, I used AAVE regularly (in my valley girl accent; that was an experience to hear I bet), and I was relatively proud of my heritage. But at the same time, most of my friends were white, I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban neighborhood, I was into music such as rock and punk. I was into gothic bands such as My Chemical Romance. “Like” joined my sentences together and “omg”, “totally” were a regular part of my vernacular. I had a lot going on.

I just felt like an outcast among other black kids. I felt like I wasn’t “cool enough” to hang with them. I felt like I was “too alternative” for their liking.That’s honestly partially why I didn’t apply to any HBCUs. I felt like I wouldn’t fit in. I didn’t think there would be a place for alternative black kids at an HBCU.

I remember when I was entirely done with the “oreo” label. I was in the 8th grade and the Jena Six incident happened. My black classmates and I vowed to wear black on a certain day (the exact date escapes me). So, I came to school all in black and I remember one of my black classmates looking at me like I’d lost my mind. She said, “Candace, you not black enough for this.” When I tell you… I went AWF. That was the last straw. What WASN’T going to happen was my concern for my people being invalidated because I didn’t fit into my peers’ ideas of what blackness should look like.

From then on out, I grew to embrace my uniqueness. I wasn’t looking to change my personality just because other people didn’t understand it. My blackness was valid. I grew to understand that blackness is not a monolith. It isn’t something you can fit into a box. It’s diverse, it’s adaptable, it’s various and we should embrace that. To try and reduce blackness down to a “type” isn’t doing it justice.

I’m in love with my blackness. I’m in love with my culture and heritage and I don’t need anyone to validate that for me.

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