An Oreo. To some this is a very delicious cookie. Crunchy chocolaty outside that seems to melt in your mouth and a silky-smooth crème filling. This is the (black) cookie that craves (white) milk. It is perfect for when everything is going wrong and just one package would be good enough to solve all the problems in the world. However, to some an Oreo isn’t just a cookie. To some it’s an insulting nickname. To me, an Oreo stopped being just a cookie a long time ago, now it means black on the outside, white on the inside. An Oreo is what I’ve been unofficially called since sixth grade, but to be honest the not so subtle racism started when I was much younger than that.
I grew up in Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Lee’s Summit is a place where everyone owns an iPhone, a car, and a house worth my college tuition or more. Our children may go to public school but they can get into some of the top private schools in the country, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Boston University and the list goes on. Lee’s Summit is rich, white, entitled, and very well educated. And then there is me. While I live in Lee’s Summit, I’m only middle class. While I’m black, my city is white. While I’m very smart, I’m not entitled. While I’m very educated, I’m not pretentious. I don’t really fit.
I was a part of a school district that was not diverse at all. I didn’t really have a black kid in my class that I talked to. The very few other black kids (maybe ten in the whole school of 600) didn’t talk to me, as I was too “white” for them and we never rotated in the same circles. While few of them actually told me that, their faces let me know whenever I didn’t know the new rap song or the latest dance, or whenever the teachers assumed I always knew the answer. So, I stuck to my white friends and let them think what they wanted of me. Until fifth grade. That was the first time many of my friends met black kids who weren’t Oreos like me; some of the kids were “ghetto,” and my friends started questioning why I didn’t act like that too. Instead of speaking like I grew up in the hood, I spoke properly (my mom had spent too many years making sure we weren’t ghetto, so we could actually make it in the real world; because everyone knows that no one takes the ghetto black girl seriously). So, starting in fifth grade I was referred to as The Oreo. It came about in an irrelevant, seemingly insignificant moment; someone said I was an Oreo and I thought it was a compliment. And I accepted it, because for a long time it seemed like I was the “right” kind of black person. I wasn’t ignorant, I used proper English, and my teachers loved me. I bought into the idea that I had assimilated the correct way and thus would get further in life than my ghetto counterparts. I thought that my nice house, nice clothes, and nice family somehow made me better than them, because I was acceptable to the people surrounding me and they just weren’t, with their hand-me downs and missing fathers or mothers.
It didn’t bother me that I only had white friends and that I used (and still use) “OMG” in everyday conversation. But it did bother my parents, having an Oreo for a daughter. Constantly, they would have the same conversation with me:
“Sydney, why don’t you go hang out with (insert random black girl’s name) from the (insert school, neighborhood, or church)?”
“Because she’s a very nice girl.”
“But I have friends, why do I need to make new ones?”
“Because you need to have friends that look like you…”
My mother had drilled in us proper English and told us never to use slang, so I didn’t understand why I needed to hang out with the black girls that didn’t use the right words.
It took me years to understand the “why” but eventually I got it. My parents were both born in the 1960s. While they didn’t go to segregated schools, they still grew up in the ghetto. My mom used to tell me stories about her life growing up; one story that stuck with me was when she did cross-country and the white people, whose neighborhoods her team ran in, would throw things at them. My father was constantly (and still is) looked at as the scary black man, like when we would be followed in a department store (even though my father made twice as much as the store workers did). My parents grew up in the ghetto and had white people constantly breathing down their necks, waiting for them to fail or shoot up something. So, when they had children they moved to the suburbs, hoping the family wouldn’t have to experience those problems. But they didn’t realize that in doing that, they changed how my siblings and I viewed white people and people in every other race, for better or worse. They expected us to find the few black kids in our schools and neighborhood and cling to them, but we didn’t, partly because our neighborhood and our school lacked in black people but partly because we were used to white people, not black people. Like my friend always used to say, “You were raised in the vanilla factory, you’re going to like vanilla not chocolate.”
The issue with liking vanilla wasn’t that white boys were necessarily bad, but that they were not accessible to me. As a black woman, I was (and am) not allowed to like white boys as people consider me a “race traitor,” yet black men liking white women are considered as having “made it” by taking what “belongs” to the white man. While no one ever called me a race traitor to my face, they implied it with comments on why I don’t like a particular boy or why I wanted to hurt my father or how white boys only want one thing. Growing up, this meant that even if I liked a white boy and he liked me, it was an unspoken thing and for someone to suggest that we liked each other was embarrassing for him, and laughable yet threatening. The first time I brought a boy home my father stared him down before he was allowed to come inside (would he have done that to a nice black boy?) and my mother pretended to call him a generic white name (Steve). The number of times my father has insulted a black actress for not dating black men or my mother has pushed me towards a black man (because he would be better for me) are uncountable.
But it still didn’t occur to me that I should be bothered by liking white people as friends or more. My best friends were white, I listened to “white” music. I didn’t fit into the black girl stereotype of loud, ghetto, and rude. I was stuffed into the white girl stereotype. I liked Starbucks and Taylor Swift. I liked Channing Tatum, not Trey Songz. I was an Oreo. And that was not a problem to me.
Until one day it was. My friends and family convinced me that I was just a white girl in a black body and assumed that I didn’t like black people. I didn’t understand why liking “white things” discounted my race; who cared what I liked and didn’t like? I realize now that my inability to fit into the stereotypes of a black woman in America made people uncomfortable. It was easier to call me an Oreo than to accept that I was different. Oreo began to mean that I hated black people and black culture. Being an Oreo meant that I thought I was better than black people. Being an Oreo meant that I didn’t understand what it meant to deal with racism. Being an Oreo wasn’t a good thing. Liking white guys became an insult to my parents, especially to my father and his father and his father and so on. Liking Taylor Swift meant I didn’t care enough about black people and black music. Not being called the n-word or being sent to the principal’s office constantly meant I didn’t understand racism.
People looked at me with shock when they discovered that I’m smart. And to them I was only smart for a black girl. I was only pretty for a black girl. I was asked by my white friends to go “black” on someone on a daily basis—to yell cuss words and look menacing. Random people asked me to dance or teach them to dance. People asked me not-so-nice questions about my hair on the daily. Like, why I didn’t wash it more? Didn’t I think I was dirty?
Didn’t the racism I dealt with exist too?
I struggled with what it meant to be black. Did it mean I had to succumb to the stereotypes that black girls were ghetto and not as smart? Did it mean I had to stop being friends with people who didn’t look like me? Did it mean I had to run track and join the steppers team? Did it mean that the “white” activities I did were insulting to my culture? Did it mean I could not say someone was racist if someone was shooting me with water hoses?
Then, I met a black girl at my church. Her name was Taylor Mackenzie; she had just graduated from a predominantly white school with honors. She was involved in theatre and art and other “white” activities just like me. She was pretty and smart and liked by everyone. Yet, she didn’t struggle with her identity. She didn’t succumb to stereotypes. And she wasn’t an Oreo. Taylor wasn’t oblivious to the world around her. She recognized that black people and white people had certain expectations of her. But she didn’t care. She was just herself. Taylor explained to me that she could do whatever she wanted and she was still black. Being black didn’t mean she had to fit into one stereotype or another. Being black was who she was, whether that was a girl who liked to listen to pop music rather than rap or liked to eat quinoa more than fried chicken. Taylor helped me realize that black is a color, a color that suffers from racism and stereotypes but also a color that can open doors and can create new experiences. She taught me that being black just means being myself. It didn’t mean I had to fit into one standard or another; it just means being myself however I want to be.
But she wasn’t the magic pill to me accepting my blackness. She was a stepping stone.
While it’s okay that I like white guys, and I can listen to Taylor Swift and can also love Drake and Lil Wayne and Trey Songz, and I don’t have to use the n-word; I still struggle. I’m here at college. Surrounded by white people, again, which I don’t mind. I am (mostly) comfortable here. No one questions the music I listen to or the boys I talk to (as much). But I still had to deal with problems like the girl down my hall who always asked me to teach her how to dance, or awkwardly sitting in class while my white professors talk about race with my 99% white classmates, or having people ask me about my hair. It’s not as harsh as it once was. But it’s still there. And it probably will never go away. At least no one is calling me an Oreo. Maybe it’s because they are more “woke” and know and understand how horrible that term is. Or maybe it’s because they grew up never being concerned with their race. Or maybe is a combination of both.
As I’ve continued my Drake journey, I have been exposed to the subtle racism of home but now I can ignore it, for the most part. Because now there are people who defend me against these microaggressions. But I still get accused of being not black enough, but now in a new way, more often by the black people in my life, for whom I’m woke but not woke enough. As I started my English major, I became obsessed with writing about cultural issues. As I have gone on to publish various works, I’ve been met with criticism, not by white people but by the black people in my life who still don’t consider me black enough. My nephew’s father asked, how can I call myself a writer of black issues if I don’t actually spend time with black people and only learn from white professors? The African girl in my class was upset with me when I didn’t dress up for the Black Panther film premiere. To the white people at Drake, I’m black fully and unapologetically. But to the black people, I’m still on the outskirts, still not really in the group. I’m in a historically white sorority, I’m not in any groups for people of color. I don’t really fit in with them. I don’t know every rapper or every black movie or the typical black things. I’m still an Oreo, while no one calls me it, they say it with their unspoken words. I’m still on the outskirts, I’m still not quite black enough for them. Though, I’m starting to believe now that it’s okay if I never am. I’m starting to believe that I can be black enough for me.