American Oreo (April 2012)

The piece you are about to read is a reflective essay I wrote for my College Writing Seminar course at AU this semester. (Which I managed to earn an A on!) It is very personal, but I want everyone to know me for who I really am and understand why I am the way I am. In the distant future, I might use this for a more in-depth work. Without further ado…

When I was nine years old, my parents and I took a trip up to Massachusetts for a wedding. For the first time, I was going to meet my Dad’s extended family. “Wait, I have more cousins?” My eyes bugged out as I grinned widely like the Cheshire cat himself. I pestered my parents with more questions until the highway strip ended and the emerald green “Massachusetts” exit sign came into view. “How old are they?” “Do they like to read?” “Will they like me?” After bouncing in my seat for about eight hours, we finally pulled into the driveway of a small yellow house. A herd of black people waited for us in the front lawn. “Artie!” they all cheered as my Dad opened his door. I eagerly tugged at my seatbelt, but it didn’t want to release me; it was a cobra and I was its prey. Hearing my struggle, my Mom cut me loose and I ran towards the strangers.

My new relatives greeted me with their arms, wrapping my small frame in tight hugs, astonished at how big I had grown since “the last time they saw me when I was a baby.” Inside, the house was filled with children. None of them were my age, but one little girl kept following me so I accepted her company. We were in the middle of watching a bootleg movie when she paused it.

“Why do you talk like white people?” she asked me.

“What?” I felt my cheeks heat up and exhaled slowly. Surely, I misheard her.

“The way you talk…you sound like white people,” she shrugged innocently.

“I don’t know…this is how everyone back home sounds,” I said defensively.

We didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the movie.

Never before had I had been asked something so offensive. But in the back of my mind, I started to ask myself, did I talk differently? I spoke eloquently, enunciating my words and always using proper grammar. To me, this was normal. I was well-spoken, which reflected on the high quality of my education and the way in which my parents raised me. I shouldn’t have let a little girl’s words get under my skin like that, but that was the thing—she called me out for not being true to my skin. To her, I wasn’t really black. It’s an insult I’ve never been able to shake off. Why does it still bother me so much?

Growing up in a predominantly white, affluent suburban town in New Jersey, I never felt out of place. If my neighbors weren’t Jewish, they were Hindu or Asian so I experienced many different cultures. For much of my childhood, I was blind to the concept of skin color; everyone was equal to me, with the exception of blondes. (I had the oddest obsession with blonde hair as a little girl.) My circle of friends has always consisted of every shade of brown, tan, white and yellow. While I was usually the only black kid in my classes at public school, it never bothered me. As a child, this developed into a preference, and I felt more comfortable being the minority in the classroom. In a way, I felt special as the token black student. I was proud of coming from such a diverse community.

High school is where I developed a sense of my own inner racial distinction. I was black, but I wasn’t quite like the other black kids. Like usual, I was the only black student in my Honors classes. However, during health class, which consisted of all learning levels, I sat quietly, followed directions and did my work; they fooled around and got sent to the principal’s office. I drummed to the beat of indie rock and roll whereas they blasted hip-hop/rap from their obnoxiously large headphones in the hallway. I lived on the prestigious East side and they lived far away on the run-down West side.

“Syd, you’re so white,” my white friends always said to me.

All I could do was weakly laugh back, shaking my head internally at the offense. It wasn’t quite as insulting because they weren’t black so I never took it personally. To them, I wasn’t really black so I couldn’t be offended by their obscure racism. They assumed I could take a black joke, so I did. Contrary to popular belief, my favorite food was crab, (not fried chicken), and my drink of choice was water (not “purple drank”). All joking aside, they never dared to say the n-word in front of me—even they knew that would be crossing the line.

People continue to point out my “difference”—but not my difference for being black. I am different because I do not act like the stereotypical black person. My parents sheltered me from the stereotypical black lifestyle for my personal benefit. By being myself, I break racial stereotypes. But why is this necessarily a bad thing?  I would rather be true to myself than pretend to be someone I am not. I was raised in the suburbs, not in the projects.

In America, our breakdowns of racial stereotypes are absolutely preposterous. As children, we condemn each other for not living up to the stereotypical racial standards we overhear our parents joke about. The media shine the spotlight on negative perceptions of races as well, adding on to the social pressure. When we fail to meet the criteria of what society classifies our race as, we are then deemed as “whitewashed,” meaning that we act like white people. We are labeled as modern day oreos; black on the outside, white on the inside. It’s hard enough for people to find their own personal identity; adding race into the equation complicates the process even more. As soon as we break away from the molds that society has constructed for us, we are laughed at and teased.

Our races do not represent us. While race dominates our physical appearances it is not a part of our personalities. Skin tone determines your racial identity, but racial descent should not define someone as a person. It is one identifier in the entire structure of a human being. We are not our racial stereotypes nor should we ever aspire to be. I was being judged strictly on the color of my skin and how my speech did not match the racial expectation. That little girl didn’t even know me—and that’s what bothers me.

After the movie ended, I left the room and found comfort in one of my Word Searches. Amongst all these people who claimed to be my blood, I had never felt more foreign and out of place. At the wedding, I paid no attention to the little girl, or any of my other relatives for that matter. When my parents informed me that we were leaving before the cake would be cut, expecting me to throw a tantrum and beg them to stay longer, I cooperated, insisting that we depart sooner. The bride and groom thanked my parents and me for attending their wedding and welcomed us back to Massachusetts anytime.

We never visited again.

To this day, I have had nothing to do with these relatives. I haven’t told anyone about the incident. Not even my parents. I don’t remember that little girl’s name or how old she was, but every word she said is engraved into my memory. All this time, I thought that I was the only person like me. I thought there was something wrong with me and that I was a disgrace to my race. Now that I am in college, I have befriended several others who identify with this category. They are not ashamed and neither am I. Though we may be considered white-washed oreos, that does not define who we are as individuals. We are proud of who we are and where we come from.

My name is Sydney Gore, I’m black and I talk like a white person.

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