by Logan Anderson
I was in kindergarten the first time I was called an Oreo. It was recess, and I was playing with a group of my friends, all of whom were black. Something I said prompted one of them to turn to me and said, “Logan, you’re an Oreo.” I didn’t know at the time what the term meant, but his tone made it seem like an insult. I asked him for clarification, and he explained to me that “Oreo” is a term used to describe people who are “black on the outside, and white on the inside.”
A few years later I was attending a friend’s birthday party. I knew a few of the girls, but the majority were strangers. After introducing myself to one girl, she immediately asked me if I am the adopted child of white parents. When I told her that my parents were black, just like me, her eyes got wide and she asked, “But why do you talk so fancy?” We were 13 years old.
A couple of years after that, I am sitting at a round lunch table in my middle schools cafeteria. The group of kids I am sitting with is made up entirely of white children. At some point in the discussion, the topic turns to race. One of my friends jokingly says, “I really need a black friend.” I look up from my pizza and tell him that I am his friend. He starts laughing. “Yeah, but Logan, you really don’t count,” he says through a smile. The table around me begins to laugh. I join in.
At no point in any of these situations was I offended or insulted. Quite the opposite, actually. I felt, each time, like I was being complimented.
In “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women In America” Melissa Harris-Perry describes a cognitive psychology experiment in which subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room, and asked to align themselves vertically. She then compares the crooked room to society, and black women to the subjects struggling to find a way to stand upright in a world that has already defined their orientation.
“Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. It may be surprising that some gyrate half-naked in degrading hip-hop videos that reinforce the image of black women’s lewdness. It may be shocking that some black women actors seem willing to embody the historically degrading image of Mammy by accepting movie roles where they are cast as the nurturing caretakers of white women and children. It may seem inexplicable that a respected black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in a black man’s face, and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notion that black women are irrationally angry. To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”
I was in that crooked room, and I tried to stand up straight. For me, that meant disassociating myself from the negative stereotypes that the world had constructed around me. I felt that the only way to do that was to remove myself completely from black culture. I left it. I made white friends, avoided rap music, ignored assigned reading from Black authors, laughed during Black history presentations in school. My friends said, “But you’re not really a black girl, Logan” when I tried to argue about racial issues, and I would laugh and agree, and then immediately try to change the subject. I let society turn me into one of the “good” ones; a black woman who was not combative, not exploiting the system, not oversexed or greedy or loud. I could be accepted without conforming to stereotypes.
But the issue here is, despite my friends protestations, I was still a black woman. I am still a black woman. And the fact that I cannot exist in this society as a black woman without conforming to those stereotypes is an issue that needs to be addressed. Because I bucked the traditional role that society has designated black women fall into, I had to be repurposed. The world repackaged me as “white” girl. I was thoughtful, intelligent, well spoken and considerate. I was not hypersexual, my family had never been on welfare. I had no interest in becoming a caretaker of any sort. All of these things added up to me not being black, because it is impossible for our society to acknowledge that a black woman can exist in America without these traits. I must be white. An “Oreo.” There were no other possible explanations. "I Am Not an Oreo."
For most of my life, I was complicit in this repackaging. I let myself be taken out of black culture and put into the white world, because I thought that was where I belonged. I didn’t conform to society’s perceptions of black women, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to be viewed as classy and approachable, as fun and lighthearted. I didn’t want to be the girl who got into politicized debates about my race with my white friends. I thought that by letting them view me as a “white girl,” I was changing their perceptions of black women. But I know better now. I know that what this does is degrade all black women in America. It says that my “good” traits are inherently “white” traits, and if I were a “real” black girl I would not have those traits. But I AM a real black girl. And I DO hold those traits. And I refuse to let myself be removed from black society any longer.
So I’m issuing a challenge to every person who has ever told someone that they are not a “real Black person,” to everyone who has ever called their friend an “Oreo.” Think about what you are saying. Think about the implications of what you have done to your black friends. Think about the inherent racist implications of your need to place your black friends in a box labeled “white”. And then drop those terms from your vocabulary, permanently.