For years I saw myself—and was treated—as an “Oreo." Or, as one might conclude, I was that girl who was demonstrably and visibly black on the surface, but seemed to convey attributes typically associated with my white contemporaries. Growing up, I attended independent private schools in the Washington, D.C. area that, while outwardly appreciative of diversity and the differences that comprise the demographic fabric of this country, were still primarily composed of white students and faculty members.
I was, at points, the only black student in some of my classes, surrounded by peers who differed not in intellect but the color of their skin. Surrounded by so few who looked like me or shared similar experiences, I had to build rapport with those students that I found in my classrooms. I tried as hard as I could not to appear like the “other,” trying to relate more intensely and looking for the intricacies and nuances in each student in an effort to establish equivalence, even at the expense of my own internal comfort. And, for years, it worked.
But, as my classmates and I matured, being black became a more concrete identifier. It was easier for us to spot and call out. The popular culture that surrounded us filled our minds and eyes with the different categorizations and attributes to which white and black individuals “should” adhere—especially with respect to the certain types of music we should listen to or the certain clothes we should wear. With this in mind, it would be natural that self-classification might come about as a result. That we would find a place for ourselves or be assigned to one if the group to which we felt was ours was deemed “incorrect” by others.
For black students, particularly young women, this was even more strictly outlined as characters like Helen in the Nickelodeon show Drake and Josh created and solidified stereotypes about what it meant to be a woman and black by mainstream standards. You were expected to be boisterous, assertive, and loud, to speak with intonations in your voice and a cadence that was, at best, a trivialization of the ways in which black women speak. And, of course, you had to be funny—either the one telling the jokes or the butt of them.
I was, for all intents and purposes, nothing like Helen. I was fairly quiet and never boisterous or unabashedly loud. I spoke in a way that might instead mirror the speech of Megan, Drake’s sister on the famed show. And I lacked the humor or ability to absorb jokes that many of my other black peers both possessed and mastered. So I was, although visibly black, not truly considered “black” by both my classmates and myself. I was, at times, referred to as an “Oreo.”
In most cases, I was referred to using this epithet in a loving, often well-intentioned way—but with a biting honesty and subtle mocking tone that, retrospectively, damaged my sense of place and comfort within the small community that surrounded me. This was all compounded by the fact that I was constantly surrounded by and forced to assimilate into a sea of white faces in my academic spaces—a fact that has remained apparent in the classes I’ve taken thus far at Columbia.
Indeed, this raises the question of what it means to “act white,” or even “act black,” and how damaging it can be for many young black women who may feel like I did and even still do. What led me to question my blackness? What was it about me—the way in which I spoke, the social and cultural features to which I gravitated—that created this false sense of self?
With age came more clarity and comfort. By the end of high school, I was fortunate to have found a group of strong, beautiful, and kind black women with whom I shared intellectual, personal, and moral values. They became my support system as I dealt with the stress that inevitably came with preparing to leave the nest of my small high school and the pain that took residence in my body when I lost two strong and confident women of color in my own family. They are, and will always be, like sisters to me.
But the vestiges of being an “Oreo” have stayed with me as I’ve embarked upon a new journey here at Columbia. I constantly question my identity as a black woman on this campus. Although I am in classes with more students of color who have an even wider range of experiences and ideas than those I was exposed to in high school, and am no longer required to assimilate in the same ways, I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that mainstream blackness does not match my own. It is especially loathsome that many of the attributes that I have come to appreciate, accept, and cherish—in particular, my speech and the demeanor I often assume—are still portrayed and seen as primarily “white” characteristics in the media and many of those around me.
So here’s what I’ve concluded: There is no “correct” or “preferred” way to be black. In fact, there shouldn’t be. Because the varying ways in which we present, carry, and develop ourselves should be celebrated, not questioned or corrected. I’m nowhere near as comfortable as I’d like to be with regard to my sense of self as a black woman in America. And it is especially hard to get there in the current climate that often disparages the idea that diversity as a whole—whether it’s interracial or intraracial—can do nothing but benefit us. But on a campus like this with so many women who constantly challenge the conventional depiction of blackness, I’m confident that I’ll get there.
The author is a first-year in Columbia College studying history and economics, and is both a class representative for Columbia College Student Council and an associate opinion editor for Spectator. An “aspiring” vegan, she can be found either proselytizing the masses for plant-based eating or hypocritically devouring a large tub of coffee ice cream away from the eyes of judgmental doubters.
This piece is part of an ongoing series spanning Black History Month, addressing the question of what it means to be a Black student on Columbia’s campus. To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.